The useful balance found in equally serving three masters


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THE PIA REVIEW: PIA ANDREWS This is a Public Sector Pia Review — a series on better public sectors.

As a public servant, you sometimes feel like you are being pulled in different directions. On the one hand this is normal, as we serve many purposes and changing leadership over time, but I wanted to encourage you to take heart, to find ways to maintain your balance, and to be confident in your work, because you’re doing a really important job. 

When you work in the public sector it can be challenging to pursue genuine ‘good’ in the face of high pressure expediency. I have found the work and teams have benefited by actively trying to be apolitical, values-based and evidence-driven. Evidence-driven approaches — like service/system design, holistic or future policy proposals, science, or data analytics — can be hard in the face of top-down directives, unless there is a clear process, demand, and support for what will actually work (especially if the evidence is in conflict with the direction given). In the case of public sectors, the stakes and pressures are especially high because many people are affected by good or bad work, and high pressure expediency could be from budget cuts, politics, habitual reactivism, or a genuine crisis. 

So, how can you maintain enough balance to provide a solid foundation for sustainably achieving ‘good’ outcomes when undertaking public service? We often hear about the importance of an apolitical public sector, but what does that mean day-to-day — and what do you need for yourself to be comfortable performing that role? 

In this article I’ve drawn on my experience working across, with and in various jurisdictions to share the useful balance I have found in actively trying to equally serve three ‘masters’: the government of the day; the parliament; and the people

This article primarily explores the relevant Australian Commonwealth laws and guidelines that apply to Commonwealth public servants; however, the principles are equally applicable to state and territory public servants in Australia, and public servants of like systems in other jurisdictions.

I hope this article encourages some discussion and exploration of the history and basis upon which our public sectors were built and how we get the right sort of practical balance day to day. 

A big thank you to all the people who peer reviewed this article, including Thomas Andrews and Nicholas Gruen, as well as several current and previous public servants and political staffers.

Who are these three masters?

The Public Service Act 1999 laid out as its first main objectto establish an apolitical public service that is efficient and effective in serving the government, the parliament and the Australian public”. I’ll come back to the “efficient and effective” part later, but this bold and I think insightful objective provides the basis for a mental model that can help public servants maintain the balance needed to deliver sustained public outcomes and good. It was somewhat softened later in the same document by the words “within the framework of ministerial responsibility”, but I think the objective is one we can all apply usefully in our day to day work. It provides a simple but effective mental framework for all public servants to maintain a personal internal balance and sustained focus in the face of high pressure work environments and constant change.

Although the articulation of these three masters became less obvious in subsequent public sector legislation in Australia, it remains front and centre on the APSC Integrity and Code of Conduct information. The concept seems to fade in and out of the public and political narrative, with changing expectations and demands of public servants over time. The concept has even been contested in some court cases. But this approach has certainly been helpful to me, as it makes it possible to always bring the work we do back to a purpose driven approach. One that serves the government of the day (after all, they are our elected representatives), but does not do so blindly or at the cost of oversight or the public good.

If we were to consider these three masters like the legs of a stool, then we are most stable when we have equal pressure and responsiveness to all three. I believe many of the challenges we face in public sectors today trace back to that balance at various times being too skewed towards any one leg at the cost of the other two. To my mind, this challenge presents a real problem to public sector effectiveness, public trust, and public outcomes, so I wanted to share some of the ways in which I try to ensure that the stool is, for me (and in accordance with my own personal beliefs, ethics and standards), always balanced.

How do we best serve all three

How the public service can best serve the government is to provide frank, fearless, and evidence-based advice, including discussion on what is desirable, technically feasible, and economically viable. I often see frustrated public servants assume or claim that their minister won’t listen, but it has been my experience that ministers are certainly interested in the ideas, expertise, and realities faced, particularly when trying to implement their policies. They want to hear about new challenges and opportunities, which are often most obvious at the coalface of service delivery, regulation, or policy development. They want to know the risks and ‘bad’ news so they have a chance to do something about it. And they certainly want to know about the associated costs.

