Peter Varghese: reflections on a most fortunate public life

By Peter Varghese

June 9, 2016

Former DFAT secretary Peter Varghese.

WATCH: Full video of Peter Varghese’s valedictory address

I am an accidental public servant. It was not a career that I had planned or to which I had aspired. When I joined the Australian Public Service under the Administrative Trainee Scheme in 1978 I knew very little about the public service, and the term public policy was not even in my vocabulary. I drifted into the Australian Public Service, largely because I had limited other options.

As it turned out there could have been no better option; no more rewarding a career and nothing more stimulating than the challenges of public policy, particularly in my chosen area of foreign policy.

Shortly I will end over 38 years as a public servant. It might be presumptuous to draw lessons from this career, much less offer advice to the next generation of public service leaders, who will face challenges all of their own. But I do want to say something about the public service as an institution, why the public service matters, the large challenges it faces and why our future will be poorer if they are not met.

I also wish to say a few words about how change in the public service is managed. How should Secretaries go about instituting change? How important are values? How do you make change stick?

My remarks necessarily go also to observations about our political system. So let me say at the outset, because we are in the Caretaker period before an election, that nothing I say today should be seen as a commentary on the election, or on the position or performance of any individual or political party. Indeed, one of the points I wish to emphasise is the need to move away from the tyranny of the current. I hope my remarks will be seen as having a longer shelf life!

The importance of institutions

The case for the public service and public servants is not an easy one to make in Australia. The Australian community is ambivalent about public servants. On the one hand they are seen as rules bound, enjoying overly generous conditions and not particularly energetic. On the other hand, Australians expect a lot from government, perhaps because we began our nationhood as a government enterprise.

We do not have America’s sometimes harsh tradition of individual self-reliance. And thankfully, we have never accepted that the disadvantaged are part of the natural order.

Our convict history has deepened this ambivalence towards government. Australians both resent authority and are among the most law abiding people anywhere. When it comes to government, we tend to both complain and obey.

Perhaps because we inherited our public institutions rather than created them, we have not always appreciated just how important institutions are to good governance. And in turn how good governance is the foundation for the prosperity and security of a nation. Indeed, to make the case for the public service is to make the case for institutions.

In the public imagination institutions are seen as belonging to the past and a repository of stuffy traditions. In truth, institutions are fragile living organisms, easily weakened and very hard to repair. Governments forget this to the long term peril of their nations.

We take sound institutions for granted. And yet they are the bedrock of our society.

The parliament, the judiciary and the executive are the anchor points of our liberal democracy. So are cabinet government, a free media, empowered citizens, and respect for the market as the most efficient means to allocate resources under a regulatory system which protects public safety and the public interest.

These are the institutional touch stones of a successful nation and an effective public service is vital to securing that success.

The relationship between ministers and public servants

What makes a strong public service in a liberal democracy? I would emphasise two key elements.

First, a clear understanding of the division of labour and authority between the public servant and the minister.

Knowing the division of authority between ministers and public servants also means knowing when to protect the boundaries.

Ministers should know and respect these boundaries and most of the time they do both. Ministerial staffers can sometimes have a less well developed understanding of the boundaries. Usually, there is a direct correlation between the age of the staffer and the depth of his or her understanding.

The ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the public service does not cross the line however rests with public servants and particularly their leaders.

I have little sympathy for public servants who say they crossed the line because of pressure from a minister or a staffer. Their duty as a public servant is to know where the line is and ensure they stay on the right side of it. And the absolute duty of a Secretary is to ensure that whenever this becomes an issue, the public servant will have the full support of the Secretary in protecting the line – and that the public servant knows in advance that he or she enjoys that support.

There is, for example, no room in our system for staffers to ask for a submission to be withdrawn or to insist on a particular recommendation in a departmental submission. Or to ask to see a submission in draft. These should be no go areas and all public servants should have the confidence of knowing that when they resist such approaches, they will be fully backed up by their departmental leaders.

