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The public service: passion, evidence, bring out the dead

Posted By on September 19, 2016 @ 06:00

The ecosystem that is the Canberra public service is wonderfully complicated. Journalists always have problems getting a handle on the public service, not least because of the diversity of its purposes. Then there’s the secrecy and the professional reticence. And those politicians who sit up top and—in theory—make all the decisions and the noise.

The Canberra rules work differently for the public service and the pols. For the politicians, the unholy trinity of power, politics and policy are rendered:

  1. It’s always personal

  2. There’s always a deal

  3. Follow the money

For the public service, the first two rules shift dramatically

  1. It’s never personal

  2. Evidence should always drive the decision

  3. Follow the money

For a journalist to go deep into the public service—adding anthropology and zoology to usual hack skills—requires one big leap. They have to leave the press gallery in the big house under the flag. Most never try.

In my time in Canberra, two journalists have done outstanding anthropology/zoology work: Bruce Juddery and Verona Burgess, both wonderful hacks at The Canberra Times with completely different styles.

Juddery, in the 1960s and 1970s especially, broke open the public service as something a journo could actually cover. His 1974 book, At the Centre: the Australian Bureaucracy in the 1970s, was a revelation of how the Canberra secret society of policy pedants worked.

Juddery thrived in the time of permanent secretaries with knighthoods, when the public service ruled itself and often its political master. Then he charted the shift, started by Whitlam, to assert greater political control and impose the minders.

An old-school journo—glass in one hand, cigar in the other—Juddery warred with everyone, especially the sub editors. He strove to create intricate sentences so tautly strung no sub could touch a word. His ornate questions at Press Club luncheons were legend.

In his obituary of Juddery, Jack Waterford recalled: ‘At the National Press Club, Bruce was famous for his long and involved questions, barbed with asides. After one such question to the then visiting US president, Bill Clinton, Mr Clinton suddenly smiled and said, ‘I was briefed about you’.’

Where Juddery used a broadsword, Verona Burgess wields a lighter, finer blade. Her aim is true and the wounds are precise. For 26 years—first with The Canberra Times, the last dozen with The Financial Review—she’s marched through the jungle as the mandarins perished, marking the coming of managerialism and minders galore.

Verona’s ‘Government Business’ column in The Fin has been a Canberra must. So it was a shock last Thursday to read her announce that after 550 columns, she’s pulling stumps.

The Fin has developed a habit of heaving its heavies overboard. I’m getting exasperated that by-lines I rely on (Tony Walker on international affairs, Greg Earl on the Asia–Pacific) are doing their Fin farewell pieces.

The manager who did as much as anyone to flummox Fairfax, Fred Hilmer, proved his strangeness by calling his journalists ‘content providers’. The new stage of Fairfax’s bizarre experiment is to do content without providers. Sigh.

Over the years, I’ve often lifted thoughts from Verona Burgess (always steal from the best). In that tradition, here are four thoughts she offered in her farewell Fin column on the Canberra public service:

Passion for Policy: Public servants often feel they must hide their policy passion ‘lest anyone, particularly their ministers, judge them driven by emotion and ideology rather than by cool, impartial and balanced reason.’ Verona quoted a 2005 speech by the Public Service Commissioner, Lynelle Briggs on what that policy passion should mean:

‘It is an intellectual passion for new thinking, for challenging the status quo—a passion for resolving national problems, problems that are said to be unsolvable. It is a passion for working together, and for working differently.’

Evidence-based policy: The Burgess judgement is that recent years of political turmoil have torn at Canberra’s capacity to deliver high-quality, evidence-based policy advice. Whatever the pain, the top public service animals have to keep delivering evidence-based briefs:

‘You don't have to love it—but you'll respect them in the morning. It is easier and often more appropriate for independent statutory authorities rather than mainstream departments to speak up on policy, especially in public.’

Bring out the dead: The public service must drag its mistakes out of the closet and learn from what went wrong: ‘In practice, that's far easier in hindsight—let's say after a change of government or prime minister and long after headlines have stopped screaming.’

The Burgess creed: A deep commitment to the public service, to its all-important and legally enshrined ethical values and that abiding policy drive:

‘Public service is the foundation of good government, but is always a work in progress that needs the disinfectant of sunlight to keep it healthy and accountable. It is a human institution, a social ecosystem of its own and endlessly fascinating to those who take the trouble to look closely at it.’

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/public-service-passion-evidence-bring-dead/

[1] unholy trinity: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/canberras-unholy-trinity/

[2] Whitlam: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-birth-of-the-canberra-minder/

[3] impose the minders: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-growth-of-the-can

[4] recalled: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/01/28/1043534057105.html

[5] farewell Fin column: http://www.afr.com/news/policy/working-in-the-public-service-is-about-having-a-passion-for--policy-20160914-grfyqe