How the Australian public service really works: power
27 Jan 2021|

Working in the public service can be a fraught game. Senior public servants doing the nation’s business in Canberra play for high stakes. A service career can consume much—even the career itself.

There’s sharp competition within the public service: both between ambitious individuals keen to gain power, and between departments and agencies. Public servants live close to power, witnessing its uses and abuses. They serve politicians who are constantly counting the costs and chances in career-defining terms.

Politicians are entrepreneurs and risk-takers par excellence. On a daily basis they toss the dice, always hoping to beat the odds. They know, too, that as the British politician Enoch Powell famously said, ‘All political careers, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.’ Even at the peak of their parliamentary careers, many of our leaders are wondering what will happen to them when it all ends.

The theory holds that politicians decide what to do and the public service decides how to do it. That’s true up to a point.

It all depends on power—who has it, and how it is used.

Some political leaders understand power well and use it effectively, for good or for ill. In the United States, President Lyndon B. Johnson had an incredible eye for power. And he knew it. As he said, ‘I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it, and how to use it.’ Robert Caro’s biographical series on LBJ is a truly brilliant study of the use of power.

In Canberra, as in Washington, much depends on understanding power: knowing where to hunt for it, being able to grab or guide it, and knowing when to seize the chance to command and control (and spend).

A disarmingly honest view of how this works is offered by the former Liberal minister Christopher Pyne:

It didn’t really matter what the question was, I just had to be told what side I was on and I would find the arguments for it … I’d always assumed everybody was mesmerised by what was going on in Question Time, and now I’ve discovered that they don’t even know when the Parliament’s sitting …

Those people who said that I liked the game more than the policy misunderstood that the game is to get the power to be able to do the policy … I always wanted to be somebody who had the hands on the levers of power.

Public servants must stand close to this fire; they have to work with it, and sometimes walk through it. Power swirls around all senior officials and sets the parameters for their work. They must be sensitive to it in all its shapes, forms and directions.

Vertical power flows down from above, from the minister and the prime minister. Or if you are a middle-level official, it flows from the secretary of the department.

Horizontal power is what flows all through government—political, financial, legal, administrative, military, coercive and rhetorical. Hard power pushes and commands. Soft power attracts and persuades.

Public servants themselves have several different types of power. It’s worth thinking about what those are because every public servant has to grasp and use them.

Negative power. It’s often quite difficult for public servants to take ownership of initiatives, not least because politicians are generally keen to be seen to be the ones who have the ideas and announce the initiatives. But public servants have a great deal of negative power—that is, the power to delay things, and perhaps eventually bury them.

Most senior public servants value their negative power and use it willingly.

One common manoeuvre is to set up an internal committee (often called a ‘review’) and let the chair know there’s no hurry to come up with a report. Another trick is to set up an interdepartmental committee and make sure that representatives of the departments of Finance and Treasury attend: the people who count the dollars can be counted on to contest anything likely to push up the cost.

Sir Humphrey Appleby, in Yes, Minister, when he was worried about a suggestion from his minister, the Right Honourable James Hacker MP, put it like this:

What I mean is that I’m fully seized of your aims and, of course, will do my utmost to see that they’re put into practice. To that end, I recommend that we set up an interdepartmental committee with fairly broad terms of reference so that at the end of the day we’ll be in a position to think through the various implications and arrive at a decision based on long-term considerations rather than rush prematurely into precipitate and possibly ill-conceived action which might well have unforeseen repercussions.

Translation: ‘Minister, not only will your idea be dead on arrival, but it will take a long time to arrive.’

Derived power. The game of ‘I’m Closer to the King’ is a common manoeuvre in the modern version of court politics and the dance of the courtiers.

A good deal of the personal power that influential public servants gather to themselves flows down from more senior levels, preferably from the minister or the prime minister. This, in turn, leads to the game of ‘I’m Closer’.

Often, in meetings, one or another of the participants will try to indicate to others in the room that they are closer to the secretary of the department or to the minister, and that their comments should clearly bear more weight.

To be really effective, it is best that players in the ‘I’m Closer’ game rely on references to personal contacts rather to anything on paper. Paper has the disadvantage that it can be verified, even analysed and used in evidence; in playing at court politics a paper trail can be dangerous.

It’s always best to keep things vague. Comments such as, ‘I heard from the minister’s office yesterday that …’, ‘When I was talking to the minister last week …’ and ‘The secretary told me that …’  are all quite effective. And to mention the prime minister is to play an ace.

Tidying-up power. The power to tidy up after government decisions is where public servants can move the pieces and steer the result to such an extent that the decisions are remade.

Writing up the minutes or the announcement is an important control mechanism; actually ‘implementing’ the decision offers all sorts of authority.

Senior public servants will sometimes coyly express the view that one of the most important things they do is ‘follow up on’ the implementation of decisions announced by ministers and governments.

Ministers and governments tend to have Good Ideas and to be eager to announce things. But often the Good Ideas haven’t been carefully considered before the announcements are made.

In the following weeks and months, it may become clear that things are more complicated than they seemed at first. Budgets blow out. Legal complications crop up. One or several of the state governments—which were not consulted on the Good Idea—quietly (or noisily) indicate that they have their own preferred Good Idea. Thus, the announcement of a ministerial idea is merely the first step in a long process.

Public servants will be expected, over the following months and years, to tidy up in the trail of the initial announcement—and often, in the process, introduce considerable changes to the programs.

The tidying-up function is closely related to the operation of nominal and real policy, which will be the next topic in this series.