Communicating with influence: empathy makes all the difference

By Stephen Easton

December 5, 2017

Steven Kennedy

“Good ideas are the currency of good government,” according to one of the Commonwealth’s newest secretaries, but they don’t count for much if nobody listens to them.

Steven Kennedy, who heads up the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, thinks some of his colleagues in the upper levels of the bureaucracy don’t stack up very well in terms of a common selection criteria: the ability to communicate with influence.

“I have worked with many highly talented senior staff whose sort of greatest strategy for convincing the community or even a politician about why they have a good idea is to keep explaining to them why it’s a good idea, and why their idea is a bad idea,” he said at the recent IPAA national conference. “That’s not a great strategy for us being influential.”

There’s a long line of politicians who should share a big serve of the blame for contributing to two aspects of a trend towards cyncism that was under discussion at the conference: the general loss of faith in institutions of government, and the related decline in trust of scientists and experts.

Political leaders are also often criticised for relying on advice from paid consultants, friendly lobbyists or unusual figures like iron ore miner Andrew Forrest, whose Indigenous Jobs and Training Review has been highly influential in government policy.

However federal ministers are rightly unimpressed with the quality of the advice they get from the public service, according to Kennedy, who until recently was a deputy secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

In the central agency, he noticed ministers were often disappointed by the “paucity … of new good ideas to respond to the problems that governments were trying to address” and, more worryingly, felt the APS lacked an “understanding of what the latest good ideas might be” in many cases.

In his personal opening remarks, the new secretary said senior public servants needs to do more of both – generate their own ideas and seek them out elsewhere “so they can translate those into action” – and they need to build more expertise in the business of governing.

Being experts in particular academic fields is important but it’s not enough to be influential, he argued. “Being involved in the climate change debate for seven or eight years has brought that home to me very strongly,” Kennedy said.

“There are points in a debate where expertise is highly valued, where people look at it carefully to try and understand how a debate is unfolding.

“There are other points in a public policy debate when expertise becomes less valued, and in fact a lot of the literature shows that at those points, when people have taken either political or personal or value-driven views on a policy position, expertise is no longer being listened to. Rather it’s being used to confirm their existing position.”

Understanding “how the community shifts and how it engages with that expert knowledge” is a crucial skill that he suggested was lacking in the APS.

Fixing the fundamentals

Kennedy and several other speakers at the conference pointed to statistics showing that generally, the public haven’t stopped trusting frontline public servants like firefighters, nurses and teachers. The problem, he contends, is a loss of faith that policymakers actually have the expertise to solve problems, and a sense that governments don’t really take community engagement seriously.

These are not new skill requirements, the DIRD secretary said, but “enduring features of the public service” that are fundamental to addressing new challenges and earning public trust.

Michelle Bruniges, another relatively new federal secretary who leads the Department of Education, is among those support closer collaboration between departments, different states and levels of government. Concurring with comments from ANZSOG chief Ken Smith and plenty of others, she believes a “patch protection” mentality needs to give way to a more “solution-focused” approach.

“Why does it take a crisis to put our best foot forward?” she wondered.

“I believe that we need to have a proportionate sense of urgency, momentum and commitment to deliver, as hallmarks of how we work together, to plan and develop a stronger public sector network for the future, as an integrated service across organisational structures and levels of government,” said Bruniges.

The federal Education secretary envisages government agencies “transcending those geographic borders, and administrative orders, to better serve the community” and using principles like co-design to face growing uncertainty and societal complexity. She sees “strategic alliances and partnerships within, across and beyond the public sector” as a key foundation.

“It is therefore incumbent upon us in leading the service to look towards better relationships, and effective partnerships and alliances, to close the perceived and often real distance between the public sector and the community,” Bruniges said in her prepared remarks.

She also made some comments that were in tune with Kennedy’s considered perspective.

“We need to exercise increased diligence. The data, the evidence, the policy rationale, and the argument of differential options and impacts provided to inform the government of the day – without this our primary position as policy advisers to government will diminish in the face of active interest from [other] participants in both the public and private sectors.

“If the public service is not seen to be fulfilling this role, community trust in our profession will continue to erode.”

The future might be consumer-directed

Kennedy sees a trend towards more individualised services in attempts at “consumer-centric reform” like the National Disability Insurance Scheme, rather than one-size-fits-all policy with delivery contracted out.

“It will be a very difficult and bumpy process to move away from a model that focuses predominantly on funding through providers to one that tries and allows consumers to draw from a range of options,” said Kennedy.

“And it will be complex, and a difficult change to make, but it will sweep by us regardless, because that is exactly the trend that has already occurred in the delivery of private services, for example, and it’s certainly one I think that is sweeping through the public service.”

The key to being an influential mandarin, he feels, is to have empathy for various sections of the public as well as for the politicians, who need to see how they can convince voters that a particular course of action is the right one.

Public service leaders need to come up with good ideas, supported by evidence-based arguments. But that is not enough; they also need to truly understand those who oppose those ideas and why they prefer an alternative course of action.

In fact, if a view seems completely irrational and unfathomable, but is widely held, it’s a good indication that you haven’t spent enough time thinking about what is behind it.

“Once a debate is associated with values, we have to think very carefully about the way we communicate, because when we’re trying to convey our expertise or knowledge on an issue, we’re often challenging somebody’s values,” said Kennedy.

Once the debate has shifted to this point and most people have taken their positions, there isn’t much that can done. Senior mandarins should have stopped arguing before that point, in Kennedy’s view.

“I think it’s really common in our public policy debate that we don’t put ourselves in the shoes of a citizen, or even of the minister – not to be political, but to understand the political context and the issues that a politician is thinking about when we say, ‘We’ve got this tremendously good idea, why don’t you just implement it?’”

Full videos and highlights packages from the 2017 IPAA national conference are available online.

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