Working with PMO and central agencies like ‘being loved by a 900-pound gorilla’

Andrew Tongue knows a thing or two about working at the centre of governments. The PM&C associate secretary explains the right and wrong ways to get on the agenda, and why being “searched and destroyed” isn’t all bad.

For those outside central agencies — whether in line departments or the civil society sector — working out how things run is key to getting your issue on the agenda.

Andrew Tongue, a key leader at the centre of the Commonwealth as associate secretary for indigenous affairs at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, gave some insights into how it all works at the civil society-focused Power to Persuade symposium in Melbourne on Monday.

Inevitably there are competing agendas, and having your ideas nixed by the Premier’s department or Treasury is a common gripe of those working in line departments — but maybe you’ll end up seeing the wisdom of the decision one day.

As someone who has been “searched and destroyed” on some ideas earlier in his career, Tongue now acknowledges this was the right thing to do.

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  • Geoff Edwards

    This account of the dynamics within the central agencies sounds a long way from the innovative, risk-taking agenda that I thought the Prime Minister was promoting, Andrew Tongue. Making five out of 2 + 2, your account sends the following messages to me as an uninvolved observer:

    * Prime Minister & Cabinet and Treasury have a unitary approach to issues, (presumably a neoliberal one, but that is a different matter) – a collaboration that would seem positively unhealthy as PMC is supposed to be concerned with the entire breadth of issues in society and by the law of averages this should from time to time put it offside Treasury;

    * the Government’s agenda of the day should prevail over any initiative that the public service thinks might be in the public interest – a viewpoint that jettisons the concept of frank and fearless advice;

    * any initiative that becomes risky will be shut down, with personal consequences – a viewpoint that would discourage any public servant from even bothering to try anything innovative;

    * the judgement of PMC and Treasury is always better – no matter how content-weak or short-term their judgement may be;

    * these two agencies know how to settle scores – so much for honest, independent evidence-based analysis, policy is overshadowed by personal get-evens;

    * lobbying the political office though risky is not prohibited – an approach that seems to condone fragmentation, a form of bypassing the role of PMC;

    * the onus for considering implications from a different perspective is pushed back upon line agencies rather than PMC – but by definition line agencies are more likely to take a single-disciplinary approach and not be aware of competing perspectives;

    * a public servant with a bright idea or in-depth knowledge might have to wait years before political circumstances open up an opportunity to bring it to PMC attention.

    It seems to me, Andrew, with all due respect, that the overall message from your op-ed to the average public service manager with a busy workload is, don’t bother coming up with any bright ideas, PMC and Treasury will combine to smother it unless it is already on the PMO’s agenda. If this is really the culture within PMC, then the Prime Minister has no hope of getting his innovation agenda – or indigenous policy – out of first gear.