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Verona Burgess: are public servants so terrified of putting their heads above the parapet?

Secretaries and agency heads at the APS End of Year Annual Address for 2017.

Canberra sticks to type, railing against gotcha games and handing out stone tablets, and with much-practised expertise, ignoring its own wisdom about the opportunity cost of risk-aversion. Will this time be different, asks Verona Burgess.

When Australia’s top mandarin speaks, the Australian Public Service listens, and listen they did in droves on Monday evening at the National Gallery of Australia when Martin Parkinson gave his annual end-of-year address.

Just how much the audience took on board, however, is another matter, especially about the need to be less risk-averse: in the ensuing Q and A, not one question was taken live from the floor, although a couple of brave souls did try to raise their hands, to no avail.

Instead, the questions to a panel of three secretaries – Renée Leon (Human Services), Kerri Hartland (Employment) and Chris Moraitis (Attorney General’s) – were sent from people’s mobile devices and relayed anonymously by former deputy public service commissioner Stephanie Foster from her laptop on stage.

This is useful for those not present, since the event was being streamed. Yet there was something eerily risk-averse about its being used by those in the actual room. Are public servants so terrified of putting their heads above the parapet that they won’t even ask a question openly and directly in an essentially friendly forum?

As reported, Parkinson used his speech — hosted by the Australian Public Service Commission and the Institute for Public Administration Australia — to hand out a few stone tablets. (watch the video filmed by contentgroup below).

These took the form of three burning questions for the public service, which, as he put it, “go to the heart of whether we are truly ready to build a service capable of meeting the challenges of the next quarter century.”

They were: ‘How well do you know the public that you serve?’; ‘How ready for disruption are you?’; and ‘What’s your big idea – what big policy idea or program could you achieve for Australia?’

Of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas if, in discussing the need to learn from failure and to ‘fail fast and pivot’ he hadn’t also taken a brief swipe at the Australian National Audit Office and Senate estimates committees for ‘gotcha games’ that, he said, “may give everyone a thrill but they fail miserably at improving the quality of public service and instead, what they end up doing is encouraging inertia and mass risk aversion.”

Perhaps so. Or perhaps the public service just has to accept that the Senate is likely to remain as active as ever at committee level and there’s a newish Auditor-General, Grant Hehir, in town. Every auditor-general has his (or her, but there hasn’t yet been one) style and as an independent officer of the parliament Hehir has a 10-year statutory tenure, so will probably outlast most of the current secretaries.


Asking whether the public service was fit for purpose for the next quarter century, Parkinson referenced the Coombs royal commission but didn’t advocate a new one, although the idea is gaining traction elsewhere after former defence secretary Dennis Richardson belled the cat in July.

Instead, Parkinson disinterred a recommendation of the May 2010 Ahead of the Game public service blueprint chaired by his third-last predecessor, Terry Moran, and released three months before Julia Gillard toppled Kevin Rudd, who had accepted and funded all recommendations.

“I think a case can be made for the APS to conduct a regular, non-partisan citizens’ survey,” Parkinson said. “If it’s non-political, and focused on citizens’ experience of, and engagement with, the APS, I think this would both help us frame policy better and alert us to where programs or other interventions are failing. Now, I’m not underestimating the challenges here, or the criticism likely to come my way if we did this. But to support the idea that the APS could undertake such regular surveys, while remaining non-partisan, I think it would be important to make the survey results publicly available, albeit perhaps with a lag. Anyway, I throw that out simply as an idea.”

The original idea was in recommendation 2.2 of the blueprint as ‘a survey of citizens’ views on their satisfaction with government programs, services and regulation, to inform government business’.

It never came to fruition, mostly due to the leadership coup and the fact that the Gillard government ultimately pulled the funding. What appetite the Turnbull administration might have for an idea that rose and fell under Labor remains to be seen.

The idea was not new even back then – the original Canadian Citizens First survey had taken place in 1998 – but part of the modern context is the almost deafening clamour for more citizen engagement in government.

Another part is the legendary ‘Canberra bubble’. Then there is the associated elephant in the room – the coalition’s (but mostly National Party’s) much-hated pork-barrelling public service decentralisation policy, allegedly still on track despite the disappearance from parliament of its main patron, Fiona Nash.

“For private sector organisations, success depends on knowing their customer base intimately; knowing what they want before they know it themselves,” Parkinson said. “Our clientele is the entire population of Australia. How well do we know what they want or think, how they engage and make decisions, what shapes and drives their daily interactions? Do we understand their diversity – the challenges for communities in regional and remote Australia, the experience of minority groups, the perspective of big business, small business and innovators? In 2018, I want you to get to know the public we serve better.”

Amen to that and happy Christmas to all.

Top image by RLDI, courtesy of the Institute for Public Administration Australia.

Correction: Chris Moraitis was incorrectly listed as secretary of Foreign Affairs instead of Attorney General’s Department.

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.