Addressing the growing crisis of faith in democracy and public institutions is not easy but it is a key responsibility of public servants, says Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson.
The highly experienced diplomat sees the world in a state of “profound transition” with geopolitical, technological, demographic and economic forces pushing and pulling in directions that often run counter to Australian interests. In times like these she thinks it’s especially important that public servants keep trying to work closely together across portfolios and work towards every one of their colleagues being equally valued and respected.
The big trends shaping the world, spelled out in her department’s 2017 foreign policy white paper, are accelerating and a big one is the “growing disillusionment at what some see as the empty promises of liberalism and globalisation” around the the world.
Public servants must resist the urge to look around and think it’s unfair or irrational for members of the public to view the organs of the state with such cynical eyes, she said, in her final speech as president of the Institute of Public Administration Australia ACT division, a role soon to be taken up by incoming Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy.
Any person or organisation can try to influence public opinion, but there’s no sense ignoring widely held views because they seem incorrect.
“Around the world, trust in democratically elected governments is at a low point. That is now well known,” Adamson said.
“We can debate how fair that is from a personal standpoint; as a public servant who’s worked with successive governments, I can say that ministers, MPs and public servants take their duty seriously and think deeply about the effects of their decisions. But we need to appreciate that as public servants living in Canberra, our perspective is not necessarily the same as that of many Australians.”
The DFAT secretary accepts that various surveys and studies show “Australians are less inclined to trust their elected representatives, are sceptical of institutions, and are somewhat disenchanted with democratic processes” — about half of us don’t trust members of parliament in general and only about 38% trust public servants, she said, based on research by local academics who want to help turn the tide.
Satisfaction in Australian democracy had “more than halved in a decade” according to that report, by the Democracy 2025 project based in the Museum of Australian Democracy, while a slightly more positive poll run by the Lowy Institute found about 30% of Australians unhappy with how their system of parliamentary government works.
“As the interface between people and government, it is incumbent upon us as public servants to seek to engender trust in government. That means providing astute advice and demonstrating unity and a driving sense of purpose in implementing the government’s agenda. The Australian people expect no less, and the Prime Minister has made that explicit.
“It means striving for excellence in all that we do, whether that is frontline service delivery or writing policy recommendations. And it means ensuring we remain worthy of the trust of our fellow Australians and of each other.”
Adamson’s practised eyes see the nature of relationships between nations, organisations and individuals changing rapidly and significantly, as international tension rises with each passing day.
She said bureaucrats in different parts of the public sector should continue trying collaborate and focus on “drawing on a spectrum of views and experiences to shape and implement policy” in these challenging times.
“The big story in our own [nearby] regions, with reverberations beyond, is of course the changing balance of strategic power. The relationship between the United States and China is strained — increasingly strained, and more obviously so almost with every passing day. Trade tensions between them are putting the entire global economic system under pressure.”
As trust in democratic institutions falls and the superpowers jostle for position in the Asia-Pacific, “technology is drastically changing how we live and work”.
“The confluence of these forces raises the stakes for governments, and across our region, for the officials who advise them and who implement policy. As changes grow more complex and more difficult to meet, … the ways we address them must become more sophisticated.”
For the Australian Public Service, she believes more collaboration is the answer, and a continuing focus on overcoming the persistent barriers to workforce diversity that see some citizens — people with disabilities or Indigenous Australians, for example — less likely to work in the federal public service and climb the ladder to senior executive level.
In support of collaboration, she endorsed the idea that public policy challenges such as climate change are increasingly “wicked” or multi-dimensional, meaning they can’t be “easily compartmentalised” and addressed by a single department in splendid isolation, as they more often were in the past.
She said this also meant departments had to become less insular. A traditional view might be that recruiting to relatively senior roles from outside the public service or even from outside the one department is a bit risky. Adamson thinks the opposite is true.
It is a “work in progress” but DFAT is changing from an organisation “once dominated by foreign and trade policy generalists, and consular and passport service providers” into a multi-disciplinary group of program managers, economists, subject-matter experts, industry specialists and secondees from other parts of the APS.
“As a result, we are a more flexible organisation better able to collaborate across government to deliver solutions to the problems the government faces in its international engagement — but of course, still needing to do more.”
She said DFAT had been “been slow to recognise” the value of experience outside its own walls but that was changing.
Diversity and inclusion
All secretaries are firm supporters of workforce diversity and inclusion, Adamson added, pointing to the immense value that comes from having a workforce where all members “feel empowered respectfully” as she moved into her third key point.
While a lot of APS employees would agree with the general thrust of their leader’s diversity and inclusion strategy, she noted that the challenge is making all people feel welcome and equally respected.
“In DFAT, we have trouble retaining Indigenous officers who tend to leave us after they reach APS 5 [level], many drawn to attractive roles in the private sector, or promotions elsewhere in the public sector.”
This is an issue right across the APS; last we heard there were only about 25 Indigenous SES officers — about 1% of the thousands of senior executives and roughly 0.5% of all federal public servants of Indigenous background — and that figure has not gone up for at least a decade.
“While I encourage our staff to broaden their professional experience and seek opportunities, I’d like us to do better on retaining our future Indigenous leaders,” said Adamson.
“And while we have reduced barriers to employment for people with disabilities in recent years, only 2.9% of our staff identify as having a disability, compared to 3.7% in the broader APS and 18% in the general population.
“We want all our staff to feel included, whether they’re sixth or seventh generation Australian or first, whether their parents were lawyers or labourers, whatever faith they follow, or don’t, and whomever they love. And we want to ensure that we include people who may not identify with any of those groups, to make sure that they feel they belong, too.
“It’s about creating a workplace where people can bring their best selves, their unique experiences, perspectives and thinking, and apply all of those attributes to the problems they’re solving.”
As always, the full event can be viewed on video at the IPAA ACT website.