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Mike Mrdak: public servants must ditch the business jargon, stop being scared of citizens

Government agencies need to be more open, honest and direct with the public, come to terms with social media and realise that working with people is a core part of their work, according to Department of Communications and the Arts secretary Mike Mrdak.

He said public servants need to pluck up the courage to be upfront and accept that their rational, evidence-based advice will come against gut feelings and self-interest as a matter of course, in a candid speech peppered with reflections on risk-averse public relations strategies.

Using plain English helps. The clarity of language used by agencies and the integrity of their consultation processes both go towards their credibility and ultimately, successful policy.

“And one of the things that I’ve constantly found in my career [is] that often it’s the language that kills us, in communications,” Mrdak told the Institute of Public Administration Australia last week.

He said the “business-words” public servants use were not well understood by people outside the bureaucracy, including people and groups in the wider community — and ministers. For Mrdak, “looking at things holistically” is an overused phrase that isn’t helping.

Michael Manthorpe. Image: RLDI.

“What on Earth does that mean? … Isn’t that what every common-sense person would do?

“But yet we use words like that [and] when ministers and the community hear that — ‘we’re going to look at this holistically’ — they think either we’re just rubbish at what we do, or we don’t care.

“Similarly, words like ‘stakeholder’ — I’ve never met Mr and Mrs Stakeholder.”

Former APS secretary Gordon de Brouwer also developed an aversion to the term.

“Talking about people in that generic-concept way really kills us, because we’re not seen to be actually relating to the audience we’re trying to talk to,” said Mrdak.

“And the other word that I think we use badly is ‘consult’… We keep saying we’ll consult, but what do we really mean by it?”

Commonwealth Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe, on hosting duties, said “the sense that people have been somehow left out of the design and communication about policy and service delivery” was very often a feature of complaints to his office, and the importance of being clear and sincere was underscored by several other speakers.

A need for honesty, and confidence

Community engagement absolutely must become a core part of APS work, said the DCA secretary, and that requires more courage. He has seen public servants become much more confident communicators over his career, but thinks they are still too afraid to open up space for people to say what they really think.

Risk aversion can also feed into a reluctance to use plain, clear language, and to be open and upfront about the purpose of consultation.

“We need to be clear about whether we’re genuinely seeking views on options, or whether we’re seeking a reaction to a settled, preferred position,” Mrdak said. “And we’ve got to be honest about that to the people we deal with.”

Other public servants underscored the importance of honesty as well in a panel discussion that followed. Pauline Sullivan, a first assistant secretary at DCA, said each consultation would either increase or decrease public trust in government, and unsuccessful ones would undermine policy outcomes.

Pauline Sullivan. Image: RLDI.

Don’t “over-engineer” a consultation process, Sullivan advised; instead, make it easy for people to be involved, expect some difficult conversations and don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know.

Instead of running yet another consultation about the telecommunications Universal Service Obligation, she said DCA decided to acknowledge what everyone was thinking: the conversation had gone on for years.

“We said to everyone, ‘We’re here, we’ll get out and talk to you, but don’t feel the need to put in a public submission, because we probably feel there’s nothing new to add.’ And that actually went down really well with stakeholders.”

Mrdak said key people inside government often questioned the sincerity of its requests for public views as well. “Ministers often say to us, ‘Are you just running a process and then talking to me because you’ve already got a settled position?’”

He thinks departments should never begin consultation with a blank page, they should always develop a range of viable policy options first, but if their intention is really just to explain and try to “sell the answers” they have already devised, that should be clear at the start. As always, things get tricky when the risk aversion flows from the minister.

Mrdak pointed to a 2016 APS guidance note on consultation: it says being “genuine” brings the “real-world impact” of policy options into focus, leads to better outcomes, and reduces opposition from adversely affected people.

“Firstly it really captures something about the APS which we often misrepresent, and don’t quite fully fathom ourselves. We’re uniquely in the people-business. In fact, we are a profession like few others, [in] that we are totally dependent on our personal relationships.

“If you think about it, we have to convince another person in almost every step we take, everything we do. We have to be able to influence and argue the case with our colleagues, with ministers, the parliament, legislators, the community, about every policy step, every program and regulatory action. And so we have to be able to deal with people.”

A significant amount of research, Mrdak added incidentally, showed a lot of senior public servants were introverts.

Get out of the bunker

The traditional approach has been to bunker down and “minimise adverse reaction” by relying mainly on one-way communication and avoiding genuine consultation, said Mrdak.

“[It] was about not telling people too much, because they might be not happy with where we’re going, or we don’t think they’d understand. That’s just not sustainable.”

It was once seen as a good thing if nobody took up the invitation to comment on a government announcement in a newspaper, he recalled. Public servants worried that if the notice was too big, it might attract excessive attention.

The prevailing wisdom in government and the aviation industry was once that detailed information about flight paths and aircraft noise must be kept secret. The fear was that if it was easy to see when and where planes would fly overhead, and how loud they were, a lot more people would take notice of them and start complaining.

