After 33 years in the Australian Public Service including one of the longest runs as a secretary, Jane Halton used her valedictory address to question how the mandarins of the future would learn the “craft” of the professional public servant.
Halton said there was much more time and space to serve a kind of “apprenticeship” and more tolerance for a few mistakes along the way for mandarins of her generation. She believes post-graduate courses that teach how government works in a practical sense are a definite piece of the puzzle, and sees a need for more.“Be heard and worth listening to. Be brave, but not crazy brave … You don’t want to play it so safe that you deliver nothing.”
There is little room for error in the modern public service, “awash with information” and engaged in a crowded contest of ideas. Getting caught up in a “relentless media cycle which spares little time for thoughtful analysis” is now just part of the job.
“While maintaining our apolitical stance, we can get caught in the uncomfortable no-man’s land in the middle of a point of contention and increasingly, this is in the full glare of the media spotlight,” said Halton, who was made a National Fellow of the Institute for Public Administration Australia (IPAA) after Thursday night’s speech.
“The challenge for the APS and IPAA is how do we prepare our next generation and the generation after that for leadership in this kind of environment.”
While the practicalities of professional public service were learnt on the job in Halton’s day, she fears that isn’t possible anymore. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson agreed wholeheartedly when he rose to add a vote of thanks for her years of service.
“The legislative process, Senate estimates — my special subject, and I never missed one — parliamentary committees and how to appear before them … were all things that you learnt on the job,” Halton recalled.
She also listed: “how to advise, formulate options and weigh pros and cons; when and how to communicate; how to work with others, including those enthusiastic [ministerial] advisers; the joy and challenge of stakeholders; and — before it actually got a name — how to practise co-design.”
“What matters in administration and how we run things, the importance of accuracy, how to ask questions and mostly, how to make things happen, were all things that I served an apprenticeship in,” she said. “And of course, I could write a whole thesis on how to work with ministers.”
Other important skills she picked up from those who went before her included writing in plain English instead of dense and precise academic style, as well as “the difference between black-letter law and the art of the possible” — tips like asking lawyers how, not if, something can be done.
“Never,” Halton was told by one mentor, “get final legal advice until you know what it will say.”
“When I was well schooled in the craft of the public sector, there was time for this to happen. I was sent to explain very difficult policy to very angry stakeholders on more than one occasion, spent a lot of time working with state governments, developing and then implementing new policy. None of this I learnt at university and most of it was able to be done away from the glare of the political spotlight and media attention.”
“People coached me and I was able to make mistakes, get my feet singed in the fire but continue walking on now toughened and more experienced foundations. How we will do this for our people going forward is something of a challenge.”
At least part of the answer, she believes, is more specialist formal education like that offered by the Australia New Zealand School of Government, or the Kennedy School of Government in the United States, and ongoing professional development “much like doctors, lawyers etcetera”.
After over 12 years at the Department of Health and almost three at Finance, having managed to impress ministers on both sides of politics, she asked colleagues to contribute to the professionalisation of the public sector:
“Be heard and worth listening to. Be brave, but not crazy brave … be a steward of the present APS, its role and values, and the future.”
At the same time, she believes the public sector is on the right path when it looks outward to other organisations, exchanging temporary and permanent expertise in both directions, and acting based on risk management rather than risk avoidance like some private enterprises. The APS can’t be self-contained, nor entirely self-referencing.
Lessons in personal stories
The latest federal secretary to step down strongly endorsed the thoughts of former Foreign Affairs chief Peter Varghese, when gave his own valedictory address to the IPAA earlier this year, but took a different tack. (Next week is an address from the newest to join their ranks, Department of Communications boss Heather Smith.)
Halton chose personal anecdotes to illustrate how much public service work has changed since the days when she learned the craft, starting with what she absorbed from her father Charles, who was also a federal secretary, and the very difference circumstances for women in the workforce at the time.“Never get final legal advice until you know what it will say.”
