Empowering our senior public servants with political skills


Could political skills re-empower the public service to deliver on efficient, effective and ethical government? What’s at stake is the very belief that the public service can add value, writes former state premier Geoff Gallop.

Underneath much of the commentary on the state of the public service today is the view that its practitioners have lost power and status relative to the political class on the one hand and the private and community sectors on the other. That such a shift has occurred can be demonstrated but what isn’t so clear is what it all means for the quality of modern government.

Supporters of what came to be called the new public management saw this loss of power and status as a good thing in that it meant elected rather than non-elected officials were at last fully in charge and not the playthings of the cunning and conservative Sir Humphreys for whom bureaucratic inertia was a principle of government. Also seen as a good thing has been the extensive use of contracted services and community partnership as a new means to the desired ends of efficient and effective government. This has brought contestability and competition to the delivery of services, including that of policy advice itself.

Backing up these new developments are new institutions or, at least, traditional ones now much more powerful within government itself. Firstly, there are the Ministerial Offices with their chiefs-of-staff, media advisors, policy workers and political strategists. Secondly, there are the corporate heavyweights, both private and not-for-profit, heavily dependent on government funding for their existence. Thirdly, there are the lobbyists who have come into prominence in order to keep their clients at the table of government influencing developments in the interests of new public management.

Commentators such as the late Peter Aucoin say the new system has also incorporated the public servants themselves. He writes that there has been “the integration of executive governance and the continuous campaign, partisan-political staff as a third force in governance and public administration, a personal politicization of appointments to the senior public service, and an assumption that public service loyalty to, and support for, the government means being promiscuously partisan for the government of the day. Given the political pressures that exist in democracy today it’s a political tendency that isn’t going to evaporate soon, if at all”.1

That there has been professional and public disquiet about this way of governing has been clear for some time now. Traditionalists within, and what polling consistently reveals is a majority of the voting public, don’t like to see the public service devalued in its role as policy advisor to government and where advocates of contracting see innovation through contestability, they see private interests winning out at the expense of the public interest. The overlay that has developed between the public and the private sectors has raised questions too about ethics, the third of the three “e’s” expected of our elected governments. This has necessitated the strengthening of our agencies of accountability, and not surprisingly most jurisdictions in Australia now have Corruption Commissions. They have revealed corrupt practices that had escaped parliamentary inquiry and media scrutiny of the executive arm of government.

All of this is a reminder that we do need a public service that can do more than has been expected of it under the terms and conditions laid down by the new public governance. Rhodes and Wanna have given us an apt description of what this “more factor” ought to entail:

“…public officials can become the guardians of process, not content, working with shared meanings of the public interest and shared understandings about their roles. They may be bearers of legality, disinterested in outcomes, and motivated by honesty and integrity. They can act as counterweights to partisan interests. They remain a repository of institutional scepticism. Officials can become trustees of knowledge, experience and expertise. They can serve as protectors of the longer view. They may also have a role in addressing procedural issues of equity involving the under‐represented or the ignored”.2

Writing way back in 1887 Woodrow Wilson wrote that the role of public servants in government was to “strengthen and purify its organisation, and to crown its duties with dutifulness”.3 What’s being suggested here is that we should look upon the public service as an important institution of government that can add value along with our legislatures, cabinets, and courts.

“Sometimes it might be the public servant and not the minister who is skilled in these ways, that being the reason the ship of state is more often than not kept afloat when elected governments find it difficult to cope.”

In order to restore some balance between the public and the private sectors today we can’t ignore the question of public service capacity both from a legal and an organisational point of view. Firstly, it needs an appropriate degree of power and authority.  For example, it’s been suggested by Andrew Podger that an empowered Public Service Commissioner should employ heads of department as is the case in New Zealand.4 One can see the logic here – a degree of autonomy that makes it easier for our public service heads to speak truth to power. Would the political class accept this today? Podger thinks not, but a half-way house that strengthens the role and independence of the Commission might be possible. No doubt this aspect of the authorising environment needed to support public servants is going to be an issue that has to be addressed by the APS Review when it delivers its final report.

Relevant here too but rarely discussed with the frankness required is the capacity question. Here I’m not referring to just the obvious managerial and technical capacities required of a senior public servant today but also of their political capacities to make things happen in a contested and complex environment that is government today. If the public service can make a difference in the way Rhodes and Wanna describe then how that is done becomes the critical issue. Politicians will be politicians; some are good, some are bad, some are deeply interested in policy, some only in the next press release or opinion poll. One would hope that as a class they would respect the public service as an institution of real value, but not all will. Indeed, for some ministers the public interest equals their interest and their interest alone as it is based on a win in a general election. What’s going to be needed is a public service that not only understands the public interest but has the political nous and the skills to back it up.