Elected representatives are responsible and accountable for the policy decisions they take, and the public sector is tasked, among other responsibilities, with the implementation of those decisions. But they are also usually hungry for new ideas and to hear what works, especially when it comes to bleeding edge opportunities like the impact of new technologies on policy or services. This proactiveness is certainly appropriate, given it is also the role of the public sector to provide advice, to look ahead and develop policy options to meet the future challenges and opportunities, and to engage with the public. I think there is an important role for the public service to provide a trusted and apolitical voice in the public domain. There is also a significant amount of public sector work and efforts where the direction is defined by legislation, the constitution, case law, international crises, emergency response efforts or indeed, by the needs and values of the communities we serve. This means even just on any given day, there is an active balancing act required to conduct our work.

While there is great scope for innovation and ground up proposals from the public sector, public servants don’t have unfettered rights to divert their effort away from directions that have been reasonably and lawfully given to them. To do so may expose the service, and the individual, to accusations that they are engaging in a ‘frolic’. At the same time, the majority of the work of public sectors is usually not affected by changing government policies, as there is so much established in legislation, the constitution or existing operations, so there is a lot of scope for apply an innovative, evidence based and values driven approach to the work, accountable to but less affected by changing policy landscapes. So public servants should not feel they can’t do ANYTHING without the say so of their minister. Indeed, it is in day-to-day implementation and administration of our public sectors that there is great scope for further evidence-driven approaches, apolitical balance, innovation, and participatory approaches.

In public sectors you often hear people talk about the ‘front page test’ whereby people are encouraged to consider how their actions would look on the front page of the news. I have often seen this applied through purely a political lens rather than a public good lens, as there is sometimes more pressure to not embarrass a minister than there is to genuinely address the challenge. When the heads of departments are perceived as political appointees, this can erode practical and cooperative apolitical engagement with parliamentary processes and with the public. 

How the public service can best serve the parliament is at least twofold: provide oversight,  and as the ‘doing’ arm of the legislature. For oversight, public officials need to be able to justify to the parliament (through estimates committees and other oversight mechanisms) how the policy was implemented, what advice was given, the outcomes, and how money was spent. As the legislature, the parliament is responsible for debating, improving, and assuring all new legislation and laws, so the public sector can assist with providing appropriate facts, evidence and modelling to support the best possible legislative outcomes. Of course, sometimes these responsibilities can be subjected to political theatre, but they are important points of intersection between the public sector and parliament and it is the job of public servants to occupy this space calmly, professionally and from a balanced position of evidence, to always help ensure the best public outcome prevails. 

Just to be clear, best public outcomes is not the same as the outcome you personally want. You need to remove all ego and focus on evidence based public outcomes from different policy approaches, including some your department may propose to the minister, and how to best work with your minister (and their delegates) to implement what is agreed.

How the public sector best serves the Australian public is also something important to consider daily. On the one hand, public engagement can greatly assist in developing user-centred or test driven policy options, designing better services, social, or economic interventions, or myriad other opportunities to engage people in developing the services and laws they rely on. On the other hand, being accountable to the Australian people and to ensuring the best possible public good is a helpful lens to apply to all our work. Forget the front page test — how would your mum, dad, or grandma feel about it? How openly can you work, so that you are always inviting peer review, feedback and participation in the process?

Expanding ‘us’ to all three masters

Another part of this mental model is to actively consider all three ‘masters’ as necessary and helpful (in different and sometimes challenging ways) to ensuring the best work and outcomes from the public sector. When it is framed, even subtly, as the minister and us versus the world, things can fall out of balance. I would suggest that genuinely seeing the parliament and Australian public as partners in the work of the public sector naturally leads to better outcomes, engagement, openness, peer review, robustness, and a better balance for maintaining a values-driven and evidence-based approach. 

