FRANCESCA BEDDIE. Renewing democracy must include honing public servants on the job.

Jul 2, 2018

These days, opinion polls and surveys provide the basis for many a proclamation about the state of the world. According to the 2018 Lowy Institute Poll, only 47% of Australians between 18 and 44 years of age say ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’. As someone who still thinks of democracy as the least-bad system of government, that figure alarms me.

As a former public servant, I wonder what role the public service has in revitalising interest and faith in the democratic system. Another poll or ‘national attitude research’ conducted by Essential Media and the Centre for Policy Development in 2017, found that ‘Australians don’t just want more effective government — they want a more active government with the courage to take on ideas’. Former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), Terry Moran, concluded from this: 

The starting point for renewing Australian democracy is to reinvest in the creative elements of our public services, enriched as they must be by direct experience of the services that Australians expect the government to provide. 

The Conversation recently ran an article about a third poll, the Future of Australia’s Federation Survey, which collected the views and experiences of officials engaged in policymaking and service delivery across federal, state and local government. Associate Professor Ron Levy’s analysis of their answers found: 

attitudes of elitism among public servants, which effectively led them to resist public input. The public servants’ animating assumption – often wrong – was that members of the general public lack the capacity to deliberate well on broad policy directions.

Levy went on to argue: 

We should, therefore, reject the myth that policy-making is purely technical, legal or scientific, and can be conducted in a vacuum. Most policy-making has to rely in some way on consultation with citizens to determine what public values should steer policy.

I’m not sure of the source of this myth. It could stem from the contemporary divisions of responsibility between ministers and their officials, with the latter deemed to be responsible for administration, not policy, often a trick to limit the extent to which ministers can be blamed for mistakes in their departments. It is not a myth that policymaking is increasingly complex. Nor would any modern public servant think they operate in a vacuum. If anything, they are now too acutely aware of the politics swirling around their work and of public reactions to almost anything. 

Still, Levy has a point about the distance between policy developers and the citizenry. There is often a geographical isolation, something under scrutiny by the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation. I don’t doubt there is also an element of arrogance. Other elements are important too. The cycle of government, three years at most in the federal arena, doesn’t give adequate time for building institutional support for a deliberation. Nor is it easy to reach the ordinary citizen or intended beneficiary of a government program. Take skills policy. ‘Industry’ is consulted endlessly about what skills it needs, how it would like these delivered and paid for. But it is not individual employers who come to the forums or respond to researchers’ surveys; it is the people representing them (usually a small bunch of the same individuals) who turn up, people with much more in common with the public servants than their constituents. 

Let’s hope all this survey data will feed into the review* the Prime Minister has commissioned into the Australian Public Service (APS). The review website states:

The APS needs to be apolitical and professional, agile, innovative and efficient — driving both policy and implementation through coherent, collaborative, whole-of-government approaches.

Let’s unpack this motherhood statement. 


What does it mean to be apolitical in today’s hyper-political climate, with its 24/7 media cycle and social media vitriol? Advice must take account of political realities and government policy and the electorate’s views. It must be fearless. That requires deft analysis, which sets aside one’s own political views, and a mastery of straightforward, respectful language. 


Professionalism in today’s public service requires a blend of technical expertise and generalist skills. The APS needs people who can think big and synthesise good ideas, as well as understand specifics and analyse the constant flow of data. It’s a team effort, that also requires good management and a strong public ethos. 

Agile and innovative

A hierarchical organisation is unlikely to be agile or innovative. And consultation takes time not always available when policy is determined by ministers’ diaries. To nurture these attributes will take a lot of restructuring but first it demands a greater appetite both within the public service, as well as in parliament and the fourth estate, for risk, evaluation and learning from mistakes. 


An efficient organisation must achieve maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense. Instability in departmental structures and remits, combined with cost-cutting, policy uncertainty and rushed implementation, make efficiency elusive. One apparent solution, out-sourcing, has not only seen monumental wasted effort and expense, it has also stripped the public service of its corporate memory and internal competence.

What next? 

To realise the ambition of a skilled, creative, consultative public service will require, bland though it sounds, investment in its people. The attributes listed above are not easily bought in. Policy development; communication with ministers and the public; collaboration across government and with clients are all skills best honed in the workplace. Some external expertise and perspective is good and necessary, especially because solving many wicked policy problems requires collaboration with business and communities. Public servants should be drawing on evidence generated across society. For example, the current head of PM&C, Martin Parkinson would like to harness more from behavioural economics to make sure ‘our services actually suit the person who receives them, instead of the organisation delivering that service’.

Renewing the vitality of Australian democracy is not only about the skills of public servants. We also need to revisit the way citizens learn about our parliamentary system and about how they can best engage with their elected representatives and the public servants there to carry out government policy. And we all need to be able to judge for ourselves whether all these polls and surveys are indeed telling us what the people think. 

*The APS Review Panel is calling for submissions in response to the Terms of Reference. The closing date for submissions will be 11.59pm AEST Friday 13 July 2018.

Francesca Beddie worked in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, AusAID and in the ministerially owned company, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. She is co-director of Make Your Point, a consultancy offering communication training, writing and editing services.

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