MIKE SCRAFTON. Ministers and public servants

Jul 26, 2019

Geoff Gallop offers up eleven theses on Australian politics to provide public servants with a ‘nuanced understanding of politics’. His theses are more than a little condescending and simplistic. The theses seem directed at middle level or junior public servants, or maybe new entrants to the service. However, the nature of the relationship between senior public servants with policy responsibilities and minsters is increasingly an important and fraught issue.

Every public servant who reads a newspaper, or thought seriously as a citizen about the last election, or has chalked up some time in government, would already have a good grasp of the broad content of the eleven theses. Any senior public servant with meaningful experience with ministers or cabinet would consider the generalisations of left and right too abstract to be meaningful.

Contrary to Geoff’s summary, it is not the case that the policy approach on the right is ‘evidence of belief rather than evidence for belief’ and on the left it is ‘[L]et the evidence speak’. All politicians display an ideological predisposition to live with a considerable degree of cognitive dissonance. Evidence is viewed through values, personal and political, that condition how they construct reality and evaluate experience, as with us all. As these ideologies and values have their origins in different social circumstances and life experiences they are found across parties.

The past couple of decades of free trade agreements entered into by Australian governments would not support the idea of a significant difference between them over multilateralism and globalisation suggested by Geoff. They are not distinguished on human rights by their shared failure to meet the obligations incurred in international and human rights law under the Convention of the Status of Refugees. There are some matters which ministers will pursue on the basis of principle or platform or just the assumed political indigestibility of any alternative.

Most frustrating in discussions about the role of the public service in the executive branch of government is the indiscriminate use of the term as a collective noun. Public servants are an extremely diverse group and the moral, political and social impact of the issues on which they have to deal with minsters varies across and within portfolios. The relationship between ministers and their portfolio advisers, and the extent to which politics impinges on, or shapes that relationship, is more often determined by the substance of the policy issue.

The range of issues addressed by government are innumerable and the specifics often unpredictable. Advising the government on these issues are public service lawyers, economists, engineers, scientists, social workers, town planners, psychologists, foreign policy specialists, doctors and health experts, IT developers, spies, police, and generalists. Each will have aspects in common and each will have special features in their relationship with ministers. Each will also have professional standards they need to observe.

In some portfolios political issues will get great weight while in others ministers of any stripe may not be able to avoid taking advice on matters of public safety, prudent financial management, or technical issues. The matters dealt with in some portfolios are quintessentially political. That is, the party of government won a mandate on the basis of offering the electorate particular solutions or approaches to particular problems.

At its heart there is no doubt that Geoff’s implicit overall thesis that in their dealings with minister’s senior public servants, those responsible for engaging with the minister on the development and delivery of policy, require a nuanced understanding of politics. That is a given, and, as anyone having close dealings with ministers and their offices quickly come to realise, politics is always present.

Senior public servants also need to have the ability to gain the trust and confidence of their minister, not only that they are sensitive to his political pressures; more importantly they have to convince their ministers that they fully comprehend the totality of the issues including costs, benefits, risks and saleability of a policy. Over and above the issue and the public politics, senior public servants need to gain a good understanding of the cabinet politics and dynamics and, where necessary, frame the issues in a way that assists the minister push proposals through to acceptance.

It is not necessary that senior public servants and ministers find each other personally likeable; however, when that happens it is enormously helpful to the relationship. But mutual respect and reciprocal recognition of each other’s role in government is generally central to success. Yet, even in strained circumstances, the maintenance of integrity and completeness in advice in the face of political pressure should be non-negotiable.

The two sides of the Brexit negotiations provide a good example. The EU Commission bureaucracy had to find a position on which 27 governments of great political diversity could find unity and which at the same time protected overall EU interests; not just in the break up but in the long term post Brexit relationship. The Commission had to comprehend the whole picture and overcome politics with reasoned argument, facts and analysis. It did this well.

In Britain on the other hand, it appears that the civil service abandoned itself to political imperatives of the government and as a consequence failed to ready the county for the foreseeable prospect of a hard Brexit. The history of the UK civil service during the post-referendum period will undoubtedly be essential reading for future public servants when it is written.

Geoff’s point that public servants need to accept that executive government is deeply political is important. What would be more helpful to current and aspiring public servants would be a nuanced and pragmatic guide to how employ that political awareness in pursuing good governance and providing pragmatic, implementable, and successful policy advice. That’s the hard bit.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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