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Michael Pezzullo: throw open the doors of policymaking

Michael Pezzullo

Strategic direction in the public service should be focused on building a commonwealth of ideas and dismantling the old empire of rules says the boss of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Michael Pezzullo, the latest APS secretary to deliver his ideas for policymaking and administration for the IPAA ACT secretaries series, argued there can be no better rule in government than challenging the status quo — especially groupthink and policy biases.

The modern mandarin cannot afford to let a parochial or self-referential culture build in their department, he said. Instead they must embrace the fact their advice to government will be contested from a variety of other sources, and there is opportunity for government agencies to seek that advice themselves in academia and independent research bodies. He cited CSIRO, ASPI and the Lowy Institute among the key contributors to his own department’s new policy thinking.

“Look beyond the iron cage of the clinical, flat, bureaucratised world,” Pezzullo told the IPAA audience on Tuesday. “We need to invest in policy research and planning … not abstract, but contestable and argumentative, that challenges groupthink and policy biases.”

“While rules will always be central to the effective function of our society and economy, the empire of rules we have build in the past is no substitute for the focus we will need to build the new commonwealth of ideas.”

A new kind of generalist SES

The Immigration department has seen significant turnover in its top ranks since its change in focus in the Abbott government, and Pezzullo reflected on that by warning against reliance on out-dated lore — as opposed to valuable institutional memory. While he agreed with Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay that loss of corporate memory can be a threat to good policymaking, stagnancy was also a problem and a balance must be struck. “I do not agree that this applies to my department … in our case the magic is starting to occur when we blend the long-standing skills and knowledge of [experienced] officers with those of new officers.”

Pezzullo proposed rethinking the current idea of the generalist public servant in an era when administration can be largely done by computers and the government needed more humans with domain knowledge and expertise. “It’s not easy to see how the generalist public servant can keep up with these skills,” he argued. External training and mobility should be the norm, he suggested: “We should not see this as disloyalty. The only loyalty should be in the Commonwealth of Australia.”

In place of the current generalist leader are senior executives who can translate and understand systems, be digitally native, and lead teams who are themselves digitally native with more technical sufficiency than their superiors. “More like a coach and film director [with their own technical know-how] who knows when to get them focused, when to counsel, when to support…”

“A lot of our systems now look more like large automated, telecommunications or banking systems than the paper-based administration of the past. There is no way these skills and body of work are contained in the people who have been working those systems of the past.”

‘Down with templates!’

Pezzullo’s final strategy for building the commonwealth of ideas is fixing the lines of communication inside the bureaucracy. The SES often spend too many late nights re-writing sloppy work, he said, because the skill of writing had been lost in government, mirroring the supremacy of the template, jargon and hackneyed phrasing.

All public service work should make it clear to readers how what is proposed flows logically from first principles, he said. Quoting from Churchill’s demands in WWII: “When meaning was clear in the papers, energy could be spent on deciding the course of action. If it was good enough to insist on clear thinking in the Battle of Britain it should be good enough for us.”

He advised public servants to become familiar with George Orwell’s work on politics and the English language, adding that public servants should at all times be clear and direct, using the active voice:

“Management-speak saps debate and meaning. In management-speak the concrete becomes inert. Active voice should be the grammatical standard. ‘I decide’ rather than ‘it was decided’. Any competent officer in the APS should be able to write 2000 words without seeking the text and template of what was written before, nor cut and paste from previous briefs regardless of whether they are relevant.”

Writing also helps with the creation of ideas by forcing you adopt the logic and thinking that good writing requires.

“The template limits our ability to write quickly because we’re so dependent on it. I insist on writing these remarks myself … if I can do it, we can expect it of others as well. We’re not a literary club, but writing creates new thinking. Down with templates!”

He left the audience with one last piece of wisdom for working with him: “I’ve never knocked back, despite what people think of me, a well-written piece of advice.”

Transcript and video of Pezzullo’s address and Q&A will be published in the coming days.

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Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.