Walking the line: DFAT boss on policy and separation of powers


Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Peter Varghese capped off a 38-year career this morning with an insightful oration on the importance of democratic institutions, and their fragility in the face of rapid social and technological change.

While the key “anchor points of our liberal democracy” — parliament, cabinet, the judiciary and the public service — along with a free media, individual rights and the free market, are taken for granted, they must be defended from these powerful forces, said Varghese.

“In the public imagination, institutions are seen as belonging to the past and a repository of stuffy traditions,” he said in a valedictory address to the Institute for Public Administration. “In truth, institutions are fragile, living organisms, easily weakened and hard to repair.”

WATCH: Full video of Peter Varghese’s valedictory address

Varghese described two key factors that make for “a strong public service in a liberal democracy” starting with “a clear understanding of the division of labour and authority between the public servant and the minister”.

“Knowing the division of authority … also means knowing when to protect the boundaries,” said the DFAT boss, who will soon become chancellor of his alma mater, the University of Queensland.

“Ministers should know and respect these boundaries, and most of the time they do both. Ministerial staffers can sometimes have a less developed understanding of the boundaries — usually there’s a direct correlation between the age of the staffer and depth of his or her understanding.”

“We must rebuild, at both the public service and political level, a capacity for deep policy thinking.”

But it doesn’t do for a public servant to spend too much time worrying about the behaviour of political operators; that is for the public to judge, after all. Varghese places “ultimate responsibility” for keeping the bureaucracy apolitical at the feet of the bureaucrats and particularly leaders like himself.

“I have little sympathy for public servants who say they’ve crossed the line because of pressure from a minister or a staffer,” he said.

“Their duty as a public servant is to know where the line is and ensure they stay on the right side of it.

“And it is 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.”

To aid other defenders of “the line”, he described some behaviour that should never be tolerated from ministerial staffers.

“There is 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,” Varghese said.

“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.”

The retiring secretary does not agree with those who say the public service has already become “politicised” in terms of being subordinated to a particular party’s agenda.

“That said, retaining an apolitical public service is not helped by the disturbing trend for incoming governments to sack some secretaries,” added Varghese pointedly.

“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 and 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.”

“I have little sympathy for public servants who say they’ve crossed the line because of pressure from a minister or a staffer.”

He also spoke on the nuanced situation where a modern mandarin must consider the way the political winds are blowing, when putting forward policy advice, while at the same time avoiding being sucked into the political agenda.

Political considerations are one of “several variables” according to the DFAT head, “but it is not the job of a secretary to tailor advice to suit the political agenda, and it is unwise for secretary to second-guess political calls,” he added.

“That is neither our job and nor are we much good at it. We should leave that to ministers.”

‘We must rebuild the capacity for deep policy thinking’

Varghese’s second point was that the importance of “the line” and the proper division of authority between the machinery of government and its ministerial executives should not stand in the way of a strong policy development partnership.

He told the IPAA ACT audience he noticed a trend towards implementation and service delivery dominating the work of public servants, with less time and energy devoted to policy development.

“Retaining an apolitical public service is not helped by the disturbing trend for incoming governments to sack some secretaries.”

“Deep policy thinking is an area where our system at both the political and public service levels has struggled over the past decade,” he said. Governments often came into power with headline policy ideas but little deep expert analysis and looked to their policy departments to “fill in the gaps”.

“The public service, meanwhile, has lost depth when it comes to policy thinking,” said Varghese.

“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’m not sure how we 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.”

In the incisive and extremely precise language of a true career diplomat, Varghese acknowledged that it could just be that the challenges these days are harder, and that people will soon learn better ways of dealing with the fast pace of today’s world — the “tyranny of the current” as he called it — and find more time for long-term thinking.

“Knowing the division of authority also means knowing when to protect the boundaries.”

He also denied his thoughts came from a place of nostalgia or an imaginary “halcyon era” that never really existed.

“However we got here, we must find a way out,” the DFAT boss urged.

“We must rebuild, at both the public service and political level, 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.”

More optimistically, he thinks public servants stand a better chance of “regaining policy depth” than political parties, because he feels the bureaucrats at least recognise the problem whereas most politicians are yet to.

He also talked about the importance of integrity — of people following the code of conduct and the corrosive effect of being seen not to — and his take on the nebulous concept of “vision”.

The best path for public service transformation and improvement, according to Varghese, is what he terms “radical incrementalism” rather than the often empty evangelism of change.

“The public service needs to shift gears and sharpen up but it doesn’t need to reinvent itself,” he said.

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