IPAA baton passes to Gordon de Brouwer

By Stephen Easton

June 8, 2016

A forum where the unique aspects of public sector work can be explored, debated and celebrated is a valuable thing to have, says Department of the Environment secretary Gordon de Brouwer (pictured, left).

He is referring, of course, to the Institute of Public Administration Australia. On Thursday, de Brouwer will take over as president of its ACT Division from Department of Innovation, Industry and Science head Glenys Beauchamp.

He tells The Mandarin that through its events, the institute is a source of inspiration and professional pride for the people who contribute to “making sure the social choices made by governments are implemented well” and all the official advice that goes with it. Through their membership of the IPAA, “they see that there’s value in what they do, there’s purpose in the work that they do, and that it’s recognised,” de Brouwer said.

“If someone misrepresents you, or takes a perspective on what you say that you don’t like, that doesn’t mean you close up shop and never have a public debate again.”

It’s a professional calling that’s often thankless, frequently misunderstood, and regularly maligned based on inaccurate yet enduring stereotypes. These tropes help support the popular economic ideology that sees government as inherently inefficient and wasteful, commonly espoused in Australia by a certain think tank with, coincidentally, very similar initials. But the new IPAA ACT president thinks most of the public sector’s quiet achievers don’t let this negativity get to them.

“It’s a really valuable social role, and a wonderful thing to do,” he enthuses, hastening to add that IPAA discussions and debates centre on practical matters: how to have courage in your role; how to develop and apply sound judgement; and the power of collaboration to get better solutions.

By convention, the ACT branch presidency is filled by a current federal secretary (although the Commonwealth auditor-general sufficed a few years back). Beauchamp, who took the reigns in 2013, recently put the feelers out among her APS colleagues and found de Brouwer an enthusiastic candidate with the full support of the rest of the APS Secretaries Board. Beauchamp told the 20 elected members of the IPAA ACT governing council in an email:

“Gordon … is passionate about the role of IPAA — he very much sees this role contributing to the stewardship and professionalism of the public service, which is something that secretaries need to suport and foster.”

The seven-member executive committee agreed to the appointment three weeks ago, and de Brouwer says the changing of the guard will involve more continuity than change after the outstanding job done by Beauchamp and the inspired choice to appoint Drew Baker as chief executive last year.

“IPAA is not just a public servants’ forum,” he adds. “It’s public administration, which brings in those other people who have a deep interest in public policy as well. It’s bigger than just the public service, which is a good thing.”

What’s really good for public administration is debate

Having a membership that extends beyond the confines of the ACT and federal government workforces helps the group host public conversations around topics that might be a little controversial, says de Brouwer.

“Part of having an informed public policy discussion is IPAA plays that role of facilitating dialogue and conversations around important issues,” he said. “It’s a serious and mature adult conversation, which means sometimes it will have a little bit of controversy.”

“The purpose isn’t to be controversial, the purpose is to have people think and reflect on what really is good public administration and what they can do better and how they can learn. But you can’t have conversations completely in code, and you can’t have conversations always in private.”

Of course, it is difficult for Australia’s bureaucrats to say much publicly about large areas of their work without the risk of losing the trust of their minister, leading many senior bureaucrats to behave somewhat like Victorian-era children: seldom seen and never heard.

“I think the way you deal with that is you bring in people who aren’t necessarily public servants at that point, so they may talk about certain matters that would be harder for a current secretary or a senior public servant to talk about,” de Brouwer explains.

“You can’t have conversations completely in code, and you can’t have conversations always in private.”

Surely, he muses, a mature and open society can only gain from a public debate concerning public policy and the nuts and bolts of the machinery of government, particularly one conducted in a responsible manner.

Sometimes, comments at IPAA events do cause a stir in the mainstream debates about government when they make it into the news. The opinion that has now been aired by several mandarins at IPAA events about the application of the freedom of information laws in recent years is a prime example.

Their modest argument — that the privacy of the back-and-forth process of advising government is as important to the system functioning well as transparency is to keeping the actors within it accountable — was reduced in some quarters to a sinister demand for more secrecy. The new IPAA president thinks the inevitable hot takes on such hot topics are nothing to be afraid of.

