Andrew Tongue: if I knew then what I know now …

By Andrew Tongue

Monday August 25, 2014

When Victoria’s top public servant, Andrew Tongue, was asked what he would tell his younger self entering the public service in the early 1980s, the advice of 19th Century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz came to mind.

“Beware the vividness of the transient moment,” is a piece of wisdom the secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet suggested public servants remember whenever they are involved with reform, speaking at the recent Australia New Zealand School of Governance conference:

“One of my reflections on all the reform that I’ve [been involved with]: there are those moments when it is all, in glorious technicolour, about to go horribly, horribly wrong, and if you hold your nerve, you pull through and you drive reform …

“Any reform worth doing requires staying the course.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Tongue added that the best public administrators have a few tricks up their sleeve and a sense of where things are going:

“Timing is everything. A moment arrives and you’ve really got to have the ideas ready to seize that moment.”

While he acknowledged that ongoing reform is vital to improve the nation, he stressed it is not “an end in itself”:

“We don’t have to reform mindlesly and endlessly. There is a time for reform and there is a time to shape and frame reform, but not endlessly and meaninglessly, and so one of the traps that I think we’ve fallen into, because we had lots of money over the last halcyon decade: we tended to think that every problem required a new program. [There is] a lot of evidence to suggest that we’ve wasted a lot of money.”

Tongue also noted that all good reform endures. It stands the test of time and forms a foundation to be built upon by future governments, creating a “virtuous cycle”.

Before taking charge of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet in April 2013, Tongue spent most of his career in the Commonwealth. He would offer his younger self in Canberra some stern advice on collaborating with state counterparts:

“Be more humble, shut up and listen, get out on the ground and talk to people and work in partnership with them …

“Knowing what I know now, working in state government, and reflecting on the way I behaved on the way through, I didn’t exhibit some of the values that you would hope that senior public servants would exhibit, and I think everybody in state government in the room would acknowledge the experience of being confronted by somebody from Canberra with a good idea — and it may be a good idea — but at least pay people the courtesy of talking to them about it and engaging with them.

“It’s that process of creating genuine collaborative relationships. Collaboration doesn’t mean we all have to agree … but it does mean we’re going to work together to chase an idea down and to sort it all the way through so that a government might have some really enduring policy options. I think we could do with a fair bit more of that in public administration.”

His final piece of advice was to remember that working in the public service can be fun:

“You really do get to deal with fantastic issues, your brain gets stretched, you meet brilliant people, you really get to serve. You really feel like you’re serving when you meet Australians in the remote outback, or you meet them at Dandenong, or wherever you’re practising your public policy. There is the pride and the fun that comes from dealing with real people, the reason we’re here.”

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