If all public servants were to at least consider the government, the parliament and the Australian public as our three genuine masters that we should try to serve in as balanced a way as possible, it provides three (3) key benefits:

  1. a helpful internal balance against becoming either politicised or rebellious, which provides a stronger and more sustainable foundation upon which we can serve all three without being perceived as swinging any way at the cost of the others;
  2. a greater perception (from all three masters) of being the trusted, professional, expert, apolitical, evidence-based, and values-driven voice in the room, which grows trust in government services, law, regulation, and legislation; and
  3. a naturally more robust basis for engagement with a greater breadth of skills, expertise, and experience to draw into the important work of policy and legislation, regulation, taxation, service delivery, and other critical functions of the public sector. 

The phantom master hidden in plain sight

It is also worth noting the old adage that you get what you measure. Our Australian public sectors were, broadly speaking, initially established as simple rules of administration and obedience to direction. Nowhere in these early foundations do you find the ‘why’ or purpose. Later, in the 1999 Act, we see a full values statement along with two interesting requirements that have dominated public sector culture ever since: efficiency and effectiveness

Having the language of efficiency and effectiveness in the public service is appropriate, but it needs to be balanced with purpose and outcomes. But when you look to the foundational frameworks of the Australian Public Service, where is the reference to purpose, to outcomes, or to the intended goals for society, the economy or people more broadly? Surely success in public sectors should be predominantly measured in the resulting human outcomes? By embedding efficiency and effectiveness without explicitly embedding the intended impact on humans, I believe we have and have experienced the impact of fourth phantom ‘master’: the assumed and unrelenting master of blind financial prudence, with increasingly diminishing returns, usually at the cost of all other masters.

On the one hand, it seems obvious that if you want to do something, especially with public funds raised from taxpayers, that you should try to be efficient and effective. But on the other hand, efficient and effective as stated goals in isolation from other goals are a little tricky because they beg the question: to what end? Anyone can be 100% efficient in that if you give them nothing, they can do nothing. We always hear “there isn’t budget for that”, but the fact is, there is a substantial amount of money involved in the public sector and it is more a matter of prioritisation than availability. 

The policy direction of the government day often is prescriptive around a small number of key priorities, which is their prerogative, but for the rest it is important that public servants always try to ensure an holistic and balanced approach that drives the best policy and public outcomes. The lack of holistic budgeting across the public service and the conflation of often highly competitive approaches to accessing funds has created an uneven distribution that is not always aligned with best outcomes (or efficient or effective programs) and is not balanced by a consistent measure of impact on people. So how do we ensure key functions and services are appropriately funded balanced against policy priorities of the government of the day? How do we invest in the continuous improvement of the public sector and meaningful cross sector public policy reform that is important but not the political priority of the day? How do we ensure good human outcomes in the face of purely economically measured systems?

Many other public sectors have stated aims, legislation, or even a constitutional mandate to protect and support the rights or dignity of their public, which provides a balance for them to this and all other pressures, and it is perhaps worth consideration here in Australia. 

Balance and values

Once you have balance, then you are better able to maintain a values and purpose driven approach to the work of the public sector. Below are some links to the history of how we got to the APS values we have today. It won’t be new for all, but might provide some interesting insights for some. I think the values of any public service should also be continually checked, balanced against and continuously improved to be reflective of the changing values of the people and communities we serve. It is only if the public and public sector values are in alignment that we can understand and be appropriately responsive to the changing needs of the communities we serve.

It was interesting to go back through time and consider the foundational values, or lack thereof, of the Australian Public Sector. The Act that established the APS in 1902 was largely administrative and had no detail of values or purpose. Rather, it laid out the rules for regulating the administration such as hiring, promotions, salaries, etc. Some values are implied subtly throughout, but more obviously in the Offences section, where anyone found guilty of disobedience, negligence, incompetency, alcoholism and improper conduct would be reprimanded. Though it isn’t clear what is meant by improper.

In the Commonwealth Public Service Act (1922) the Offences section was extended to include a public official in both their official and unofficial capacities, and to hold them accountable to both this Act and regulations, and to the oath (or affirmation) made by all public servants (laid out in the Fourth Schedule) to bear allegiance to the King and to uphold the Constitution.  