“I think it’s fine for people to express their views around it; the debate will continue and having a public debate about it is important,” said de Brouwer. “If someone misrepresents you, or takes a perspective on what you say that you don’t like, that doesn’t mean you close up shop and never have a public debate again.”

Gordon de Brouwer, as then Prime Minister’s sherpa for the G20, meets Barack Obama. Source: PM&C.
Gordon de Brouwer, as then prime minister’s G20 sherpa, meets Barack Obama. Source: PM&C.

On FOI, he says it can only be a good thing for public debate to continue, with public servants making their points and maintaining their position that “trying to hide things” is not actually their true hidden agenda.

“People might want to represent it as that; it’s not that, it’s just that the reality is if you’re trying to convey advice to a minister or a government and that’s always then displayed in public, governments can’t work well. That private conversation matters and, as we know, it also matters that the private conversation is on paper.”

“I think we’re mature and big enough to have a controversial debate about these matters and not to be afraid of a bit of controversy or shy away from it, or retreat at the first misrepresentation of a view.”

Many professions converge in government

Unusually for a professional body, the IPAA is defined by organisational purposes rather than a particular vocation. For de Brouwer, one unique aspect is a “clear sense of the importance of the institution” that arises from the knowledge that the executive power at the top comes from an elected government.

He says strong policy advice and effective implementation requires “drawing on a range of different professional skills and frameworks” such as the natural sciences, law and economics in his department.

“We’re at our best, frankly, if we don’t work in isolation from each other, in terms of our advice, and we really bring the benefits of insights from different disciplines together,” the president-elect commented.

While multiple professions already exist in the public sector, one interesting idea from the United Kingdom is to create specific public service professions, recognising that jobs for generalists are disappearing as new career paths emerge. This concept was endorsed last year by the National Archives, which predicts a growing need for information managers and by Ian Fitzgerald, the chief human capital officer at the Australian Public Service Commission at the time.

The concept of marking out more well-defined career paths “where people can build up their professional expertise and it can be maintained” is worth exploring in conversations about capability, says de Brouwer, who sees “a lot of merit” in the idea.

“It makes it interesting for people, too, if they’ve got a sense that their skills are transferable to different kinds of institutions,” he added.

Evaluation just part of the job

The new IPAA ACT president also stands behind the importance of evaluation, which the organisation has helped steward by taking the 26-year-old Canberra Evaluation Forum under its wing in 2013.

“I think [evaluation is] a constant; I don’t think it ever goes away. Anything to do with evidence-based policy has to have evaluation,” said de Brouwer.

“I don’t see how we can do our job if we’re not evaluating either programs, the nature of our systems or the policy approaches — or even the ideas and the analytics underpinning some of the policy approaches — across government. It’s just part and parcel, frankly, of our job and it always should be.”

Turning the ambitions of government ministers into reality is often a difficult task and the scrutiny can be intense. The IPAA provides a chance to discuss all manner of wonky public sector topics like improving risk management, commissioning and contracting, focusing on outcomes and co-designing with stakeholders in the community. In the end, it’s to everyone’s benefit that public servants bother to get together outside work hours and talk about how they can do a better job.

“Government’s not something you do to people, it’s something the people are heavily involved in themselves,” said de Brouwer. “There’s that sense of open government; you can see that with open data, and the idea of co-designed policies rather than someone in Canberra deciding what to do and then imposing it on people.”

Upcoming IPAA ACT events

  • June 9 — Secretary Series – Peter Varghese — The head of DFAT is stepping down at the end of the month. In his valedictory speech he will reflect on the professional of public service after 38 years in the APS.
  • June 15 — EA Series – Launch Event — A panel of executive assistants including the PM&C office of the secretary’s own Sharon McCluskey will discuss the importance and evolution of the EA role.
  • June 21 – Secretary Series – Martin Bowles — The secretary of the Department of Health will reflect on the changes and challenges impacting on the department as it continues its role as the pre-eminent advisor to government on health policy.

Top image, L-R: Gordon de Brouwer, John Lloyd, Glenys Beauchamp, Peter Shergold and Martin Parkinson.

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