The problem here is that a mere mention of the word “politics” is enough to close shop on any discussion of the real world of power and influence within government. It’s true that public servants should be apolitical and that their duty is to serve the government of the day. But does that mean they should steer clear of “the more factor” that good governments need? For one thing they have obligations with respect to the public interest as contemporary legislation has made clear.5 For another we would hope that the experience they have gathered, particularly but not only in relation to implementation, would be available and properly communicated to government

Being political in this context doesn’t mean being ethically or politically reckless; codes of conduct and a commitment to serve the government of the day remain intact and not to be ignored. It’s one thing to read and absorb the lessons of Machiavelli’s The Prince – something I would urge all involved in government to do – but another to do that alongside an understanding of the restless and ruthless context in which it was written. That’s advice that I’m sure Machiavelli would give!  What I’m talking about are the skills needed to exercise real influence in a context that involves the principle and day-to-day practise of accountability, governments (and ministers) that come and go, both predictable and unpredictable events and chance itself.  All good managers need them whatever sector they are working in, including public servants and particularly those at the highest levels.

“What would the well-developed presence of these skills within the senior levels of the public service mean for the way we are governed?”

Political skills, says Alon Peled,6 are “the secret weapons of winning leaders”. In his paper he examines a successful and an unsuccessful Israeli government IT project and shows how the former (concerning a land-registry database for the Ministry of Justice) gained from the knowledge of organisational politics held by the project manager, in this case a ten-year experienced public administrator and the latter (concerning electronic billboards for the Ministry of Transportation) suffered from being managed by a technical expert recruited from academia and for whom politics was a nuisance to be ignored. Yes, says Peled, technical and administrative skills need to be polished but so too political skills. First, they need to be recognised as important. Second, they need to be included in professional development courses. Third, it’s especially helpful to seek out “politically skilled mentors” to tutor novices.

There are many accounts of what such political skills are and how they can work in unison to deliver success. One such account is that of Professor Jean Hartley and her UK colleagues.7  The question I would urge you to ponder is: What would the well-developed presence of these skills within the senior levels of the public service mean for the way we are governed?  Can they empower the public servant in a world where the contribution of the public service to the ends of efficient, effective and ethical government has been questioned and is subject to competition? Hartley’s list is as follows:

1. Personal Skills

  • Having self-awareness.
  • Being able to exert self-control
  • Having a pro-active disposition i.e. someone who tried to anticipate and develop the agenda.

2. Interpersonal Skills

  • Listening to others
  • Encouraging people to be open with you
  • Being curious with people, making them feel valued.

3. Reading people and situations

  • Being able to see others’ perspectives: what their values, motives, interests and goals are
  • Understanding organisational goals and power structures
  • Recognising the threat, you individually or organisational, cause others

4. Building alignment and alliances

  • Understanding who can work with and who to exclude in order to achieve organisational goals
  • Making alliances in situations of competition
  • Knowing when to collaborate or compete
  • Understanding organisations differences in alliances

5. Strategic direction and scanning

  • Retaining a sense of purpose
  • Understanding when to move fast on your agenda and when to hold off as the timing is wrong
  • Picking up signals from others (trade press, colleagues, external sources) highlighting changes in situation and helping you to identify what is over the horizon.

Such skills are, of course, appropriate for all seeking influence for the ideas they hold or the tasks they are commissioned to perform. They will be especially important for the public servants tasked with implementing major initiatives on behalf of the government but also in relation to their interactions with the elected arm of the government. This relationship if handled badly by one or both sides, can impact negatively on the delivery of programs.  Indeed, given that the skills being addressed are political it’s worth using them as a starting point for evaluating our politicians, it not necessarily being the case that they are any good in the profession they have chosen! Sometimes it might be the public servant and not the minister who is skilled in these ways, that being the reason the ship of state is more often than not kept afloat when elected governments find it difficult to cope.

Thinking about the importance of these skills also reminds us that we are prone to make bold assumptions about the innate strength of what we believe to be the truth. Surely, we think to ourselves, all will bow down before our truth because of the logic and evidence we believe it to have. The “other” who the public servant aims to influence and hopefully convince – in this case the minister and his or her government – is all too often taken for granted in the process. Someone adept at politics can’t assume rationality. Ego, self-interest of all sorts, faction, institutional inertia, occasional brain snaps and chance itself are all at play. For a politician the space available for politics and the exercise of power is more extensive than that occupied by the public servant. But space there is for the most senior of our public servants too, even if circumscribed by the political realities of appointment (and dismissal) and the presence of codes of conduct. It’s a question as to whether the departmental head develops a strategic approach or not to his or her relationships with the minister. That can carry risks but if delivered professionally and with a keen eye to politics can be very beneficial to all concerned, the minister included.

