View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Message to government: better media access to the public service wouldn’t be so scary

The secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Michael Thawley, wants the public service to open its doors to the outside world. Lukas Coch/AAP

Michael Thawley, surprised at finding so many closed doors – requiring swipe cards – when he became secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, has now opened most of the internal ones, so people can better communicate with each other.

That’s the physical doors. Now Thawley wants to see the public service “more widely … open its doors to the outside world”.

“We must reach out more to the private sector, universities, think tanks, not-for-profits, state governments and other countries. We must invite into our ranks colleagues from outside who have expertise and useful experience,” Thawley writes in The Australian.

Anything missing here? Ah, the media. Either they are not worth reaching out to or, more likely, it is thought too dangerous to do so.

Indeed what does “reaching out” mean? It needs to go beyond cross-recruitment and even the importation of more ideas to also include greater transparency and accountability and the wider understanding of policy.

If we are talking about improving and enhancing public policy and the debate around that, the media has a significant role to play.

They provide prime routes by which information about policy is disseminated; they are also conduits for the ideas being thrown up from these other players.

Yet the public service is much more closed these days to the media than it used to be.

When I came to Canberra in the 1970s, there was a readily available government directory with the names, positions and numbers of senior public servants. It was updated regularly and everyone in our newspaper office had a copy. Even a junior reporter could easily contact officials. Once they got to know and trust you, they would provide background about policy.

These days you can find the Australian government directory online but most calls by reporters to officials will be referred to the department’s media section. Once upon a time a newish reporter could contact John Stone, then a senior treasury officer, about the meaning of economic figures; nowadays that reporter would be re-routed.

Let me be clear: we are not talking “leaking” here – that is a different matter. We are talking context and detail on which officials have expertise that their political masters often lack.

A few decades ago, most departments did not have substantial media sections. One exception was Foreign Affairs. Its public information group was staffed by officials who were not trained in journalism but in policy. Many of these people went on to have very senior careers (Dick Woolcott, John McCarthy, Kim Jones). They were knowledgeable, savvy and confident, and always worth talking with.

These days quantity has replaced quality, and fear has supplanted frankness.

Often a department’s media people will send the journalist to the minister’s media people. Ministers typically have two media advisers, many of whom have little knowledge of the ins and outs of complicated policy.

They can and do call on department officials to help them out but this can end up with the semi-blind leading the nearly blind – an ex-journalist trying to absorb and explain a complex matter to a current journalist who is on a deadline. There’s a lot to be said for cutting out the middle man (or woman) and letting the bureaucrat do the briefing.

There are exceptions to these generalisations. There is the odd formal briefing by bureaucrats, arranged by the government. Some senior public servants do choose to engage with some journalists and in doing so they usually serve the policy process well. News reports, features and analysis pieces are more informed and accurate as a result.

But this is not the norm across the public service and certainly not the practice routinely expected and followed in the bureaucracy.

The lockdown has come from governments (and not just this Coalition one) who want to control the messaging and also do not particularly trust the bureaucracy. But the public servants feel protected by the approach. To be able to shunt off the potentially tricky business of dealing with the media to someone who is supposed to understand that particular jungle reduces risks for them.

The faster media cycle and the diminished specialisation in media outlets, due to cost factors and a preoccupation with maximising digital “hits” which are not attracted by heavy policy articles, are also relevant. There are relatively fewer policy experts in the media to match the experts in the public service.

Bureaucrats these days are less confident than they used to be and the dangers of navigating a tough media world are greater than they once were.

But, to channel Malcolm Turnbull, it should not be that hard for agile public servants to cope, if a government were brave and public-spirited enough to encourage that particular door to be opened.