Coach Morrison’s pep talk becomes a public spectacle

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday August 20, 2019

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison assumed the role of head coach yesterday in a pep talk ostensibly aimed at the Australian Public Service but which doubled as a public spectacle: the strong leader asserts authority and demands hard work from the bureaucrats.

Morrison referred back to a similar spectacle — the photo and video opportunity he arranged for the media just after his “miracle” election win to very publicly set his expectations of department heads — and reinforced the points he made then for the cameras. He wants the APS to focus on implementation of the government’s policy agenda, work faster, and get out of the way of investors.

The PM invoked Parramatta Eels rugby league legend Ray Price, who also played union for the Wallabies and was known as “Mr Perpetual Motion” for his boundless energy. Price played hard, he played to win, and Morrison loves a winner.

“Ray was everywhere,” said the grinning PM. “His work rate was unmatched. The conditions, his opponents, never fazed him. He could read the play and always stay ahead of the game.

“The APS needs to be the same. It needs to evolve and adapt amidst constant change. Old ways of doing things need to be challenged and, if necessary, disrupted.”

In his latest very public rev-up to the APS, which was live-streamed, recorded, and rapidly published in full by his office, Morrison oddly tried to get members of the apolitical institution enthusiastic about “winning”.

“We have to get our relationship right between ministers and the public service, because the best teams are the ones where everyone knows what their job is and they do their job well rather than being in a constant running commentary about the job someone else should be doing. I’ve seen those teams. They lose.

“The teams where everyone knows what their jobs is, what their role is, and focus on that, those teams win. And we’re going to be a winning team.”

Answering several pre-arranged questions afterwards, the PM said digital transformation was about making life easier for citizens, not public servants. He spoke of his love of “regtech” — technology for government regulation — and his enthusiasm for the idea that legislation could be written as computer code.

“Because when it is written in code then that makes for its very rapid implementation and application to the various practices it is seeking to regulate. See, regulation is supposed to help get better decisions. I don’t think the public sees it that way because it often can’t see the benefits of what the regulation is intended to achieve. And that’s because it’s bound up in these massive volumes.

“And I think digital technologies have the ability to demystify that and the regtech process that you can see in the apps of various technologies that are emerging I think will open up, particularly for state and local government, not just federal. There’s no reason why development, building codes and planning codes cannot be written in code, and you simply submit a … design and it can provide for real-time approvals. That’s totally possible but we’re not doing it. But I think that’s a good goal to set.”

He also emphasised the importance of collaboration and problem-solving skills.

“I want the APS to have a collaborative culture — not just collaborative internally within agencies and departments, and across agencies and departments [but] the collaboration has to reach out, as I was saying before, into relationships at the community level, on the ground, within academia, with business, with industry, within the charitable sector,” Morrison told IP Australia staffer Holly Noble.

Asked for some examples of what good public service work looks like, in his opinion, he nominated Operation Sovereign Borders, Treasury’s theories on why wage growth has stagnated, and the development of a housing affordability package for the 2017-18 budget. He also praised the way the Department of Social Services worked with him on childcare reforms when he was minister a few years back, then led by secretary Finn Pratt, with the attitude of “let’s just keep working it until we get it right”.

On problem solving, the PM referred to the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission immortalised in a Hollywood film as an amazing example of the kind of work he finds most impressive — more impressive than the successful strategy and execution of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.

“There were no factions in that room. There were no departments in that room. There were no people who were thinking that their degree was more important to someone else’s degree. There were just people who were trying to save the lives of three blokes in an escape pod off a lunar module. And you know, they were the greatest problem solvers we’ve probably seen in the last 50 years.”

Ticking all the boxes

The PM made plenty of great points in the speech — “you don’t have to be in the SES to have a good idea” was one of them — and checked off most if not all of the major threads in regular discussions of modern management and internal public service reform.

Morrison endorsed the importance of greater collaboration; workforce diversity; being adaptable, agile and open to outside views; flatter hierarchies; more opportunities to cross between public and private sector workforces; and a shift toward a singular joined-up government rather than a collection of separate agencies.