It might amuse some to know these early foundational documents did very clearly mandate that women were only allowed to be hired until marriage, a rule that persisted until 1966 when the another round of changes to the original Act occurred in the Public Service Act (1966). There was a significant review into the APS that recommended a values-based approach be implemented.

Finally, in the Public Service Act (1999), we saw actual values enshrined in legislation, a long list that makes for interesting reading.

1. (a) the APS is apolitical, performing its functions in an impartial and professional manner;

(b) the APS is a public service in which employment decisions are based on merit;

(c) the APS provides a workplace that is free from discrimination and recognises and utilises the diversity of the Australian community it serves;

(d) the APS has the highest ethical standards;

(e) the APS is openly accountable for its actions, within the framework of ministerial responsibility to the government, the parliament and the Australian public;

(f) the APS is responsive to the government in providing frank, honest, comprehensive, accurate and timely advice and in implementing the government’s policies and programs;

(g) the APS delivers services fairly, effectively, impartially and courteously to the Australian public and is sensitive to the diversity of the Australian public;

(h) the APS has leadership of the highest quality;

(i) the APS establishes workplace relations that value communication, consultation, co-operation and input from employees on matters that affect their workplace;

(j) the APS provides a fair, flexible, safe and rewarding workplace;

(k) the APS focuses on achieving results and managing performance;

(l) the APS promotes equity in employment;

(m) the APS provides a reasonable opportunity to all eligible members of the community to apply for APS employment;

(n) the APS is a career-based service to enhance the effectiveness and cohesion of Australia’s democratic system of government;

(o) the APS provides a fair system of review of decisions taken in respect of APS employees.

2.  For the purposes of paragraph (1)(b), a decision relating to engagement or promotion is based on merit if:

(a) an assessment is made of the relative suitability of the candidates for the duties, using a competitive selection process; and

(b) the assessment is based on the relationship between the candidates’ work-related qualities and the work-related qualities genuinely required for the duties; and

(c) the assessment focuses on the relative capacity of the candidates to achieve outcomes related to the duties; and 

(d) the assessment is the primary consideration in making the decision.

In 2013 there was an overhaul of these values in the Public Service Act (2013) to simplify them down, and to require public servants to demonstrate and promote the APS Values, the APS Employment Principles, and compliance with the Code of Conduct.

  • Impartial: The APS is apolitical and provides the government with advice that is frank, honest, timely, and based on the best available evidence.
  • Committed to service: The APS is professional, objective, innovative and efficient, and works collaboratively to achieve the best results for the Australian community and the government.
  • Accountable: The APS is open and accountable to the Australian community under the law and within the framework of ministerial responsibility.
  • Respectful: The APS respects all people, including their rights and their heritage.
  • Ethical: The APS demonstrates leadership, is trustworthy, and acts with integrity, in all that it does.

After reading through all these values, how does it align with your values? Those of your community or family? How do you apply a values based approach in your day to day work?

In researching for this article, I also found a review done in 2008 that resulted in various areas of implementation, recommendations, and practical guidelines for public servants to consider what it means to be an apolitical service. It was called Reinvigorating the Westminster tradition: Integrity and accountability in relations between the Australian Government and the APS, was launched by the Australian Public Service Commission in 2008, and makes for a fascinating read. 

Final word

In conclusion, it is my experience that it in trying to equally serve all three masters we are better able to serve any of them well. It is hard to progress in any direction if you are constantly reacting to the ever changing winds, but I have found this balancing act helps to maintain a sustained equilibrium and stable foundation for effectively progressing evidence-based work that is values- and purpose-driven. 

Ultimately, it is the practice that this counts most. It is in what you choose to do that you demonstrate your values and the sort of public servant you are. So choose carefully, because your work is important, and if affects everyone.

I hope this has provided some food for thought, and some ideas for how to help maintain greater balance and stability in your work in the public sector, whatever your level or domain of control.

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