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Former secretary: ‘persuasion and trust’ the keys to ‘complex’ role of leading a department

Gordon de Brouwer

The most useful tools for senior public servants are “persuasion and trust” in the view of former Commonwealth secretary Gordon de Brouwer, who sits on the APS Review panel.

The roles of government ministers and department heads are “more complex” and less clearly defined than those of chief executives and directors in the private sector, according to the former head of the Department of the Environment and Energy.

Department heads have significant authority in their own right but are not the main decision-makers, he observes in a Q&A session published by the review’s secretariat, so their advice must compete with “a lot of different inputs” that influence ministerial and cabinet decisions.

“It’s complicated to advise governments, do public policy and delivery, build enduring public institutions, serve a political government in a non-political way and support ministers as they make decisions and the public service does that every day,” says de Brouwer.

“Advising governments is not always a public process, particularly when Cabinet is involved. People don’t necessarily see the thought and debate that goes into decisions.

“In working for governments, your key tools are persuasion and trust. The public service earns those through integrity, empathy and knowing a lot about their subject matter — so capability matters. There are different ways to use those tools, including when you have to say ‘no’ to ministers.”

To be effective at the upper levels of the public service, he says it’s important to have empathy for ministers, whose job involves balancing multiple competing interests and pursuing multiple and often conflicting objectives, amid the cut and thrust of politics and public scrutiny.

“As a public servant, you know most decisions involve multiple objectives,” de Brouwer says. “The art is to ensure your advice is influential in the complex environment ministers are working in.”

At the same time, he notes, department heads have serious accountabilities of their own to manage and important roles in organisational leadership to perform while maximising their privileged position as top expert advisers to the government of the day.

“You do get significant input into policy thinking, implementation and delivery. And senior leaders have control over their organisations – running big institutions, developing people and capabilities, and meeting the obligations that come with using public money.

“When those organisations are humming, we all benefit because a healthy service can have a real and positive influence on the lives of the people of Australia.”

For de Brouwer, escaping the gravitational pull of the Commonwealth public sector sounds a bit like trying to get out of the mafia: they just keep pulling you back in. He “intended to do other things” after leaving the role but could not resist the chance to sit on the APS Review panel.

“This review is one of the most significant things I will do in over 30 years of public service,” says de Brouwer, who has also recently joined the Centre for Strategy and Governance, a collective of wise public service veterans turned consultants which has provided its collective views to the review more than once.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a real influence on the future of a core public institution.

“I was head of a department for four years and it’s rare to have such a fantastic helicopter-view of the Australian public service, including who does what, how well they do it and the qualities of the individual people involved.”

His enthusiasm might surprise some of the other ex-mandarins who seem to have found the whole exercise a bit jejune so far, and current APS executives who feel their day jobs are far more important.

Perhaps the interview is partly intended to convey an infectious sense of excitement about the opportunity for anyone, including public servants of any level, to say what they think about the federal public service as a whole, and how it could be improved. While the senior public servants of years and decades past can more easily find opportunities to have such influence, de Brouwer says such a chance is rare when you’re still working on the inside.

“As a secretary, you can change parts of the system from the inside but this review provides the opportunity to reset the system I worked in.

“I did have the chance to work with other parts of the service to build skills in the workforce and address complex matters like climate change, sustainable development and energy. But the reality is a secretary is typically more engaged in his or her own department than the service as a whole. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of the organisation and subject area, and the work you need to deliver for ministers.”

He thinks the APS could improve by ensuring its senior leaders always look “beyond their own views and the perspectives of parties which are invested, partial or very close to an issue” and provide advice based on “where the weight of evidence falls” and the overall national interest.

Yes, that is what public servants generally do already, de Brouwer acknowleges, “but we need that to be more universal” in his view.

“As can happen, the public service has become too rigid and inflexible in the face of change,” he adds. “Hierarchy, for example, has become a way of enforcing process and control rather than finding solutions and taking responsibility. And we have become less imbued with the passion of ideas, collaboration with the public and others, and understanding the forces at play in the world.

“In my valedictory talk when I left the public service, I spoke about its tribes. Those siloed and fixed ways of working have been reinforced by the helicopter-view of the public service provided by this review.

“The system has ossified a bit and it’s too closed. For the decades ahead, we are not as creative or cooperative as we need to be and we are not taking risks.”

The secretariat’s standard interviews end with a request for suggested reading, and we’d be remiss not to point out de Brouwer chose to plug The Mandarin, along with the foreign policy periodical East Asia Forum and the many articles self-published by users of LinkedIn these days.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is the associate editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.