'Take a holiday': when leaders crumble, keep your head down

By David Donaldson

February 4, 2015

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA – FEBRUARY 02: Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Margie Abbott prepare to leave the National Press Club on February 2, 2015 in Canberra, Australia. Prime Minister Abbott will lay out his 2015 plans as his ability to lead the party is questioned by political commentators following the unpopular decision to knight Prince Philip and Coalition party loss in the Queensland election. (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images)

Queensland doesn’t have a government days after an election. The Northern Territory administration is in turmoil after a failed coup. And Canberra is consumed over who should be the prime minister.

When leaders fall and governments crumble, throwing policymaking into chaos, what’s a hard-working public servant to do? “Take a holiday!” said David Charles, half-jokingly.

The former secretary of the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce — now director at consulting firm Insight Economics — told The Mandarin: “That’s a very hard question. Where the government is in disarray, I guess that raises difficult questions.

“The government is the government until it’s no longer the government. Public servants will know what’s going on, but on the other hand they’re there to serve the government of the day.

“This might be quite challenging if you’re a Northern Territory public servant. I guess the best thing is to avert your eyes! If you wanted to be a politician, you’d go into politics.”

Charles, who worked closely with then-industry minister John Button, thinks one element that makes these situations challenging is the growing size of ministerial offices. When he worked in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, many of his briefings before question time required efforts to cut down the panic created by political staffers.

“Ministerial staff are great starters of panic. We had to hose down the panic that started in the ministerial offices often. Those guys live and die on the significance of their minister in the government, so they’ve got a much more challenging position to manage. That inevitably is pushed onto public servants to some extent.”

Former Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry senior executive Peter O’Brien thinks that with the ongoing instability in Canberra, “some senior public servants will quietly be looking at statements made by the political leadership, if they don’t already have a feel for what’s happening. They’ll need to be thinking about what might this means for portfolio direction.

“… my advice is to make sure you’re keeping your head down and getting on with doing your job.”

“You’ve got to ask what a change in political leadership in the federal government might bring. It’ll certainly bring a ministerial reshuffle, a change in ministerial policy directions, people shuffling around Parliament House.”

But while it’s good management to understand what might be on the horizon, it would be a waste of time to try and second guess the details of what may or may not happen.

“Any public servant who has more than a citizen’s interest in the speculation is being distracted from their job,” O’Brien told The Mandarin.

He reckons “it’s probably one of those times it’s better to be a senior public servant than a politician. It’s a tough job being a politician.”

O’Brien admits one of the ever-present issues in the bureaucracy, heightened during periods of leadership speculation, is “the challenge for managers to keep public servants motivated” when policy changes beckon.

Even under normal circumstances public pressure or internal ructions can lead politicians to make policy shifts and “it’s really frustrating for the individuals involved who’ve been working in a pressure-cooker environment”. But, he says, that’s an inevitable aspect of working in government.

There is, of course, one periodic event where instability is built into the political system: elections.

“During the caretaker period public servants give themselves some time off for a while before the red and blue books are prepared,” said Charles. “There are well-known conventions surrounding elections.

“Avoid any indication you’re taking sides in the process. Public servants have to work with whoever is in government, so you need to be there to work with whoever ends up in charge.”

O’Brien agreed: “In an election you need to prepare two very big piles of briefings. Depending on who wins, one gets delivered to the minister and one gets shredded. In this case we’re not talking about a change of government, it’s a change of leader, so my advice is to make sure you’re keeping your head down and getting on with doing your job.

“And enjoying reading about it in the papers!”

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7 years ago

I completely dispute that public servants give themselves time off during caretaker period. Even in policy in my experience there’s plenty to do – it’s just slightly different from the rest of the electoral cycle.

7 years ago

Ah, caretaker period – once gave a public presentation and was told not to mention future policy implications. That went down really well with the private sector in attendance. But agree with below, there is a lot of prep for post election and program delivery continues on.

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