We have been fortunate that since Federation we have had a high quality Commonwealth public service working to governments which have for the most part understood and respected these foundational principles. It has also been an adaptive public service which, while it may no longer look like the classic Westminster model, still retains the basic ethos and the ethics of that system.

I do not subscribe to the view that our public service has become politicised, if by that we mean that the institution has been subordinated to a partisan political agenda, as opposed to the fundamental requirement to serve the government of the day impartially.

That said, retaining an apolitical public service is not helped by the disturbing trend for incoming governments to sack some Secretaries. The more often this happens the easier it becomes. It is highly corrosive of the culture of impartial service which is essential to an effective public service. And what signal does it send to serving Secretaries, many still in their forties or early fifties, who look to a renewal of their contracts? We may never go back to it, but there was a reason why Secretaries used to be permanent heads.

Politics of course infuses government and it is absurd to pretend that senior public servants can ignore politics. But this is very different to saying that senior public servants must inevitably play politics.

A Secretary must be aware of the broader context in which his or her advice will be received. That context includes the political context. It is one of several variables which will shape decisions taken by ministers.

It is entirely legitimate for a Secretary to weigh up how political considerations may shape the thinking of a Minister because, at the end of the day, advice has to recommend a practical and workable way forward. But it is not the job of a Secretary to tailor advice to suit a political agenda. And it is unwise for a Secretary to second guess political calls. That is neither our job and nor are we much good at it. We should leave that to ministers.

My second point is that a division of responsibility should not crowd out the opportunity for partnership. Government is not a simple question of ministers making policy and public servants implementing policy and delivering services.

Good policy making is a partnership between ministers and the public service. A public servant should always be thinking about how to improve policy settings. Sure, the final decision on policy rests with the minister or with Cabinet. But departments should be diligent in serving up to ministers deep analysis of policy challenges and options for dealing with them.

In DFAT, we have sought to go further. I encourage colleagues to “falsify” policy. This is an idea shamelessly stolen from Karl Popper who famously argued that knowledge is advanced when we can falsify a prevailing paradigm. What this means for DFAT is that we should always be privately testing our policy assumptions: are our starting points correct; does the rhetoric stand up to reality; is the policy working; can it be improved?

The importance of deep policy thinking

Deep policy thinking is an area where our system, at both the political and the public service levels, has struggled over the last decade.

It is becoming harder for the political leadership to think deeply about new policy approaches. This means that governments come to power with headline policy positions, often without the backup of detailed policy analysis. Once in government they look to the public service to fill in the gaps.

The public service meanwhile has itself lost depth when it comes to policy thinking. And so we have had the two systems, political and bureaucratic, talking past each other and each nursing a quiet disappointment with the other.

I am not sure how we have ended up here. It may be that the relentless demands of the 24 hour news cycle and the technology of instant around the clock communication have fundamentally altered the attention span of our political and bureaucratic cultures.

Technology has changed more than the rhythms of our life. It has made us more connected but it has also truncated our thinking time. It puts a premium on an immediate response, on tasks and information, but not on reflection. Too often we are handcuffed to our i-phones, preoccupied with responding instantly to texts and constantly looking for the next message.

I fear that the combination of a relentless news cycle, social media that can often distort the centre of gravity of a policy issue, and the technology of instant connectedness, has weakened our capacity to reflect and to think deeply.

Not all will agree with this judgement. Some may argue that we are struggling more today because the magnitude of the policy challenges are greater than we have faced before. Or that we are merely in a period of transition and have yet to work out how to balance the tyranny of the current with the need for long term thinking.

In relation to the public service other factors have also been in play. Over the last decade we have seen a significant shift towards implementation and service delivery at the cost of policy work and also a narrower bandwidth when it comes to the time senior public servants have to wrestle with complex policy issues. In other words, the more reactive political environment has also rejigged the focus of the public service, because ultimately the focus of the public service reflects the focus of the government.

This, I should add, is not the voice of nostalgia. The appeal of the short term is not new to our political system. Nor do I suggest that there was a halcyon time when governments always thought long term and came to office with carefully thought out strategies. All governments struggle with competing pressures and none can long afford the luxury of policy purity.