Mike Mrdak. Image: RLDI.

Since 2008, Airservices Australia has taken the opposite approach, giving out all the information. Through WebTrak, anyone can watch planes land and take off from the main airports in real-time, and see how loud they are. Mrdak credited environmental noise expert David Southgate, who retired from the APS in 2012, as a driving force behind the 180-degree turn toward full transparency, which has since been adopted overseas.

“And it was remarkable what a difference that made to the community engagement in the area of aircraft noise,” the secretary said. Being able to see exactly what is happening did not cause pandemonium, as feared; it actually calmed people down a bit because they were given the facts.

Now, community expectations are higher and major changes in information and communications technology mean the head-in-the-sand approach is obviously and increasingly untenable.

Mrdak said public servants were out of their “comfort zone” on online platforms and that government agencies generally needed more “specialised skills and advice” in modern approaches to consultation and community engagement.

He thinks agencies should use the most popular platforms and communications channels, and recognise that people were expressing their views publicly on policy ideas, even if they weren’t making formal submissions.

A risk-averse approach that seeks to minimise interactions with the public is neither acceptable nor sustainable, Mrdak observed, pointing out most people now mainly read the news via social media platforms like Facebook.

“While we have to be in that space, we also have to be finding ways to have robust responses and exchanges to counter something which is an error, or a misrepresentation, and that’s really hard for us because that means we’ve got to be in that space regularly, and we’ve got to push back,” he added.

Dealing with subjectivity

Senior public servants just “aren’t very comfortable with talking to the broader community” at any level of government, in Mrdak’s view, although later speakers with experience at state and federal level pointed out the APS was the most removed from the everyday lives of citizens.

Natalie Howson, head of the ACT Education Directorate, said working in the territory government had given her more perspective on public engagement. She once thought Centrelink was closely connected to the community when she worked there, but finds the ACT government is like being “in the mosh pit” by comparison.

Pauline Sullivan, who has experience in the Victorian and New South Wales governments, noted that state public servants are more likely to be users of the services they administer. She said “the lived experience absolutely matters” and understanding it often required in-depth conversations with people to get a “granular understanding” of life from their perspective.

Sullivan said deep and sincere engagement could make it clear if a policy proposal was going to work, or have unintended consequences. “Get out of the office, talk to people, be curious,” she urged.

Mrdak said public servants had to get over their anxiety and work on accepting and responding to subjective opinions.

“We spend a lot of time taking subjectivity out of our work. We spend a lot of time talking about the facts, making sure we’ve got the evidence, making sure we’ve worked out the practical steps, and then we’re genuinely shocked, as a profession, that people come back with subjective views on things.

“And we don’t quite know how to deal with this. And if you think about it, we’re professionals whose very fabric is analysis, science, facts, objective process and judgement, and so as professionals… we feel very uneasy about gut-feeling, subjective responses.”

Mrdak thinks public servants are “too scared about hearing what people really feel and think” about their well-researched proposals, and how they sound unfair or onerous to particular people and groups.

He pointed out that a system to channel those competing interests and widely divergent views is “the nature of a working, healthy democracy” so public servants need to react with more equanimity when their carefully prepared proposals are thrown back in their faces. Too often, said the DCA secretary, the walls go up instead.

“We shut down, we take risk-averse options, we make sure we never ask them again for their views, we limit the information we provide, we do all of the human reactions we do, because we start to form a view that these people are irrational. In fact, they’re not.

“They’re reflecting their community view and their gut feeling. And in the worst cases, we throw our hands up and say to ministers, ‘Look, the community can’t possibly understand this, they’re irrational about this but you’ve got to show political courage and just take the right decision.’

“And then we’re genuinely surprised when ministers say back to us, ‘That’s terrific. ‘I’ve got a choice between your rational argument, or a community that’s really upset.’

“We shouldn’t be placing ministers in that position. We’ve got to have done the work earlier to have understood all that, and we’ve got to have taken account of some of those subjective values-issues quite early in our planning for engagement.”

Sullivan said public servants should expect hard conversations where it fees like their “personal integrity” is under attack, and being overly defensive could be counter-productive, although abuse should not be tolerated. Handling tense situations requires planning and preparing staff to deal with them and the support of their managers.

If public servants don’t face their fears, they will only ever talk to like-minded people, those who “talk the same language” and the experts and interest groups that make up the “specialist policy community” that orbits their particular area of government, according to Mrdak, who sees this happening for several reasons.

Sometimes, agencies need to tap external expertise because they don’t have the resources or the technical understanding to deal with new policy challenges. The usual suspects — certain academics, advocacy groups, peak bodies and lobbyists — are also the easiest to deal with because they actively make it their business to understand the public service and how to provide relatively useful or at least well-informed input. But often, that’s not enough.

A full video of the speech and panel discussion is on the IPAA ACT Division website.

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.