If public servants could just “talk like normal people” more often, the administrative side of government might start to gain more respect in the eyes of the public. And perhaps they should stop referring to groups of people and organisations that make up the community as “stakeholders” and thinking of them as “outsiders to be managed” as well.
These were among the observations made last night by economist Gordon de Brouwer, whose time as secretary the Department of the Environment and Energy comes to an end today.
The “culture that writing must be impersonal, detached and detailed” was hindering rather than helping the public service, he told a group of Institute of Public Administration members, including most other APS secretaries.
This leads to “lots of bloodless prose, passive verbs and convoluted sentence construction, and long lists with lots of brackets, inanely explaining terms or stating the completely obvious” which frustrates ministers and alienates public servants.“Listening to Aboriginal and Islander people, I have come to better appreciate the need for reconciliation and recognition, and the practical importance of acknowledgement of country as part of these processes.
Having to interpret this impenetrable language in briefs from his own staff was one thing that regularly broke his normally calm demeanour over the years, he said, although their readability had become noticeably better in recent times. This drives ministers crazy, too, he added.
“Think then of how the public responds to this secret language,” de Brouwer said. “Clear expression shows that you can put yourself in the mind of others and that you think clearly, both of which are essential to being persuasive.”
A decline in public trust is not just a public service issue, he acknowledged: “There is a lot of commentary about declining trust in politicians, public administration, business, media and others; pretty much everyone is in the public’s sights.”
Public servants can’t turn the tide of misinformation and the sophisticated commercial and political propaganda that whizzes around these days with great speed – but they can be a force for good by elevating the research that is not advocacy or activism but comes from non-partisan, or at least less-partisan, sources.
“So in terms of how public servants build the public’s trust, it comes down to how we talk with the public, how we treat them, and how we ensure that we provide, rationally and without advocacy, the information they want and need to make informed judgments and decisions,” de Brouwer said.
“While there have been lots of specific reviews and there are lots of policies to do this, it is timely to reflect on how well we are doing and how well we are positioned as a public service for the future in a very different and digital world.”
He reflected that growing demand for more public accountability through the 1990s and 2000s had led to government agencies reporting on an increasing number of inputs and outputs “thought to be related to outcomes” which had created “a whole lot of process” and increased risk-aversion.
“In a world where public servants are accountable for myriad inputs and outputs, they have an incentive to try to directly control those inputs and outputs where they can, tightening bureaucratic controls on members of the public when they interact with government through regulation, transfers or programs,” de Brouwer said.
“The system technically shifted back a notch in 2013 with the introduction of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act to a focus on outcomes, risk-taking and greater responsibility within agencies, and a greater focus on deregulation, but the culture and habits of process, caution and direct control run deep.”“Clear expression shows that you can put yourself in the mind of others and that you think clearly, both of which are essential to being persuasive.”
The thoughtful economist told his fellow public servants to remember that language also really matters in terms of how they frame issues and concepts like Australia’s national interest.
“Framing the problem matters because it can determine the scope and quality of solutions to problems,” he said. “Language matters.”
One example was the separation of a nation’s economic and strategic (security) interests in the international relations field – a topic particularly relevant to Frances Adamson, the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who has taken over from de Brouwer as IPAA ACT branch president.
“To put it crudely, in a polarised debate, it makes our economic interests sound unstrategic, dismissed as the pursuit of greedy businesses, blind and perhaps even inimical to our long term security. This framing is insidious. It walks away from income, wealth and jobs.”
Use multi-disciplinary approaches
De Brouwer also spoke up for the value of multi-disciplinary approaches in the public service, “with a focus on implementation and delivery” – marked by “active and open conversations within, between and outside of agencies, in using and integrating different ways of thinking early in the process rather than at the end” but not every minister and department trying to do everything.
Economics, his own field and that of many other senior public servants, is not very useful on its own in public policy and neither is any other one academic discipline, de Brouwer said. Bringing in different professional and personal perspectives produces policy the public are more likely to accept.
“What matters in public policy is not just whether the idea is good but whether it can be implemented and is durable.
“It’s no use having an analytically superior idea if the policy cannot be implemented or implemented well. And it is no use having an analytically strong policy if it makes no sense to the public and it won’t endure or stick. The ranking of solutions turns not on whether it is the best based on first principles.
“Rather the recommended proposal in public policy revolves on good, principled insight that works in practice and makes sense to people.”
Treat middle managers like adults
Middle managers are supposed to be “the heart of public sector management” but de Brouwer thinks senior executives end up doing their work for them far too often.
This happens because of risk aversion, he suggested, but these staff – Executive Level 1 and 2 in the APS – miss out on the opportunity to grow and learn professionally because they are not treated as mature professionals
“My sense is that, over the years, as problems have occurred or mistakes been made, management of issues and briefing responsibilities have been progressively elevated and sometimes centralised,” he said.“What matters in public policy is not just whether the idea is good but whether it can be implemented and is durable.”
It’s usually unintentional, he thinks, but Els are being denied the chance to “learn on the job and hone their analytical, conceptual and communication skills and judgment” – and this is quite dangerous, he argued, as it only weakens the next generation of senior executives.
“I think this resonates personally with us all: frankly, we thrive and are motivated to do our best when we are given responsibility and treated like adults.”
He then set out three ways to deal with “over-management” and allow the public service to function how it is is supposed to, according to the APS Commission’s official work level standards.
This included incentives aligned to the standards “so people are rewarded for doing their job and empowering their staff, able to learn from mistakes, and penalised for malfeasance or deliberate negligence, but not failure” – and cutting out at least one layer of senior management.
Hope for reconciliation
Gordon de Brouwer had many more things to say, which you can read in his full written version of the speech or watch on video, including heartfelt thanks to his long-serving executive assistant Jane Ferguson, and to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have shared their deep traditional knowledge of land mangement.
He said “experiencing the warmth, generosity and insight of Indigenous people, and coming to see and value their knowledge, culture, spirituality, meaning of country and personal histories” had been one of his most profoundly life-changing experiences.
“Listening to Aboriginal and Islander people, I have come to better appreciate the need for reconciliation and recognition, and the practical importance of acknowledgement of country as part of these processes.
“As we celebrated the anniversaries of constitutional reform and the Mabo decision, I reflected on how, at the time, these events involved uncertainty and, especially in the case of Mabo, a lot of fear and serious concern. But when we look back at them now, we see them as inevitable, good and major successes.
“My hope is that, as we discuss the next steps of reconciliation and recognition, we also mentally look ahead 25 and 50 years and can see uncertainty give way to celebration and pride in being the people we will be.”