Perhaps, we are also placing impossible demands on our current political leaders. Do we expect an Australian Prime Minister to fit the tongue-in-cheek demands that James Fallows once listed for the President of the United States:

“A president needs to be confident but not arrogant; open-minded but not a weather vane; resolute but still adaptable; historically minded but highly alert to the present; visionary but practical; personally disciplined but not a prig or martinet. He should be physically fit, disease resistant, and capable of being fully alert at a moment’s notice when the phone rings at 3am—yet also able to sleep each night, despite unremitting tension and without chemical aids”

But, wherever we strike the level of reasonable expectations, it does seem to me that the process of long term thinking — and rallying public consent for hard decisions — has become much harder.

However we got here we must find a way out. We must rebuild, at both the political and the public service levels, a capacity for deep policy thinking because without it we will not be able to chart our way through the many economic and other challenges we face as a nation.

And nor can we delegate this work to think tanks, useful though their contribution can be. Good policy making is an iterative process. It involves testing assumptions and teasing out options. It is best done through a close partnership between ministers and their public servants.

I suspect regaining policy depth might prove to be easier to do in the public service than in politics. I say this because I think the public service leadership today recognises the challenge and that is the first step to recovery. I do not know that our political culture has reached the same point of acceptance.

Recovering the capacity for deep policy analysis is urgent because we are at an inflection point in our history. It is not dissimilar to the period after the second world war when the nation had to set out in a new direction and when the political and public service leaderships worked so well together to chart that direction. Or the period from the early eighties when we set out to internationalise the Australian economy; or the nineties when tax and industrial relations policies had to be redefined.

We should keep in mind Lord Salisbury’s pithy observation:

“The axioms of the last age are the fallacies of the present, the principles which save one generation may be the ruin of the next.”

Today we may be at such a point. We face an anaemic global economy. Enhancing productivity is proving difficult. We need to reposition Australia to take advantage of the services demand of the rising Asian middle class. We face an Indo Pacific strategic environment which is being rearranged as economic weight is redistributed. And the Asian growth story is itself perched at a transition point, dependent on politically hard structural reforms in the larger Asian economies to keep it going.

All of these trends have large implications for Australia and Australian public policy. They require deep analysis and a sure footed sense of what we need to do to adapt to a very different regional and global outlook. And that requires strong policy leadership from government and the public service.

This is a big challenge but we should not be daunted by it. The public service needs to shift gears and sharpen up but it does not need to reinvent itself.

The case for radical incrementalism

If I were to give one piece of advice to the next generation of public service leaders it would be to advocate the virtues of radical incrementalism.

In my experience the language of change is often too evangelical, replete with platitudes about change being a constant, with analogies of burning platforms and with dire warnings of Armageddon if we do not reinvent ourselves.

Yes, we in the public service have to embrace change, look for new ways of doing old things, be nimble enough to deal with an international environment which will always surprise, and a domestic budget which will inevitably place more pressures on us.

But we will get there not by radically reinventing ourselves but by working with the grain of our organisation: setting ambitious but achievable goals, articulating sound principles and understanding our strengths and weaknesses.

The only sustainable change is change that is understood and then accepted. Public service leaders who want to begin by overturning everything may be able to point to big early changes. But lasting change can only come when it is embedded in the culture of the organisation. And that takes persuasion and vision and the hard yards of incremental improvements in pursuit of a bigger agenda.

That is why I am a convert to radical incrementalism. It is radical in that it sets out a clear vision, clear principles, clear values. And it is incremental because it recognises that translating vision into reality requires a series of smaller steps. Great leaps forward usually end in tragedy.

History teaches us that messianic leaders have been the biggest cause of human suffering. Certainty can be a great strength but it can also blind us. If we want to change an organisation we have to be prepared to recognise failure; to acknowledge that some changes have not worked and should be abandoned. The public service should not be shy of trial and error.

