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Peter Shergold: political staffers aren’t killing the public service

In 2007, soon after becoming prime minister, Kevin Rudd found himself unable to attend the Christmas party of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) of which I was the secretary. This…

Peter Shergold, pictured here at COAG with former prime minister John Howard, was Australia’s top public servant from 2003-2008. AAP/Alan Porritt

In 2007, soon after becoming prime minister, Kevin Rudd found himself unable to attend the Christmas party of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) of which I was the secretary. This is not an implied criticism: he (and I) were extraordinarily busy with the transition to government. He was scheduled to visit the department, and meet its enthusiastic staff, a few days later anyway. At a meeting in his office on the morning of the party, I told the PM that I had scribbled a few notes on the back of an envelope to convey to staff his apologies and festive greetings. The message, I confidently anticipated, would go down well.

He asked to see what I’d written and then, as valuable time slipped away, and subsequent meetings became ever further delayed, painstakingly rewrote my script. The final text was far better (and longer) than my hastily written version but, as I read it to the party-goers that afternoon, few would have appreciated the extra half-hour that the PM had devoted to their Christmas cheer.

Random House

Kevin Rudd, I realised, was going to be a challenge to the speechwriters who would be tasked with putting his multifarious ideas into narrative form. Perhaps if I’d been able to recount that story to James Button in December 2008, it might have saved him a lot of pain and grief over the next 16 months.

As it was, Button accepted a position as a speechwriter in Rudd’s office. He was appointed not as a political adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office (which would have been normal) but as a public servant in the department. After six months that ended in tears: “I heard [Rudd] read one of your speeches on a plane, had a tantrum, and that was it” a staffer informed him. As a result Button was transferred to a position in the newly-established Strategy and Policy Division of the Department.

This book is his account of that period. Each reader will appreciate Button’s disarming honesty from a different perspective – in terms of understanding his family and, particularly, his complex relationship with his father; appreciating the craft, mystery and ultimate frustration of speechwriting; ruminating on the sad demise of ALP values; or examining, sometimes brutally, what Button characterises as Rudd’s “dysfunctional” leadership style, emanating from his “endemic failure to focus”.

I approached the book from the viewpoint of a now-liberated public servant. I read it on a flight back from Perth where I’d been addressing a conference on the need to reform public administration. I’d presented a half-way decent journeyman’s speech. By contrast, the book I devoured on the return trip was exceptional. If you read only one account of the world of apolitical public servants and their relationship with political advisers (admittedly not a substantial oeuvre), read this one. It’s the most perceptive assessment of the Australian Public Service (APS) that I’ve come across: an inside account written by an outsider.

Let me immediately dismiss a furphy. Button does not do disservice, still less breach public service guidelines, by writing his account. It’s not apparent that he attended many high-level meetings at which, behind closed doors, public servants gave advice to their political masters. Certainly he breaches the confidences of none.

Indeed, Button extols the value of secrecy. He comes to understand that it underpins the relationship between prime ministers (or ministers) and their public servants as they debate policy options. He is fully aware that he “had crossed from the disclosure business to the secrecy business”. “There is a reason for secrecy” he argues. “Public servants’ first task is to inform and advise ministers, not the public”.

I think Button is correct. Public servants are accountable to parliament through their ministers. While I believe strongly that public information should be as transparent and accessible as possible, the ability to speak truth to power in confidential discussions remains vital to the Westminister system of democratic governance in which professional public servants are required to serve successive governments with equal commitment. My experience was that every time policy advice was leaked by some public servant who foolishly imagined that they had a better view of the “national interest” than elected government, the trust necessary to the minister-public servant relationship was corroded.

Button discovers the way in which public servants scrutinise the accuracy of political statements, poring over every word: “Never in journalism had I seen such fact-checking”.

He comes to appreciate that bureaucrats “know so much about their subject” (and is frustrated that journalists too rarely gain access to that information). Policy goes through countless drafts, responding both to critical scrutiny and the changing political environment. Yet, contrary to common perception, he sees that a key role of public administrators is to deliver programs on time, on budget and to government expectation, and that “the cliché of public servants as ditherers and delayers was [often] false”. This is not the stereotypical portrait of shinybum paper-pushers.

Button quickly finds that senior public servants are overwhelmingly rationalists. Harder for him to understand is why so often they are able to maintain equanimity in the face of adversity, and “betray no frustration when politicians dumped a project on which they had spent huge amounts of time”.

