If you look at the website that we’re launching tonight, there’s a page on it called The Crane. It’s a reference to Chinese imperial bureaucracy — where your public service rank was shown by a large material badge with a bird on it.
Your bird changed depending on your rank. You started off as a quail and if you rose through the ranks then maybe you made it to pheasant-hood — or maybe you even became first assistant deputy peacock!
And at the top of the bird pyramid were the cranes — which were worn by the top mandarins. So in the middle of this very forward-looking digital media portal is this very erudite reference to the past.
That combination of looking forwards and backwards is not a bad metaphor for the public sector itself.
If we look back then we can see that by international standards — Australia has an enormously successful, innovative and cost-effective public sector, which as percentage of GDP costs less than the UK, US, Canada and New Zealand. Of course, who would know this from the current debate.
And we’d do well to reflect on what has made that success possible.
On the other hand there are also enormous challenges ahead of us — both as a sector and as a nation. And those challenges are interconnected — because public sector reform and national economic reform have really been two sides of the same coin since at least the 1980s.
In that sense, while The Mandarin is about the future of the public sector, it’s really also about the future of the nation as whole.
That means that The Mandarin has a big beat — and if anyone is going to be cover that beat it’s Eric Beecher, Marina Go, Tom Burton and the team they have built.
As president of the Institute of Public Administration Australia — which is the professional association for the sector — I want to say what a pleasure it’s been to be involved in the start-up phase of The Mandarin.
That’s not because it’s going to paint the sector in a rosy hue of perfection — although it’s certainly going to be an antidote to the more misleading and superficial commentary that tries to pass itself as public debate.
Instead, we think The Mandarin is going to provide more discussion of the issues that deep down most public servants are, in their professional life, actually passionate about. I hope it will also be a reliable bridge across the myriad organisational divides littering the public sector.
The partners supporting The Mandarin are critical here. Locked up in the specialist dialects of major professional services firms is a huge, international treasure trove of analysis and insight.
Translated into fresh and accessible language by The Mandarin, I anticipate that this will become a reference base for policy people, program managers and those responsible for the service delivery systems.
Many university departments and think tanks have much to offer as well if they are brought out from under the “lost without translation” syndrome.
Putting on my former crane badge for a moment, it’’ also pleasing to see that there’s a new vehicle for the highly talented people that I know exist in our sector to offer their thoughts and analysis.
So the last 12 months have been very exciting. And frankly, I think the next stage is going to be even better.
Terry Moran was speaking at the launch of The Mandarin at the National Press Club in Canberra on September 2.