That is why public service leaders need to encourage more risk taking. Not “crazy brave” risk taking but risks which have been carefully studied and then launched. And once launched, public service leaders need to stand by those who may fail. Ministers also need to back them because abandoning someone who took a reasonable risk is the surest way of ensuring a public service culture rooted in precedent and incapable of finding fresh approaches.

I have made the case for radical incrementalism in the public service. But I think the argument also applies to our broader politics.

Transformational reform is getting harder and harder. The politics of big bang changes has been cramped by the press of media scrutiny, the distorted prism of social media, and the amplification of complaint from those whose interests are adversely affected.

But if big bang reform through large steps is no longer possible, transformation through small steps is and in any event is probably a better fit with our current political culture.

Small steps only work as a strategy however if the ultimate objective is clear and genuinely transformational. This is the essence of radical incrementalism. And it is not to be confused with its evil twin, ad hoc incrementalism, which are small steps taken in the absence of a broader change agenda. The latter is taking up too much space in our political and bureaucratic cultures.

Values and leadership

Whichever way we approach change it needs to be with the compass of clearly articulated values.

Values matter. They are the basic principles that influence our thinking, our judgement and the way we behave. Values help us determine what is right or wrong, good or bad, professional or unprofessional.

They shape how we see ourselves and how we are perceived by others. That is why the APS code of conduct and values are so important to everything we do in the public service.

They need to be championed and defended.

Success in any organisation will be determined by the extent to which it enacts these values and that includes not turning a blind eye when they are ignored or breached.

There is nothing more corrosive to the values of an organisation than when colleagues observe that breaching them carries no cost or, worse still, does not exclude reward.

As an aside I should say that values haven’t always been closely associated with foreign ministries.

Talleyrand, the master diplomat of 19th century France, had some fixed ideas about what values his foreign ministry officials needed.

In describing French foreign ministry officials to his successor he said:

“You will find them loyal, intelligent, accurate and punctual but, thanks to my training, not at all zealous… except for a few of the junior clerks who, I am afraid, close up their envelopes with a certain amount of precipitation, everyone here maintains the greatest calm. Hurry and bustle are unknown.”

Talleyrand, let me emphasise, spoke of an earlier era of foreign ministries.

If values are the bedrock of an institution, leadership is what links values with function and purpose. And central to leadership is a capacity to set out a vision.

Now what George Bush Senior once called the “vision thing” is clearly important. But it is only part of the picture.

Nelson Mandela said this about vision:

“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision is merely passing time. Vision with action can change the world.”

There is a place for poetry in defining a vision. But in my experience the best visions are written in both poetry and prose.

Some valedictory advice

So let me conclude with some valedictory advice – unasked for and freely offered – to the next generation of public servants.

First, public service and public policy matter because they put the interest of the community and the nation first. Other professions invariably have a narrower focus. And no other profession is as capable of achieving lasting change for the better, or the greatest good for the greatest number.

Second, understand the value of institutions and their inherent fragility. The best way to defend institutions is to appreciate their foundational principles and to be true to them. And leaders of the public service have a particular duty to stand by their junior colleagues when they may be pressured to act contrary to those principles.

Third, governance is a partnership between political leaders and public servants. It should never be a partisan partnership. But it does require public servants to understand the political context within which all leadership must operate. And it requires politicians to know and respect the boundaries between politics and the public service.

Fourth, policy making is a serious business. It should draw on evidence but it should also flow from a deep and broad understanding of our country and its history. Silos may work in agriculture but they are corrosive to good government.

Australia has a history of strong cabinet government which is crucial to promoting the public good. A robust cabinet system matters because the public square is an eco system: everything is connected to everything else. A change in one area creates consequences in other areas. As I have noted in another context, the grammar of chaos theory finds a distinct echo in public policy, even if charting the chain of consequences is more art than science.

And finally and very importantly, public service can be a lot of fun. Teddy Roosevelt once said that life’s greatest good fortune is to work hard at work worth doing.

By that measure, I count my time in public service as a most fortunate life.

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