Should public servants be foxes or hedgehogs?

By David Donaldson

Thursday August 24, 2017

“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing,” asserted the Greek poet Archilocus sometime back in the seventh century BC.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin picked up this fragment and developed it further in 1953, arguing that many of history’s great thinkers could be seen as either a fox — someone who draws on a wide range of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea, including people like Aristotle, Shakespeare and Goethe — or a hedgehog, seeing life through a specific lens — Plato, Dante, Nietzsche or Hegel.

It’s a categorisation that aligns in many ways with the generalist/specialist divide within the public service. Maria Katsonis from Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, whose work often involves being dropped into social policy portfolios to fix problems and shake things up, posed this question at Public Sector Week: should public servants be foxes or hedgehogs?

“The hedgehog views the world through a single defining idea, and because of that, their strength is focus and central vision. With the fox, they draw on a variety of experience, so their strengths are in flexibility, openness, and agility,” she explained.

“Cut through the mess and the complexity for the capacity to decide, the capacity to deliver, and the capacity to build relationships.”

A straw poll at the event indicated almost unanimous agreement that policy makers should aim to be like the fox.

Katsonis thinks this is true — mostly.

This open, curious and generalist approach will help the bureaucracy with “moving away from our traditional capabilities of decision making, analysis, all the kind of quant stuff, to thinking about something that’s going to help us in this contested environment”, she says.

The foxlike policy maker would exhibit a range of qualities. Observation, or the ability to see, is one. “By that I mean, how do we gather our intelligence, how do we gather our data, how do we use the analytics we develop, attention, the ability to focus, what do we know is exactly the problem we’re dealing with in a particular policy issue? How do we cut through the extraneous the white noise?” says Katsonis.

Policymakers also need the ability to focus and a capacity to see and reason. “Our ability to make strong and persuasive arguments to decision makers, because after all we are advisers, and our role is to put the best possible case forward,” she explains.

“How do we imagine, how do we innovate and how do we design solutions? The ability to remember and not repeat past mistakes. What was done in technology policy five years ago? What was done in social policy five years ago?”

Good judgement is extremely important. “When I talk to new policy makers who come and work for me, I tell them … I can send you on professional development courses, but what I can’t teach you unless you deal with it on the job yourself is judgement — learning from your past mistakes, learning how to put forward a particular position or an issue,” she says.

Public servants’ one true north is fidelity to the public good

The final one is wisdom — being reflective and having the ability to make sense of complexity, mess and clutter.

Katsonis noted that this aligned with some work she was part of at the University of Melbourne a few years ago, the Imagining the 21st century public service workforce report. The are three “baskets of capabilities” the contemporary public servant requires, she argues:

“Today what we need to cut through the mess and the complexity is the capacity to decide, the capacity to deliver, and the capacity to build relationships.

“In design you can do a range of things, whether it’s about co-design, working with citizens, having that future orientation. Delivering: market design, commissioning, de-commissioning services. Relationships: how do we have political nous, how do we collaborate, where’s our digital literacy?”

The hedgehog is a useful metaphor for the guiding principles of the public servant too. So the ideal for Katsonis is a sort of fox-plus.

“Fox-like tendencies, combined with that piece of work I did on 21st century public servants. I thought no, we’re not just foxes, now we’ve got a hybrid, I don’t know what that hybrid is, whether it’s a foxhog or something else,” she joked.

“I think the one thing we need to do as public servants, that one defining idea, is maintaining our true north as public servants. That true north is about fidelity to the public good, fidelity to public value, fidelity to public benefit. That must always guide what we do, whether it’s in the immediate short term and the blowtorch of the minister down our back, or having the luxury of six months to develop a ten year policy statement.

“It’s never losing that true north of what makes us public servants. So be like foxes, but also be like the hedgehog.”

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Todd Unctious
Todd Unctious
4 years ago

Whenever I’m stuck in the queue at Centrelink I often ponder whether I’m about to be served by a public servant influenced by Aristotle or Plato. Which school of thought will they bring to bear on my Robodebt issue? Though to be honest I’m secretly longing for someone more influenced by Pythagoras or at least familiar with the calculator app on their iPhone.

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