Although she learned the arts of discretion, analysis and debate around the kitchen table, Halton also claims to be “another accidental public servant” who nonchalantly went for an APS job with no big career plans.
She recalls sharing the disdain for public servants that prevailed among her fellow high school students, but somehow didn’t see the “disconnect” between the dreary image of public servants and her father’s high-level yet low-profile role.
“Public servants were referred to as pubes — that wasn’t a compliment — and the torrent of beige-coloured … and plaid people heading out at lunch time did nothing to advertise the merits of public service employment.”
One gripping anecdote told of a bureaucrat who lost a briefcase containing carbon copies of documents detailing “a very politically sensitive issue over which ministers lost their jobs” about 20 years ago. Halton read from the file notes she had dug out of the archives, in which “Peter” explains how it happened in excruciating detail. In the end, the briefcase was found, nothing was missing and it didn’t seem to have been opened.
“That official went on to work in highly sensitive areas in the centre of government. There was no leak, and there were no consequences to his career,” she explained.
“Now cast yourself forward 20 years and replay those events. Heads would roll, Twitter would have been on fire and there would have been a race to interview the person on the bus who found the document. It would have hit the airwaves inside the hour and anyone who was caught short by not knowing it had happened would have been spitting chips, and rightly. The consequences of error are just much greater today than ever.”
But there’s no going back to the past, so her advice is to “recognise and manage risk” and know at the end of the day, much as they try, public servants can’t completely outsource and transfer risk elsewhere. Halton hopes the new risk management policy that came in with the PGPA Act, implementation of which goes on, is a “watershed moment” for the APS.
She warned the service “isn’t as advanced as it thinks it is” and progress with implementation of the new risk policy is “mixed” — Finance would give out grades ranging from B to C-minus at this point — and encouraged agencies to appoint chief risk officers.
“We need to lift our game by promoting a positive risk culture, walking the talk, making risk management a core part of doing business, articulating entity appetite and tolerance for risk, encouraging the regular sharing of information with others — and that doesn’t just mean with others in your own department.”“Is it OK that women get interrupted many more times than men in meetings?
Halton values the staff members who are not “intimidated by office” and speak frankly “as an equal” in discussions, although she admitted this was hard for a lot of people. One audience member demonstrated the fact when it was time to ask questions, leading to another interesting personal story, by gingerly enquiring as to how the secretary had kept her job under Labor, after being embroiled in the ‘Children Overboard’ affair shortly before they came to power.
She said the answer was simple, she just “did her job” for the new minister “professionally” and went on to achieve great success with plain packaging for cigarettes under the new administration.
“When you do the job and do it as vigorously for one side as you do for the other — in other words, you are apolitical, you bring your best advising, managing, and every other skill that you bring to bear, to the table — I think it shines through for what it is to be an apolitical public servant,” Halton offered.
“Now we all know a lot of people want to paint us one way or the other. We all understand that but essentially my view is, by your deeds you demonstrate that you are actually apolitical.”
No interruptions, no excuses, take a stand for gender equity
The senior mandarin gave more expansive views on gender equity in the public sector than she has previously. When she joined, women made up only 38.5% of the workforce compared to 58.4% today and were scarce in the executive and senior executive ranks.
The marriage bar had been abolished 20 years before and female public servants comprised 11.95% of EL1s, 6% of EL2s and 4% of the SES, whereas now the figures are 50.8%, 44.1% and 43%.
“I met many women who were still angry that their careers had been interrupted with devastating consequences for opportunity, seniority and pension income,” said Halton, who went on to become the second female Commonwealth secretary in history.
She applauded progress to date on gender equity in particular, and diversity in general, and the current near-universal commitment of the APS leadership to these causes. But, she added, leaders had to be constantly challenged to keep increasing the momentum.
Halton called for new practical measures she believes could help women get ahead in the APS right now, like a ban on interruptions in meetings.
