How about speaking normally? Jane Halton and Gordon de Brouwer on institutional trust

By Stephen Easton

July 2, 2019

For institutions that need to rebuild public trust, “starting to speak normally” instead of in stiff bureaucratic language is a necessary step on the journey, according to APS Review member Gordon de Brouwer.

He told a seminar for public service leadership hopefuls that “almost none of the language that you get from public institutions is honest and respectful” these days.

“It’s all about how they manage you. It’s all about spinning you a line or something like that,” said the former Department of Environment and Energy secretary, reiterating a key point from his valedictory address. “And a lot of that goes back to the politicians who talk from … notes, rather than, frankly, from their mind and their heart.”

There are “two elements that really matter” to the levels of trust in public institutions, according to de Brouwer. Public institutions need to make it clear to citizens that they are working towards the public interest, even if their decisions are not always in line with the personal interests of particular citizens. Secondly they have to communicate with honesty and respect like any person or organisation that wants to earn the trust of a group of people.

“I think it’s those things where you can see the damage over time, where people don’t really think that some public institutions are working for them,” he said.

Institutions need to explain clearly how their work is supposed to improve people’s lives. But, de Brouwer observed, too often their communications were couched in a “remote set of ideas” instead of in terms of the day-to-day reality for citizens; being too clever and going off on “an ideological frolic, or … a political frolic” was not advised.

Jane Halton, long-serving former secretary of two federal departments, joined him to impart some of the wisdom of hindsight to aspiring public service leaders of the future, at a seminar in Canberra run by the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

Asked about institutional trust, they broadly agreed it was a function of the responsibilities given to an institution, and how well the behaviour and performance of its current stewards were seen to live up to that role. But Halton had also offered a slightly different take on the issue, which she had been discussing a lot lately as a member of the ANZ board.

The situation might be more complex than simply declining public trust, she suggested. The surveys showing this might also reflect recently heightened awareness of long-standing institutions and their roles, leading to more discussion and closer scrutiny of their performance. Perhaps in the past, few people even considered the question of whether they trusted these entities and a lot just assumed they functioned as required, Halton mused.

“Is that same as saying… you have trust in something? I’m not sure that it is, but no-one had actually questioned the role of the institution or its behaviour, whereas now we have conscious dialogue about what it means to be trusted to do something — what it means, therefore, to be given a charter or a continuing charter to do something.”

She said public servants had to understand how their role fitted into the institution’s purpose, learn their craft and be “thoughtful about the role of the public sector” in a democratic system, which required thinking regularly about how to apply the various codes of ethics and values like being apolitical, in the practical context of different situations.

Asked for more immediate advice the aspirational audience members could use now, both emphasised the value of being genuine and authentic at a personal level.

What career advice would they give to their younger selves?

“Enjoy it,” said de Brouwer. Don’t focus on getting ahead all the time, focus on your current job and doing it well, but also “use the opportunity of serendipity” and try out new things. Don’t waste time comparing yourself to others and trying to compete against them, just focus on your own work and you’ll stand a better chance of being promoted.

Halton had similar advice: be open to “unsolicited mentoring” and opportunities that do not fit your own career expectations or plans, fight the instinct to reject this “shepherding” by others.

Both agreed that a mixture of career experience was valuable. Halton said it could be a “legitimate choice” to spend a whole career in one portfolio area and there was no exact “recipe” for a well-rounded career, but pointed out most senior public service leaders had experience in both line agencies and central agencies at least, if not across different portfolios and in regulatory bodies.

“Some of them have done other things as well — now not everybody has gone out and worked in the private sector or has worked in academia, but I think the thing that characterises people who can make a real contribution is a perspective that they can bring to bear which is not just from the one angle.

“You can see things from a variety of different views and you can actually understand that sometimes it takes that variety of views to get the best answer to a tricky problem or how you might run something.”

For similar reasons, diversity of skills and perspectives is valuable at the organisation level. Of several boards of directors Halton now sits on, she observes “the ones that work really well are where you have people who are not all the same.”

Both said public servants generally did not know enough about the actual workings of the markets or industry sectors relevant to their work. More of this practical knowledge of industry in the public sector would be good for both sides, said de Brouwer, and could easily be managed to avoid improper influence or integrity risks. “It doesn’t mean you’re owned by them,” he said.

Halton said this was appropriately an “unequal relationship” because understanding government was not usually core business in the private sector. “However, if you’re in the public sector, if you’re a steward of a policy area or [have] regulatory responsibilities … it is actually your job to understand what’s going on out there.”

Biggest mistakes?

The answer was clear for de Brouwer: the time he introduced a very unpopular bell-curve based performance management system, as department head. Being based on the “law of large numbers” and scaling against a normal distribution, it was “very intuitive to Treasury people” but absolutely unacceptable to the staff of the Department of the Environment and Energy.

“Despite all the advice against it I enforced that performance management system and it was very destructive. People saw that frankly as an affront on themselves — that the executive or I didn’t trust them, and that their relationship with their manager wasn’t trusted.”

It was a big learning experience about the importance of working with organisational culture, the need to see other perspectives, listening and changing course. “In that case I went up front at an all-staff [meeting] and said I made a mistake, this is why I made a mistake, this is what I’ve heard and this is how we’re going to correct it.”

He also believes there is not enough training in how to lead big public-sector institutions. “It’s one of the faults, I think, in our system.”

Halton said one whole “class of mistakes” she made early on was getting buried in the detail and not “standing back enough from the craft” to think about her role in the wider context, but she declined to offer a specific example.

“Everyone screws up,” she said, declaring that “the biggest mistake you can make” is thinking you’re the only one. “Everyone makes mistakes and in fact I would argue that if you’re not making mistakes you’re not really trying, sometimes. Don’t make the same mistake twice … but sometimes you’ve got to make mistakes. Fess up, though.”

Hopes for reform, pending the APS Review?

Halton hopes to see “a genuine embedding of a culture of continuous improvement” in the APS, aimed at keeping up with the latest skills, technology and ideas to apply in project management, administration, policy design and delivery – as well as the funding to pay for it.

A return to an undisputed position as the government’s most trusted and authoritative advisor would be a good outcome, in de Brouwer’s view.

“I think it would be wonderful if the public service was the first point of call for a minister in thinking about, ‘I’ve got a problem, how do I solve it?’ And that means that you’ve got the knowledge, you’ve got the data, you’ve got the technology, but really also you’ve got the relationships with the public, with the communities that are affected.

“And it’s not a master-slave relationship of the public service to the public, or it’s not didactic or it’s not patronising, it’s actually genuinely engaged and community driven. And it’s one where there’s all these things happening in the community and the public service is a device to help or to support that being realised.”

He repeated the panel’s message that the review’s final recommendations won’t implement themselves; it’s up to APS members to put reform into action.

Halton add that an expert public service attached to the government of the day should be recognised as an important and distinct component of democracy.

“The public service is not the same as ‘the government’. It is not the same as the private sector. And I think as soon as we look like a blancmange, where there is no difference between us and anybody else, we’ve actually lost the plot. … Understanding what that role is, being clear about how to practise it so it has value, [so] that people will want to use it and not simply subordinate it to other people’s agendas – that’s the art of continuing what I think is a very proud tradition of public service in Australia.”

The full discussion is available as a video or a podcast from IPAA ACT Division. Top image: Halton and de Brouwer / IPAA ACT.

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