“I am concerned, I recently learned that in a survey, just over a quarter of the APS does not really feel they can impact what’s going on,” he said at one point.

“That really does concern me. I want people in the APS to feel they can make a contribution. I don’t want you to feel shut out. You need to feel that you can make a difference. Otherwise, why are you here? I make the assumption that you’re here to make a difference and I think that assumption is absolutely correct.”

Low staff engagement is “a failure of public service management” and the answer is again to “work harder” in Morrison’s view. “This is one of the things I expect to see our public service leaders change in the future.”

For many Australians, however, the laudable values and ambitions he espoused in many parts of the speech might not quite match up to their view of the actions of successive Coalition governments.

The PM called on the APS to “look beyond the bubble” of Canberra, repeating an observation made by several APS leaders, that too often their efforts to research and consult widely are dominated by highly organised lobbyists and like-minded experts. He spoke of a government where the ministers are firmly in charge, not captive to their departments — and if they are it’s the minister’s fault.

According to Coach Morrison, “in the locker room of politicians” this is one of the worst sledges a minister can receive.

“This is very important for how accountability is designed to work in our Westminster democracy. Ministers are accountable to the parliament and to the public through our democratic process for the policies of the government.

“Now I know you all know this but it bears repeating in the context of this principle, a public servant providing advice in a well prepared brief will and must exercise all due diligence and professional care in its preparation, and be absolutely certain and passionate about what they put in that document. But ultimately it is the Minister who must decide, whether to approve or not approve, to provide comment, feedback, as they appreciate, because ultimately it is the Minister who will be held accountable by the public. And that’s how it should be.”

He’s right, that is how it should be. But that venerable British system also relies on the principle of responsible government and more than a few experienced observers perceive a significant decline in ministerial standards of ethics, responsibility and accountability over recent years in large part due to some questionable actions by the Coalition’s federal front-benchers.

The Prime Minister addresses the audience in the Great Hall at Parliament House. IPAA ACT

Pricking the Canberra bubble, from the inside

His lines about the “Canberra bubble” are not problematic in themselves but should also be heeded by his cabinet.

“There are many highly organised and well-resourced interests in our democracy,” said Morrison, turning from coach to first-year  politics lecturer.

“They come to Canberra often. They are on the airwaves, they’re on the news channels. They meet regularly with politicians, advisers and departments to advance the policy ideas and causes on behalf of those who they represent.

“Some will be corporate interests. Some will be advocating for more welfare spending or bigger social programs. Many will be looking for a bigger slice of government resources.

“Yet the vast majority of Australians will never come to Canberra to lobby government. They won’t stay at the Hyatt. They won’t have lunch at the Ottoman. They won’t kick back at the Chairman’s Lounge at Canberra airport after a day of meetings.

“And what these Australians who don’t do those things do every day is work hard. They pay their taxes. They put their kids through school. They look after their families. They give back to their communities and they are the centre of my focus as PM and my government.

“These are your stakeholders, not the myriad of vested and organised interests that parade through this place.”

It appears that his key message here is that picking between these competing interest groups, divining the will of the people and hearing what the “quiet Australians” are murmuring in the suburbs is the role of ministers, not unelected public servants.

“As you know, David Thodey is leading, and is completing now, finalising now, his major review of the APS and I expect his report to pick up this theme of how the service needs to change so it can respond to new and emerging challenges – economic, social, technological and geo-political,” said the PM.

“We need the APS to be an exemplar of innovation and adaptability. More agile and more responsive to the public where they live.”

Writing in the Canberra Times yesterday, ACT Labor senator Katy Gallagher accused Morrison of trying to undermine the public service after reportedly intervening in the independent Thodey review and telling the panel what he wants to hear.

“By steering Thodey to focus on performance standards, the Prime Minister seeks to pin the blame for any problems on the APS itself, rather than any lack of attention or investment in capability from his government,” she wrote.

Some observers saw the speech in a similar way.

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