Creating trust between elected and non-elected arms of government

One skill not mentioned directly by Hartley but implicit in the line-up of skills is the creation of trust across the boundaries between the elected and non-elected arms of government. Partly its about gaining the confidence of the minister concerning competence in delivery but just as importantly it’s about building confidence in your trustworthiness as a colleague. Kathleen Reardon calls it “positive politics” and its tested in relation to all of a person’s relationships and encounters within the workplace.8 A first step in its construction involves the development of a “personal political compass” in relation to an individual’s own understanding of right and wrong behaviours and how they are playing out in particular situations. She notes that there are times when “conflict is unavoidable and when confronting someone is necessary. Just don’t let the situation deteriorate into name-calling, backstabbing and viciousness. Positive politics repairs or reconfigures a situation in order to produce a reasonably positive result”.9 She reminds us of the personal/psychological aspect that is in all politics and which can display itself in a manner destructive of the day-to-day manufacture of trust – always blaming others, scapegoating, belittling colleagues, gossiping…the list goes on. It’s true too that political astuteness may be used by public servants to promote personal and sectional interests inconsistent with the public interest.10 The ends may very well justify the means but what if the ends themselves lack adequate justification?

It is interesting to note that Hartley’s research has found that “when people were given 24 choices on how people developed their political astuteness skills the most frequent learning opportunities came through failure or mismanagement”.11 This leads me to think that an application of Peter Drucker’s Feedback Analysis as outlined in his paper “Managing Oneself” is perfectly pitched to assist public servants keen to develop their political skills. He suggests we should write down what we expect to happen from the decisions we make and then, somewhat later, compare the expectation with the reality with a view to determining our strengths and weaknesses.12 Amongst other suggestions to a practitioner about how to develop political skills involve the use of “a trusted adviser, trainer, coach or mentor” to talk through the definitions of “political”, identify how you perform in relation to the various dimensions and determine actions needed to follow up.13

It may be the case, of course, that the very exercise of such skills will displease governments hell-bent on politicising all aspects of their work, as described by Aucoin earlier in this paper. What’s at stake is the very belief that the public service can add value as Rhodes and Wanna have described. This is a bottom-line issue around which consensus is required if any improvements are to be made in the way the elected and non-elected relate to each other.

However, one would hope that even if the political class baulks at suggestions like those offered by Andrew Podger, they would see the need to ensure that executive education of the highest order is made available to the public service at all levels – entry, mid-career and senior service. That ought to include exposure to the political skills needed to exercise a positive influence over the way we are governed. The concept of speaking truth to power isn’t just about avoiding mistakes but also about delivering higher standards and better government overall.


1. Aucoin, Peter. “New Public Governance in Westminster Systems: Impartial Public Administration and Management Performance at Risk”, Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration and Institutions, vol. 25, April 2012, p.179.

2. Rhodes, R and Wanna, J. “The limits to public value, or rescuing responsible government from the platonic guardians”, Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 66, Issue 4, pp. 416-417.

3. Wilson, Woodrow. “The Study of Administration”, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 2 (June 1887), p. 201.

4. Burgess, Verona. “Andrew Podger’s brilliant re-imagining of the Australian Public Service” The Mandarin, 12/09/2018.

5. See Wheeler, C. “The public interest: we know it’s important but do we know what it means?” AIAL Forum, No. 48, pp. 12-25.

6. Peled, Alon.”Politicking for success: the missing skill”, The Leadership & Organisation Development Journal, 21/1 (2000), pp20-29.

7. See Hartley, J.,Fletcher, C, Woodman, P, and Ungermach, C. Leading with Political Awareness: Developing Leaders’ Skills to Manage the Political Dimension Across all Sectors (Chartered Management Institute, London and Warwick Business School, 2007). For another take on the same subject see Reardon, K. It’s All Politics: Winning in a World Where Hard Work and Talent Aren’t Enough (Doubleday, 2005). It’s pleasing to report that the theme of political nous and the skills needed for it has been taken up by ANZSOG. See Hartley, J, Alford, J, Hughes, O and Yates, S. Leading with Political Astuteness: A study of public managers in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom (Melbourne, 2013).

8. It’s All Politics, chapter 8: “Positive Politics”.

9. Ibid, p.201.

10. Political Astuteness, p. 8.

11.  See Political astuteness: an essential skill in the workplace.

12. Drucker, Peter. Management Challenges for the 21st Century (Harper Business, 1999), chapter 6.

13. Gautrey, C and Phipps, M. Political Skill in the Modern Organisation (P.A.W Executive Development, 2007).

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