Explain the facts, not the politics, but talk to the public (and media) more

By David Donaldson

Thursday September 29, 2016

Basking in the media limelight is not an aspiration that tends to come naturally to Australia’s public servants. With a few notable exceptions, bureaucrats tend to be neither seen nor heard by those they serve.

Yet while the increasing monopolisation of public discourse by ministerial offices has mitigated risk for politicians, it’s made it harder for journalists to find someone who can explain policy in meaningful depth, scrubbed of spin. This, in turn, impacts on democracy.

In this era of low trust in government, and politicians in particular, should public servants be making more of an effort to explain the facts and the value of the public service to a sceptical populace?

“It’s not good enough to say it’s completely out of our control.”

Adam Fennessy, the secretary of Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, thinks they should.

When he first became a public servant Fennessy’s departmental secretary was clear that public servants should eschew getting involved with the media.

“On the one hand I can understand that political representatives play a very big role in the media, and that is very important,” Fennessy explained at last week’s integrity forum organised by the Institute of Public Administration Australia, Victorian branch.

But bureaucrats also have a role to play. Public servants, senior ones in particular, “do have to be more visible” in discussing issues like public sector leadership and the value of the public service, thinks the media-friendly secretary. Those working behind the scenes need to “have a bit more narrative”.

It’s an ethos Victoria’s head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet Chris Eccles and several other secretaries have put into practice, giving “some very clear speeches in recent times”.

Eccles argued for public servants to make the case for certain policy approaches earlier this year.

“We will have to get better at explaining the nature and importance of outcomes-based policy to the media,” the head of the VPS said.

“After all, it’s the media, with its day-to-day, hour-to-hour, sometimes minute-to-minute attention span that drives a share of the short-termism of modern politics. How can we use modern media techniques to persuade them to take a longer view, get onside, get the public onside and convince incoming governments to stay the course on big-picture policy directions? It’s a crucial question. And it’s not good enough to say it’s completely out of our control.”

Fennessy thinks the attitude to dealing with the media and the public is changing. “I’m also really enjoying seeing other parts of the Commonwealth and state public sectors getting involved,” he added. “So the Commonwealth’s getting a bit more vocal.”

Echoing earlier comments by Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings, Fennessy said that while being more open to the media could be uncomfortable at times, such as during anti-corruption hearings, it’s necessary. In fact, it’s during such times that speaking publicly can have a significant impact on trust.

“It’s so important to have that [reporting] continue and to put alongside that a narrative from public service leaders,” he said.

Stick to the evidence

Setting out the evidence base and explaining how things work are spaces where public servants can usefully contribute to the public discourse while avoiding the perception of bias, thinks Helen Silver, former secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet.

Clearing up the facts without going overboard and gunning for the government of the day can “clearly be a difficult role” for public servants, though as you become more senior the ability to manage the risks “becomes almost second nature”, she tells The Mandarin.

Publicly speaking about public sector leadership and the work of government also gives a human face to what can be seen as a vast, impersonal bureaucracy.

The public service used to play a greater role in explaining policy to journalists, with many access paths now blocked up zealous media units and ministerial offices. It has always been more relaxed in the states than at federal level, but things there have moved in the same direction.

Silver holds the growth of private offices partly responsible. “When you grow something they’ve got to do something,” she notes. “They’ve got to have their time in the sun.”

And it’s not just journalists who have been frozen out by the increasing levels of control — when Silver started her career, private offices were more accessible to public servants themselves, especially junior staff.

“A fun thing to do was go and sit in the Premier’s office and chat about policy,” she explains. Having that access provided great opportunities to develop skills, such as how to deliver a brief.

“If you wanted it you learned,” she says. Though she doesn’t blame government for becoming more risk averse, Silver thinks it’s “sad” some of those practices have been lost.

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Dan of the Whine State
Dan of the Whine State
5 years ago

This is all well and good until you come up against Ministers and their advisers whose egos outweigh their abilities. The propensity for Ministers to push themselves as the public face of education, environment, emergency services etc all too often means taking the credit for the bureaucracy’s policy and engagement work, and then using them as the scapegoat when things go south.
I remember only too well an Executive director telling me that they had been ordered by their Minister to back off from media engagement because their profile was considered too high, despite the fact they were doing an exemplary job explaining policies and issues pertinent to the portfolio.
Good ministers (and advisers) who know when to delegate comment appropriately between political and operational matters are fast becoming few and far between.

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