I’m an avid reader of The Mandarin; it provides me with interesting and topical articles that are highly relevant to my work, particularly those on how to improve the public service. However, it struck me that the vast majority of the articles focus on both leadership within the public service and “fixing” the public service and that there is little on the people who implement policy and programs on a daily basis and the good work the public service delivers.
This is not to discount the value and the highly influential role that public service leaders provide or to suggest that the public service does not need to be reformed, but rather to contend that the everyday experience of the general policy officer should be as highly valued as the senior official.
The words bureaucrat and bureaucracy are typically associated with negative rather than positive connotations by popular media, yet it is those public servants that keep the machinery of government working and deliver services to the community on a daily basis. I would argue that there should be more focus on what the public service does well, such as the expertise and wealth knowledge that it provides to the community and wider society.
General policy and program officers are the individuals that produce the daily correspondence, conduct the research for ministers and senior officials, co-ordinate the briefings and papers for national meetings such as the Council of Australian Governments, work with other government departments both at a state and national level to deliver policy, produce a significant amount of work behind every media announcement, and work with the community to manage and resolve policy problems that arise.
While ministers and senior officials give kudos to their hard-working staff through award recognition programs, internal departmental newsletters and providing positive feedback via senior officers, the public rarely sees the hard work these everyday public servants put in to ensure that policy and programs are successfully managed. They are the faceless people behind the ministers and senior officials.
This brings me to a key question about the public service: what does it do well? I would argue that there are several key areas: expertise, research, communication, co-ordination, and consultation …
Governments often seek expert advice from consultants and academics when developing policy advice. However, this can be misleading as it suggests the public service lacks expertise. Governments may hire outside experts for a host of reasons as documented in the literature.
The point here is that the public service is comprised of people with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Government agendas may wax and wane, but those core staff remain, carrying with them the “institutional memory” of the organisation. Through holding this expert knowledge, the public servant can provide expert advice to ministers and senior officials.
The public service undertakes a significant amount of research in the development of policy. Although the public service has always conducted some form of research to support or not support policy positions, the rise in the popularity of evidence-based policy has fuelled this need for good quality research.
While there are dedicated bodies such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics to collect data, most departments have units that gather data for their particular area. General policy officers also perform research tasks on a daily basis to provide evidence to ministers. Without this ability to research effectively, policy officers would be unable to give advice on the multitude of briefs they write every day.
A core skill for the public servant is good communication skills; this varies from writing complex cabinet papers to liaising with the community. The ability to communicate well is highly valued within and outside the public sector — it enables officers to summarise multifaceted and detailed issues into simple, digestible snapshots for ministers to assist them to make a decision on policy problems.
Communication also encompasses verbal skills; a policy officer must be able to convey their message to a diverse audience from the community to other units within the department and across the tiers of government.
Co-ordination has long been considered a key activity of governments; public servants on a daily basis co-ordinate policy and information briefs to ensure that all key stakeholders are included in the policy process. It is perhaps a taken-for-granted skill of the public servant which performs this task in order to generate a good policy outcome for the department.
Co-ordination at the end of the day creates an inclusive policy environment. To this extent knowing who, when and where to co-ordinate is a vital skills set for the public servant, and its importance cannot be underestimated.
The public service is good at consultation. Governments, though, are regularly criticised for a lack of consultation, however, consultation needs to be seen within broader constraints that affect government departments such as budgets and staff capacity.
Outside of these constraints the public service works with the community and other government departments to develop solutions to complex policy problems; this often flies under the radar as departmental staff may meet with stakeholders at small meetings or through one-on-one telephone conversations.
The nature of consultation has also changed; it now takes place via electronic and social media, at community cabinets and at ministerial advisory groups where the community and employers can have direct contact with ministers and senior officials. Even then, it is the public servant who works behind them to ensure the public has the opportunity to engage in the consultation process with ministers and senior officials.
The role of the everyday public servant is both challenging and rewarding, and requires the skills set that embraces the art of multi-tasking and multi-skilling. It should be recognised that the public servant is a highly skilled person whose work should be valued by all sectors. Public servants may be faceless but they are not soulless.
The community can be confident in a public service that will serve the Australian public to the highest level.