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Chris Eccles: what is frank and fearless advice, and how to give it

Being a public servant is more than a job, says the head of the VPS, but an essential public function. In an address to Victoria’s most influential bureaucrats, Chris Eccles offered his guidance on how and when to speak truth to power.

Twelve months into the term of a new government is an opportune time to reflect on the nature of our services to the public and government from my vantage point as head of the Victorian Public Service.

This is an interesting and challenging time to be a public servant:

  • There are growing expectations on government from the public to deliver quality services;
  • The governing environment is changing, by virtue of new applications of technology, round the clock media, the role of the cross benches in achieving legislative reforms, and a contestable market for policy advice; and
  • Increasing pressure on governments to respond to events and “just do something” to address a multitude of issues.

In the face of these challenges, the institutional role of the public sector and good public governance is paramount.

A bit of history…

At this stage, it might be useful to examine how an apolitical, professional public service that provides impartial advice to the government of the day, has become a key feature of the Westminster system.

Back in the day when sovereignty rested more with the monarch, all public servants were loyal first and foremost to the Crown, as the expression of executive government. As time moved on, and the powers of the sovereign waned and the powers of the Parliament grew, public servants needed to be more than just servants of the Crown; they became servants of the public as embodied by their elected representatives.

The doctrine of ministerial responsibility requires that public servants are responsible to their minister, and ministers, as elected officials are responsible to the Parliament, and through Parliament, to the people.

Another significant part of our history is the Northcote-Trevelyan report from 1854 – a report from two treasury officials into the organisation of the UK’s permanent civil service.

From Northcote-Trevelyan, we gain fundamental principles of the public sector, again working to support the government of the day, but now underpinned by the values of integrity, impartiality and appointment based on merit rather than patronage.

Their observation remains true to this day that:

“…Government of the country could not be carried on without the aid of an efficient body of permanent officers, occupying a position duly subordinate to that of the Ministers who are directly responsible to the Crown and to Parliament, yet possessing sufficient independence, character, ability, and experience to be able to advise, assist, and to some extent, influence, those who are from time to time set over them.”

The real value, though, of Northcote-Trevelyan’s work, was the impact that a permanent, apolitical public service could have on the quality of advice to government. Ensuring public servants are recruited on the basis of merit has become a means to an end — getting the best possible policy advice to government, for the ultimate good of the people.

Policy advice that is, in common parlance, “frank and fearless”.

Advice to guarantee public trust

But what exactly is “frank and fearless” advice? To me, it is advice:

  • that provides the information ministers need, as well as the information they might want, to make a decision;
  • that deals honestly with issues, including those that are difficult and complex, and ensures that ministers are not misled;
  • that is fair, objective, and that ignores a public servant’s own private or political interests;
  • that advises ministers of risks and potential outcomes;
  • that adds apolitical value to the commitments of the government of the day;
  • that is politically neutral, but not naïve, allowing the public service to provide trusted advice to successive governments;
  • and above all, that respects the right of democratically elected governments, having received that advice, to pursue their lawful policy agenda, with the expectation that their agenda will be implemented faithfully and diligently;

Ministers may use this advice, or they may ignore it completely, in deciding policy — that is their prerogative.

It is our privilege to serve and advise the government of the day. And with this privilege comes a responsibility to maintain trust and confidence in the institution of the public service by diligently implementing lawful government decisions and providing frank and impartial advice.

A leadership challenge

Providing this advice requires leadership.

It is not always easy or comfortable to speak truth to power. But it is what is required if we are to act consistently with Westminster principles and advise, assist and, importantly, influence the government of the day.

In an environment where advice is contestable, and can be sought from parties that have no obligation to be neutral, it is important that the government trust the public service to implement their decisions loyally and efficiently.

Our credibility and our influence with government would be called into question if the public service repeatedly recontested decisions, or stymied or frustrated the government from implementing their stated policy commitments.

On the other hand, a public service that is too responsive to government, that provides a minister only with advice that is politically palatable, that concerned itself with the electoral fortunes of Ministers, would also fail in its brief.

It is always in the government’s interest to be made aware of the consequences their proposed policy may have. A policy that fails, or that has unintended outcomes can not only damage a state’s society or economy, but also be politically and electorally damaging.

Public servants therefore best serve the public by providing exceptional service to the government of the day, giving them the advice and information they need to make the decisions that they have been elected and entrusted to make.

Institutional stewardship

As the head of the VPS, I have an institutional stewardship responsibility to maintain the integrity of the Victorian public service as a trusted, apolitical public institution.

It is a role that I take very seriously.

Being a public servant is more than just a job; we have an essential public function to influence government decision-making through professional, frank and apolitical advice. This is what distinguishes public servants from fee-for-service consultants and political advisers.

It is the job of the public service to influence government decision-making, to have a relationship with decision makers that is underpinned by mutual respect and trust, that allows for a frank exchange of views and communication of high quality advice that is uncompromising in its impartiality and that is squarely apolitical and non-partisan.

As I recounted earlier, it is also the job of the public service to implement the government’s lawful decisions without repeatedly contesting them.

A view has been offered from a particular quarter that it is in stark contrast to this view.

This view would hold that we remain obliged to recommend courses of action that we, unelected, largely anonymous, public servants, consider are in the best interest of the state, even after a government has publicly committed to a position.

Moreover, this view would have us believe that a failure to do this amounts to a failure to offer frank and fearless advice to our political masters.

Followed to its logical conclusion, this point of view would appear to permit public servants to refuse to enact lawful government decisions on the premise that we are the best judge of what is in the public interest.

For a public servant to hinder progress to implement a lawful decision, constantly recontest that decision, or refrain from actions that follow from a lawful decision of a minister, would be to fundamentally undermine the Victorian Public Service as a trusted and apolitical institution.

Perhaps more concerning, this approach to offering “frank and fearless” advice risks undermining the integrity of our democracy by eroding longstanding conventions that are at the heart of the Westminster system of government.

In contrast to this, I am committed to exercising my leadership in support of good public governance. And I find myself in excellent company in the form of the Victorian Secretaries Board and the executive service generally.

The VPS continues to acquit itself with distinction to the task of serving the Victorian government in a manner that is consistent with standards demanded of us under the Westminster system of representative democracy, our statutory requirements, and the public sector values of responsiveness, integrity, impartiality, accountability, respect, leadership and human rights.

I am proud to be its head and proud to number you, my fellow Fellows and more broadly, as my colleagues.

This is an edited version of the speech delivered by Chris Eccles to the IPAA Victoria Annual Fellows Dinner on November 18 in Melbourne.

Author Bio

Chris Eccles

Chris Eccles is currently secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and head of the Victorian Public Service. He has held equivalent roles in the NSW and South Australian public services.