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Behind the scenes of the Australian public service

17 April 2019

With 30 years of public service, we asked panel member Dr Gordon de Brouwer to share his insights on Australia’s public service.

It’s a fascinating look at the complexity of public policy and the value of the helicopter view.

1. What was the appeal for you to work on the independent review of Australia’s public service?

This review is one of the most significant things I will do in over 30 years of public service. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a real influence on the future of a core public institution.

I was head of a department for 4 years and it’s rare to have such a fantastic helicopter view of the Australian public service, including who does what, how well they do it and the qualities of the individual people involved.

As a secretary, you can change parts of the system from the inside but this review provides the opportunity to reset the system I worked in. I did have the chance to work with other parts of the service to build skills in the workforce and address complex matters like climate change, sustainable development and energy. But the reality is a secretary is typically more engaged in his or her own department than the service as a whole. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of the organisation and subject area, and the work you need to deliver for Ministers.

When I left the public service, I intended to do other things but this was an opportunity too important to ignore. I have served the public for most of my professional life and it was important work that I loved. I also get a lot of personal satisfaction from engaging with people, looking at policy and institutions, thinking about their long-term influence, and considering how to identify and drive change.

2. What similarities and differences do you see between the Australian public service and other sectors?

In the private sector, the CEO or Chair has clearly defined responsibilities. In the public sector, the roles of Ministers and public service leaders are more complex.

As a public servant, you’re not typically the decision maker – Ministers and their colleagues around the Cabinet table do that job and their decisions are influenced by a lot of different inputs. You do get significant input into policy thinking, implementation and delivery. And senior leaders have control over their organisations – running big institutions, developing people and capabilities, and meeting the obligations that come with using public money.

When those organisations are humming, we all benefit because a healthy service can have a real and positive influence on the lives of the people of Australia.

As a former public servant, I have a good understanding of the complexities of government and this is useful as the review panel tests the views and evidence we’ve gathered. The panel brings different perspectives together and that works well. Each panel member also has hands-on experience running major institutions and collectively we’ve learnt a lot over the years about effective organisations. And the panel is good at keeping the review’s focus on changes that will serve the people.

It’s complicated to advise governments, do public policy and delivery, build enduring public institutions, serve a political government in a non-political way and support Ministers as they make decisions and the public service does that every day. Advising governments is not always a public process, particularly when Cabinet is involved. People don’t necessarily see the thought and debate that goes into decisions.

In working for governments, your key tools are persuasion and trust. The public service earns those through integrity, empathy and knowing a lot about their subject matter so capability matters. There are different ways to use those tools, including when you have to say ‘no’ to Ministers.

Public servants need to empathise with decision makers. Ministers take on lots of advice, deal with a huge range of people and interests, grapple with political needs and constraints, and do it all under relentless and often harsh scrutiny. As a public servant, you know most decisions involve multiple objectives. The art is to ensure your advice is influential in the complex environment Ministers are working in.

In this review, we have a responsibility to make sure our recommendations for the public service support and strengthen our liberal democracy. There is no more important exercise and the priorities for change we’ve shared for feedback seek to do that.

3. In your opinion, what does the Australian public service do really well and need more of in the future?

The Australian public service is good at pulling together a wide range of evidence and views, then looking carefully at what’s in the national interest.

As governments consider decisions, people across the community make their interests known and some of those interests compete with each other. Good policy and delivery tries to bring these views and needs together for a truly national benefit.

It’s the responsibility of public servants to go beyond their own views and the perspectives of parties which are invested, partial or very close to an issue. The elected members of Parliament make the call on where the balance of interests lies – that’s the enduring power of a liberal democracy. The public service looks at where the weight of evidence falls and provides advice and a perspective about the broader national interest. That process is a real force for good in our society.

Australia’s public service tends to look for the evidence but we need that to be more universal. We are facing profound changes. Preparing for the future requires particular behaviour and a state of mind – being alert to what’s coming, open and engaged with our region and the world, having a genuine liking and respect for people, and identifying and pursuing the nation’s long-term interests.

As can happen, the public service has become too rigid and inflexible in the face of change. Hierarchy, for example, has become a way of enforcing process and control rather than finding solutions and taking responsibility. And we have become less imbued with the passion of ideas, collaboration with the public and others, and understanding the forces at play in the world.

In my valedictory talk when I left the public service, I spoke about its tribes. Those siloed and fixed ways of working have been reinforced by the helicopter view of the public service provided by this review. The system has ossified a bit and it’s too closed. For the decades ahead, we are not as creative or cooperative as we need to be and we are not taking risks.

Lucky for us there are a lot of good and very capable people in the public service. I have had the opportunity to talk to so many who are interesting and inspiring. They want to be well trained and make a difference, and they have a deep sense of purpose. This review will help.

4. What do you see as the single biggest challenge for Australia’s public service in 2030?

I think it is technology. Digital platforms and solutions are only instruments but they can make such a big difference if you use them effectively – better data, evidence and thinking; better implementation and delivery; and more lasting solutions that protect and improve people’s lives.

Technology opens up a world of opportunity and possibilities. It needs investment, a focus on outcomes, attention to privacy and security, and the right skills, capabilities and attitudes to make the most of it.

It will also change the patterns and nature of work for the 150,000 or so people in the Australian public service itself. To get the most out of this change, we need to lift the focus on professional capability and development and strengthen collaboration and connections across the service and beyond.

5. What has been the most interesting thing you’ve discovered about the Australian public service through the review?

Probably how important the use of technology and data is for absolutely everyone in the service. That has come up again and again in our conversations, and in seeing the changes already underway. I had some sense of the opportunities that come with digital technology when I was in the environment and energy department but it’s clear everyone is grappling with it and the possibilities are far greater than I thought.

Technology is not the solution for everything. It won’t overcome an unhealthy culture, for example. But it is a powerful instrument capable of giving our governments, the Parliament, and the people better advice, delivery, analysis, tracking and evaluation. It can help us manage threats and free the service to focus on outcomes for the public.

That realisation has been the biggest surprise for me. Like the printing press, the tools of technology can change everything.

6. Is there something you’d suggest people read or listen to?

There are lots of great sources for news and ideas, and I regularly read feeds on The Mandarin, LinkedIn and the East Asia Forum.

An interesting book I read recently was Hello Gen Z: Engaging the Generation of Post Millennials by Claire Madden. It’s a very accessible explanation of the characteristics of people born 1995 to 2009, who are a growing part of both the public service workforce and the public we serve.

Reading about the intimate way Gen Z uses technology has reinforced the importance of technology in my mind. Changing generational patterns of behaviour is a challenge to the way the public service does things.