United Nations Public Service Day has been marked in Canberra with both praise and counsel for Australia’s public servants from one of their most respected leaders.
Frances Adamson AC, former DFAT secretary and the current South Australian governor, presented a compelling speech Thursday night in an inaugural oration named in her honour.
The Institute of Public Administration Australia has launched the Frances Adamson Oration as a way to mark the UN day, which pays tribute to the hard work of public servants around the world.
In 2002, the United Nations General Assembly decided to designate June 23 as United Nations Public Service Day, stating that: “Efficient, accountable, effective and transparent public administration, at both the national and international levels, has a key role to play in the implementation of internationally agreed goals, including those contained in the United Nations Millennium Declaration.”
In her address, before a live audience in Canberra and virtual attendance from around the country, Adamson spoke of the honour she felt at being a career public servant.
“I have always been proud to call myself a public servant and I hope that whether you are new to the service or well into your careers, you, too, feel a sense of pride in the contribution you are making,” she said.
“Perhaps more realistically, pride mixed with exhaustion, given the extreme demands made of many of you, whether in responding to the global pandemic, geopolitical developments or challenging economic and energy market conditions.
“It is hard to recall a time in the past few decades when such monumental and far-reaching challenges have confronted the globe in such a truncated timespan.”
Adamson used her oration to offer what she termed “four encouragements and one entreaty,” which she noted was a kind nod to the Chinese way of structuring counsel.
Her first encouragement was to urge the full implementation of David Thodey’s Independent Review of the Australian Public Service.
“The report was produced in a strikingly inclusive and collaborative way and, along with my peers, I was strongly committed to its implementation. I believe there is much in it which continues to provide valuable guidance, notwithstanding our natural tendency to regard anything pre-COVID as belonging to a different world,” she said.
She urged it to be embraced in letter and in spirit, building on the good work already done.
“Sometimes, we can be motivated to draw afresh on earlier good advice because we have come to appreciate just how wise it was. This is such an occasion,” Adamson said.
Her second encouragement was to think more broadly about our times and what they require of public servants.
“For well over a decade, the government has been dealing with the far-reaching and ever-sharper consequences of a major shift in global power and a significant – and structural – deterioration in our relationship with our major trading partner, China,” she said.
“The speed of technological change, and the threats and opportunities it brings, challenges us all. So, too, the increasing impacts of climate change. And now rising inflation and interest rates and failure in energy markets.
“This is a time for steadiness, for listening and consultation, close collaboration, and a renewed appreciation of and respect for expertise in policy development – whether on the economy, climate change, China or homelessness.
“A time to grow that expertise in a purposeful way through recruitment and development and to share it widely. And, certainly, a time for frank, fearless, well informed, creative and constructive advice, whether that be in your submissions to ministers or… in considered, authoritative public remarks.”
The third encouragement went straight to the heart of the public service culture, starting with the need to continue to work at “fostering a genuine sense of belonging” that goes beyond typical ways of thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Research… shows us that belonging requires meaningful work, relationships, agency and accountability, and the public service can deliver all four every day,” Adamson said.
“There have been steps forward and steps back, but if the challenges of our times are to be met, I believe the public service, at all levels, needs to be capable of drawing in, retaining and developing the skills and talents of all Australians, not just those it has traditionally sought to attract. Doing this effectively is not easy, but it is deeply rewarding.”
The former secretary’s fourth encouragement was to embrace collaboration.
From long experience as a public servant working internationally and nationally, she said, it was obvious how important collaboration is. But it is a point not always appreciated.
“There are clear benefits to the public from close collaboration and cooperation between all levels of government as genuine partners,” she said.
“At a time when there are some really big issues out there, as we have already discussed, collaboration and coordination, whether light-touch or structured, can make a real difference to citizens.
“This is not the moment to be prescriptive, but I do encourage public servants across the country to ensure your relationships with counterparts in the tiers of government above and below where you work are in good order, however you choose to structure those.”
Adamson’s entreaty was all about integrity.
“Acting with integrity is how the service maintains the confidence and trust of the public,” she said.
“Indeed, integrity is one thing that does shift community attitudes and trust in government, so it is one of the tools that public servants have in strengthening public institutions.
“On the flip side, we need look no further than the fierce spotlight that social media, citizen-led blogs and traditional media place on real or perceived transgressions within our institutions. The public has a strong voice and an outlet for its expression.
“And nor should we be in any doubt either about the importance ministers attach to integrity within the public service. In addition to the work the public service does in delivering the government’s agenda, the service maintains the confidence of ministers in part by not being political activists, by not obstructing and by not leaking, and by enabling and supporting a seamless transition between governments when that occurs.
“It’s a two-way street, and there will be times when the service needs the courage to defend its governance.
“My entreaty, then, is to make integrity a short, medium and long-term priority for all public services in Australia.”