Malcolm Turnbull on the public sector, taking risks & listening to advice

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday September 15, 2015

What kind of prime minister will Malcolm Turnbull be from the perspective of the public service?

Will he embrace innovation, and encourage his mandarins to create the space for their staff to try out new ideas, as he suggested at The Mandarin‘s launch event at the National Press Club last year?

“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,” Turnbull said at the time. He was weighing in on a panel discussion featuring his wife Lucy Turnbull, a former mayor of Sydney and a member of our editorial advisory board.

Turnbull’s view — at the time — was that the consequences of failure were far greater than the rewards of success, and that the incentives that exist in the bureaucracy drive public servants to be extremely circumspect.

Or will he perhaps take the advice of Terry Moran, another member of The Mandarin editorial board and a former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet? Moran told Turnbull that public service risk aversion was mainly a feature of departments of state, and its source was ministerial offices like his own.

“There’s a lot of innovation in the public sector but it tends to be in agencies and institutions that have a lot of devolved authority and their own governance arrangements: think public hospitals, schools, TAFEs, the Reserve Bank,” said Moran.

“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.”

Moran said Turnbull’s view was wrong for 90% of the public sector.

“You’ve got to get across to people that we are living in an age of immense volatility and, therefore, you have to be nimble and innovative.”

Then the Minister for Communications, Turnbull also said he thought public servants working in different jurisdictions should learn from each other’s successful innovations.

He also conceded that ministers should have the courage to tell their constituents the truth about the programs run by their departments — that they cannot guarantee success.

“You’ve got to get across to people that we are living in an age of immense volatility and, therefore, you have to be nimble and innovative,” said Turnbull.

Earlier this year, when it first looked like Turnbull might become prime minister, public sector business commentator Paddy Gourley suggested in the Canberra Times he would rely more on the advice of public servants than Tony Abbott.

The former Defence deputy secretary said it seemed that Abbott made decisions without consulting the public service, and then went to it for support after the fact, while Turnbull’s style in the Communications portfolio suggested “dealings with the public service would be better ordered” if he got the job.

Gourley thought advice from public servants would be “welcomed, appreciated and probably more influential” than in the Abbott administration.

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