Quit if you think a policy is immoral, and other advice from Peter Varghese


What can a public servant do if they have a moral or ethical crisis about working on a current policy of the government? Put up with it or quit.

That is the stark reality, according to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Peter Varghese — unrelated to his own decision to retire from the public service after 38 years to become chancellor of the University of Queensland.

The open forum that followed Varghese’s extremely well received valedictory speech covered everything from diversity to social media and the “international literacy” of the Australian Public Service, outside of the foreign policy and trade portfolio.

“Seeking to influence policymaking is an entirely appropriate thing, but faced with strong reservations, your options are rather limited.”

Helpfully, he also elaborated on what he meant by saying: “I encourage colleagues to falsify policy.”

“Well, it’s an activity best conducted in private, is the first thing,” explained Varghese. He was referring to the value of testing policy ideas by considering the key facts they rely upon through empirical falsification, to use the term he “shamelessly stole” from philosopher Karl Popper. Popper separated theories or ideas which are scientific — statements of fact that could theoretically be proven or disproven through observation — from those which are not.

Behind the scenes, Vaghese said, public servants must be willing to “take [a] policy apart and then reassemble it, ask the basic questions about what are the underlying principles and objectives behind this policy, and what is the evidence that the policy is working”.

Bringing rigorous scrutiny something like Popper’s scientific approach to all policymaking would inevitably lead to better policies. Separating the questions that have a definite answer from those that do not, Varghese thinks, would lead to “a better alignment” between the rhetoric and the substance of the whole process.

“And both are important,” he hastily added. “I’m not dismissive of the rhetoric of policymaking, because explaining policy is very important. But the best policy to explain is a policy that’s substantive.”

A sense that a proposal might “cross some moral principles” could be among the failings that are identified this way, said Varghese, in response to an interesting question one audience member asked, with reference to policies like White Australia that are now considered “shameful” with hindsight.

But there really isn’t much an individual bureaucrat can do if they feel such strong reservations about a current policy of the government, short of quitting, unfortunately.

“I don’t think there’s an in-between position that you can take,” Varghese said.

“Expressing a view about it in private and seeking to influence policymaking is an entirely appropriate thing … but if you are faced with that stark position, your options are rather limited.

“I don’t think that’s the daily lived experience of most public servants, but I do accept that there may be occasions when they come across it.”

Policymaking takes time, space and collaboration

An especially resonant part of the retiring DFAT head’s speech was his warning about a decline in the capacity for deep thinking about policy. Part of the problem is he sees is the increasing pace of life:

“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.”

He clarified after that he wholeheartedly believes in the value of social media for simple communication tasks. “You’d be a mug not to use the platform if it can help you get your messages out,” said Varghese, explaining that his qualms are more with the distorted view one can get through social media.

“If you’re relying on social media as your interpreter of where the centre of gravity of an issue is, I think in many cases you’re going to be led up the garden path.”

But he doesn’t think the “tyranny of the current” has made major long-term policy work impossible yet.

“I think there is space in the system to do it and you make time if it’s important enough,” said Varghese.

The core skills are still there but the capability he believes has “run down” must be rebuilt. He suggests public servants look at changing organisational structures and how they design their “daily programs and our policymaking processes” to create more time to go beyond the next briefing notes or talking points.

A diversity of views from outsiders in academia, the not-for-profit sector, industry and the “think tank community” can only improve policy development, according to Varghese, who sees the same value in workforce diversity within an organisation.

“We rightly talk about diversity in the public service and increasing diversity,” he said. “Too often we think about diversity as diversity of categories, whether it’s gender or other categories. The real value of diversity as an inherent asset in policymaking is bringing different mindsets to an issue.

“So I think being able to go out and talk to the business community, talk to the think tank community, talk to academia, talk to community groups and non-government organisations, I think that can only enrich a policymaking process.

“Ultimately, obviously, you have to make sense of what will inevitably be very much competing analyses and competing recommendations, but the broader the net, I think the better the outcome.”

What is radical incrementalism?

When Varghese launched DFAT’s new gender equity strategy, the day before his departure from the APS was announced, he spoke of a deliberate choice to “take a step at a time in order to build a consensus and a commitment”.

This could be seen as an example of the “radical incrementalism” that was another central theme of the valedictory address. Although some might quibble with the idea that an end to discrimination is radical, the term refers to setting a course towards an important transformational goal but getting there in small steps.

Varghese thinks this is the way of the future and successful “big bang reform” that transforms society almost overnight will become increasingly rare.

That ultimate goal should be clear and well articulated, he explained in response to one question. In fact, the whole process depends on it, and Varghese thinks “the leading exemplar of radical incrementalism” at the moment is New Zealand.

“If you look across the Tasman, I think the way in which the New Zealand government has proceeded with social policies, economic reforms [and] changes to a whole range of areas in a very measured way, but in a very determined way, is probably an example of how that could operate,” he said.

The head of Australia’s diplomatic corps also believes the APS would do well to develop an “across-the-board understanding” of how other countries deal with more specific policy challenges, which he argues it lacks currently.

“Not bad but could be better” was his assessment of the bureaucracy’s “international literacy” outside of foreign policy circles. There’s plenty of international information, such as that produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, that can be injected into policymaking, Varghese commented. DFAT has also been trying to open up more of the information it receives from its overseas missions to other departments, but he says there’s a lot more work to be done.

Stand up and be counted

In his last opportunity to speak as a federal secretary after 38 years working for governments of various kinds, and of varying levels of popularity, Varghese told his fellow IPAA members that advocacy for their profession was worthwhile.

“I think we’ve got a way to go before we’ve got ringing endorsement throughout the Australian community for the dedicated work of the Australian Public Service,” he joked.

“But it is important, I think, for the public service itself and for political leaders and for others to recognise the important institutional strength and necessity of a strong public service.

“I think it’s very important that the concept of public service and public policy is better understood in the community, because ultimately it is one of the very few points in our system that is not only tasked to look at an issue from a broader national interest perspective, but is obliged to do it, and for the most part, does it.”

“And I think an understanding of that contribution, rather than the kind of stereotypical view of the public service that may exist in the community, is very important.”

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