“Is it OK that women get interrupted many more times than men in meetings? is it OK when a women makes a good point in a meeting, the conversation moves on and then the point is repeated by a man two or three speakers later, everyone congratulates him on what a good suggestion he’s made?”“By your deeds you demonstrate that you are actually apolitical.”
Both practices remain common, she said, even where there is rough gender parity and even, she added pointedly, to imperturbable women like herself. She argued women “are actively punished for making themselves heard” and urged everyone to “call out” such behaviour in the workplace.
“Introduce a no interruption rule. Let everyone have an equal say. It’s just not that hard,” said Halton. “I still go to too many meetings where there are few, if any women, and then they say nothing. If you work in a male dominated part of the service, take women with you to meetings and make sure they get a say.”
She also wants the 40-40-20 target to apply in all Commonwealth workplaces, meaning 40% is the minimum for both genders.
“Don’t just agonise about not having enough women to promote to the SES. Find women in the EL cohort who you will target for promotion in the next two years, give them the experience to make sure they make it. Don’t negotiate this, just do it. Others have.”
She assured Virginia Haussegger, the new director of the 50-50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra, that her colleagues’ expressions of support for the cause were genuine:
“I do not doubt for a second that each and every one of my colleagues on the Secretaries Board is completely committed to the diversity agenda. I don’t doubt that, the challenge is what we do about it and that we don’t lose focus on achieving it.”
A gender pay gap around 7% — better than the general workforce — was good but still not good enough.
Current leaders need to “put the energy into” identifying female senior executives of the future now to “get them to a position where they can actually compete” for SES jobs later, and make sure they are more willing to “put their hand up” for them, she added.
The public servants of the future
What Halton enjoyed the most about her 33-year career were the clever and committed mentors, colleagues and staff she worked with, and of course, the feeling that she was making a difference and delivering an outcome.
“And if there’s one thing I can say to you all, you don’t want to play it so safe that you deliver nothing. … We do these jobs because we actually want to deliver something.”
Parkinson gave heartfelt thanks and admiration, and endorsed each one of her parting messages.
“You are absolutely right that we need to focus ourselves on capability and equipping ourselves and our colleagues with the skills to do this sort of job in a very complex, very dynamic environment, and one which will be dramatically different in five years time [let alone] 33 yrs time,” said the head of the APS.
Parkinson ticked off all of Halton’s points but agreed most “strongly and wholeheartedly” with her comments on diversity. “We are making progress but it is not fast enough,” he said, suggesting improbably that “the entire public service” should question “everybody in a leadership position” on what they are doing about it to make his point.
The next two generations that will take on senior leadership and were Halton’s main concern will also bring new skills in working with data, she believes, and their acceptance of short-term jobs and regular career changes will suit a more outward-focused APS that continues to blur the boundaries with other organisations. But at the same time, she thinks a smaller core of career public servants who truly understand the ethos will remain.
The public servants of the future would need to look outside their agencies to find the right expertise to support their advice, decision making, service delivery and purchasing, make more use of shared services and collective purchasing, and adopt the latest management techniques as they emerge.
“They will not need to work somewhere to actually belong. And this is important. As we partner more with those outside and the line between inside and outside inevitably blurs, the core of the APS — its nature and purpose and the values espoused in the act — must continue.”
Halton believes communication is a major weakness of the current APS and plain English is a key skill it must regain.
“It’s hard to be heard in a world that gets noisier and busier by the minute and while this is a criticism of us we need to understand that we are competing for attention and understanding. We cannot exclude others in how we communicate. Short and to the point is often best. How we tweet, write and talk is material to our success. Use language that can and will be understood. If you aren’t heard, you can’t advise.”
And, in in Jane Halton’s view, foresight and continuous adaptation are paramount to future success.
“Anticipation, ongoing adoption of new technologies, expertise and the latest management approaches are vital. Flexibility is crucial. This pressure will become more and more acute, not less.”