How public servants can prevent their new minister from scrapping a good policy

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday June 4, 2021

Caroline Edwards
Caroline Edwards. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Outgoing Department of Health associate secretary Caroline Edwards has explained how Australian Public Service employees should respond when a new minister wants to pull the plug on a policy or program.

Edwards explored the topic at an IPAA ACT event on Thursday afternoon, alongside Department of Defence director general Paul Way and Department of Education, Skills and Employment deputy secretary Dr Ros Baxter.

Asked how public servants deal with new ministers undoing initiatives that the public service has worked hard to put in place, Baxter said most things don’t get undone — they just might be slightly ‘unravelled’. Building on this, Way noted that public servants are responsible for explaining the deliverables, benefits and return on investment of certain initiatives to incoming governments.

“Notwithstanding what colour the government may be of the day, our role is to support that government in delivering those longer term focus and that longer term policy aspect,” he said.

“Generally, what I’ve found with most ministers is that they’re willing to listen. They’re willing to amend their policy slightly. Some of the rhetoric might be slightly different, but underneath we’re there supporting, and we’re continuing to drive those improvements on those initiatives. I haven’t found a minister yet that’s [said], ‘I want to totally stop that program’.”

READ MORE: New training to help public servants and ministers’ offices work together

Edwards has been directed by ministers to reverse policies and programs in the past. An issue that has come from this, she said, is that staff have struggled to ‘undo’ initiatives because they have become too invested in them. In these instances, leaders need to move these staff members to another area of work, Edwards noted.

She said public servants also need to show humility, and acknowledged that sometimes her view on a policy or program might not necessarily be the correct view.

“If a changing government or a changing minister comes in and the minister says ‘That program is bad, I want to change it, I want to do something else’, you often do salvage it. But you don’t salvage it by explaining to them, ‘What you’ve got to understand is it’s really good and the previous minister was better than you’. That doesn’t go down very well,” she said.

The best way to approach it, according to Edwards, is to explain to the minister what objectives the policy or program is trying to achieve, what the public servants have been doing to achieve those objectives, and what the pros and cons of that policy or program are. It is also important to ask the minister which aspects of the initiative they want to retain, and how they want to ‘badge’ the policy or program so that it belongs to them.

“If they [the minister] take it on as their idea you’ve succeeded,” she said.

While having to alter an existing initiative can be difficult, what’s more ‘dispiriting’ for public servants is when they’ve been working on a great idea for months or years on end, but it has never gotten traction, and ‘keeps on missing its moment’, Edwards said.

“That’s the moment that the morale in staff really gets difficult and you have to think about giving people a change, because they’ve been working on it, and working on it, and working on it, and it never actually comes to pass,” she said.

“But all of us should keep them in our bottom drawers because that idea’s moment will pop up.”

READ MORE: Advice you can stand by: dealing with the difficult minister’s office


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Geoff Edwards
Geoff Edwards
11 months ago

It’s a fairly dispiriting formula, Caroline Edwards. A public servant, perhaps with deep expertise, becomes invested in a program, partly because good programs happen because people who know what they’re doing invest time and energy to overcome all the bureaucratic, political and financial obstacles to get them up and running. So when a new minister comes to office and puts in place some variant of the program, the person who knows most about is moved on somewhere else.
It doesn’t sound like a formula for inspiring knowledgeable public servants to do anything other than passively wait for ministers to tell them what to do.
There has to be such a thing as a good program and there needs to be a process for preventing ministers, perhaps motivated by crass political or ideological enthusiasms, from scuttling progress.
I don’t claim that there can be any simple process for avoiding policy disasters like the destruction of Land and Water Australia by the Gillard government, the destruction of Labor’s NBN by Malcolm Turnbull or the more recent shifting of the veterinary chemicals unit to Armidale. All these must surely also classed as objectively wrong.
One alternative would be to establish a wise elders’ forum of citizens to which at least the more egregious examples of policy reversals can be referred. Or perhaps a wise elders’ forum of former senior executives, or both in tandem. Something bold and courageous needs to be done or Australia will continue to fail in dealing with the policy challenges of our era.

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