What happens when Dr Karl talks and public servants don’t?

There’s “very much a black hole in the public mind” about what the public service does, says University of Melbourne political communication expert Associate Professor Sally Young.

This ignorance of the role played by public servants is what makes it easy for governments to cut public service jobs and make unhelpful statements about ‘frontline’ workers versus other staff.

“In Australia there’s a real lack of a public service perception. We don’t have the civil service aspect the British public has,” Young told The Mandarin.

Either the work of the public service is not represented in the media, or it’s seen negatively when things go wrong.

“Journalists say that’s because public servants won’t talk to them. It doesn’t do public servants any good because nobody understands their work. I can understand why, as it can blow up in your face. I think that’s a missing link in Australians’ understandings of government.

“Public servants should engage more with the media than they have in recent times, as there must be ways that we can improve that knowledge and connection,” she said.

The public disdain, channeled by politicians, is reflected in the language used to describe their work, including “charming terms such as ‘head count reduction'”, thinks Young.

“Where there’s a void, it will be filled in with pop culture, and pop culture is not kind to public servants. Even the term ‘public service’ has a lot of negative connotations in the public mind, and there’s not a lot to counter that at the moment.”

It’s also increasingly difficult for the public service to speak about government policy without it being seen in a partisan light.

Learn from Treasury

Witness the recent shermozzle surrounding the role of Dr Karl Kruszelnicki in the Challenge of Change advertising campaign, in which the popular scientist “went rogue”, in the words of Tom Burton, denouncing the document he was promoting.

“It struck me how difficult it is for public servants to represent things in a non-political way,” said Young. “It’s really concerning, particularly in terms of large government advertisement campaigns.

“There’s a sense, particularly for this government, that it’s not faring well because it’s not getting information out effectively, so there’s seen to be lots of spin.

“We’ll see this ramp up even more towards an election and I think that’s very problematic for public servants.”

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