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

By David Donaldson

August 15, 2016

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.

“Search and destroy inside [government] actually can be right. Having been searched out and destroyed by central agencies a couple of times in my career, looking back, I was a smart alec and they were right,” he told the conference.

“Line departments play a little game of trying to split the centre … There’s always a get square with agencies that try that.”

Tongue, who was in charge of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet before taking up his current job, said sometimes those public servants needed to be reminded of the government’s agenda, or even smacked down.

For central agencies, it’s all about managing risk.

Considering why some issues are brought into the centre of government from line departments — such as his own portfolio of Indigenous Affairs — Tongue said this created its own risks, but also opportunities. Of course it gives greater access to the Premier or the Prime Minister, but it also increases the chances that agendas end up being shut down if they’re risky and too proximate to the leader.

And of course the centre of government is not one single point — depending on where you are in the Budget cycle, Treasury and Finance or DPC/PM&C will have more influence. It’s possible to play them off against each other for your own agenda, but it’s not a good way to make friends.

“There are some issues where the practical concern of the Premier is not the practical economic concern of the state Treasurer, and that can be a way of thinking about how to manage some issues,” he said.

“One of the things that line departments try and do is play a little game of trying to split the centre, trying to find the issue in an agenda that prises apart Premier’s and Treasury. There’s always a get square with agencies that try that.”

Then there’s the PMO. The private office is much more influential than it was even ten years ago, Tongue noted. This means if public servants or NGOs can convince them to take their side it can be a powerful tool to make change, but this kind of attention is difficult to control.

“Be careful what you wish for. I describe it as being loved by a 900-pound gorilla,” he explained.

The leader’s advisers have very short attention spans, and things move fast. You might be flavour of the month for a few moments, but it can flip — “then you’re enemy number one.”

“When the government decides to love you it can be a really unpleasant experience. So you just need to go in with your eyes wide open when you take that route, be absolutely clear about what you want,” he explained.

He recommends bringing something new or different when pushing your agenda with Treasury or PM&C, and being strategic about your timing. Sometimes it’s worth waiting months or years for the right conditions, or repackaging your issue to fit the times — domestic violence, for example, can be viewed through the lens of economic, housing, justice, or other types of policy.

Tongue said that as a senior person within PM&C his diary time is tight. Sometimes he doesn’t even know who is trying to talk to him. Finding ways to get to the central agencies and challenge them with new ideas can be difficult, he said, “but I do challenge you to try.”

“If you have a really good idea whose time has come, you have a good chance of getting it done.”

About the author
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Geoff Edwards
Geoff Edwards
6 years ago

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.

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals