Public servants must speak truth to power, former Sydney lord mayor Lucy Turnbull urged at a launch for this esteemed publication last night. And then her husband and a former top bureaucrat offered some competing truths of their own.
The magnum was cracked over The Mandarin at the National Press Club in Canberra, where a gathering of government players and supporters heard from Turnbull and The Mandarin team on the new venue for public sector leaders in Australia.
Former Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary and Institute of Public Administration Australia president Terry Moran opened proceedings by extolling the importance of discussion and debate on policymaking, as an “antidote to the more misleading and superficial commentary that tries to pass itself as public debate”. He opined:
“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.”
Turnbull, who with Moran sits on The Mandarin‘s editorial advisory board, said public servants needed to speak out to bring visibility to the work of government:
“The public service operates, because it’s a massive organisation, it operates with all those accountabilities and who’s doing what is clearly understood, and you have this kind of situation which you never have in business that people who are the political masters are responsible for really championing things. I think in business you have a wider range of people underpinning decisions …
“That’s why I think it’s really important for that visibility and the voice of public servants to be louder and more clearly understood, and that’s what’s really great about this publication … so the discussions and the deliberations public servants have to consider can be more clearly understood and articulated.”
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, sipping wine among the crowd, offered that what The Mandarin should do is champion innovation in the public sector. He said creativity, for fear of failure, is lax:
“We’ve got to try new things and, if you try new things, a lot of them won’t work, but so what? If you smash people because they try something and it doesn’t work then they’ll never try anything new again.”
Moran countered that innovation was happening in government — but mainly in agencies that “have a lot of devolved authority and their own governance arrangements”. That is, those further away from Parliament House:
“The public sector is not departments of state, and if you look for innovation in departments of state you’ll be disappointed, because innovation declines the closer you get to a minister.”
The risk aversion was not in departments, Moran said, but in ministers. Perhaps in portfolios other than his, Turnbull stated.
Let the debate continue — right here at The Mandarin.