It was for such reasons that I used to emphasise to the best and brightest graduate APS entrants each year that public service was not for everyone. It called for the development of a particularly self-effacing character. I warned them that while they would find themselves given opportunities to influence policy on matters of extraordinary importance they would also require, in Button’s words, “stoicism [as] part of the survival kit”.

Button soon realises that most public servants in PM&C “were serious about their obligation to be apolitical”. Neutrality remained an act of faith for his new colleagues. When political advisers start to discuss the politics of a policy issue with public servants, he sees the deputy secretary immediately intervene (using words which on occasion I had cause to utter myself), “that’s for you to decide, not us”. Certainly John Howard, and through him his staffers, was always conscious of the important demarcation between political advisers (who are loyal to the person) and public servants (who served the Office of Prime Minister). Button’s account suggests that, contrary to many accounts, that ethos of nonpartisanship survives.

The recent speech on public service by Jennifer Westacott on behalf of the Business Council of Australia has received significant positive response (not least from retired public servants) for claiming political advisers now wield too much power. I remain unpersuaded. It is entirely appropriate, in my view, that public servants compete for ministerial attention, including with ministerial advisers. Button found he “liked the staffers. There were a few who were brutal … but many more who kept their heads”.

That was my experience of those who served ministers across the political spectrum. I agree there is a need to improve their accountability but since the early 1970s, ministerial advisers have been a vital part of political life. Relative to policy advisers located in the APS, however, they remain small in number.

With ministerial approval, they have the power to instigate policy, to comment upon it and on occasion to veto it. They have neither the time nor the resources to develop it. Possibly the most dangerous role they play is to communicate policy with political spin. On not a few occasions, under the pressure of a relentless media cycle, I had to fight to ensure that press releases did not oversell a new program or dismiss criticisms of it out of hand.

Far more worrying is that during Button’s time in PM&C, ever greater use was made of outside consultants to undertake policy work. As Button saw, their work could be mediocre. And it eroded morale. He spoke to many senior public servants who, even though they welcomed contestability, found their confidence sapped by a sense that, in hiring consultants, those in authority lacked faith in their ability. My own experience was that careful, well-argued but responsive policy advice is best provided by experienced public servants who fully appreciate the complexity and ambiguity of the political environment in which they operate.

And what of the influence of academics? As an erstwhile economic historian I often mused during my two decades as a public servant why it was that university research contributed so little to evidence-based policy. Button ascribes at least some of the explanation to cultural differences. He listened to a public servant bemoaning the perceived attitude of many academics to government:

You ask them for help on a problem and they say, ‘I’m not interested in that. But I’ve got this other thing I’d like to talk to you about’. They deal themselves out every time.

For senior public servants, who have made the difficult decision to “swap profile for the chance of influence”, that academic viewpoint is hard to understand. Public servants regard themselves as actors as well as observers. Their role is to be responsive to political direction and to identify and promote policy initiatives without seeking to take the kudos. For Button, of journalistic and academic temperament, this is a different world. No-one has written a more perceptive assessment of how they do things differently there.

This is no hagiographic account. Button met some public servants who were “time-servers, pedants of process and overly deferential” and a lot who were overly cautious and too risk-averse. On occasion, he discerned, so much effort was expended on making sure nothing bad happens for the ministers they serve “that nothing happens at all”. I’ve argued in that past that such approaches stifle public innovation.

James Button is someone who (like me) came into the Australia Public Service from the outside. He has captured with sympathetic insight the role, commitment and the frustrations of public servants. I hope the book is widely read.

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22 Comments sorted by

  1. Yuri Pannikin


    My, my, my . . . how convenient: a review of a book critical of KRudd right at the time of the release of Maxine McKew's book 'Tales from the Political Trenches', which criticises Julia Gillard for her actions over the sacking of Rudd.

    Give us a break, we're not morons!

    1. Yuri Pannikin


      In reply to Paul Burton

      I can assure you, Paul, that the nefarious, lurking objet d'art under the bed are not of the 'red' kind either. Most decidedly the opposite.

      And to repeat the words of Wayne Swan in an alternative context: "these people do not hold any Labor values".

    2. Yuri Pannikin


      In reply to Yuri Pannikin

      BTW, "Farrell ousts Wong from the number 1 spot on SA Senate ticket."
      Albanese has reportedly called it "a joke"; and I call it a bloody disgrace.

      This is what the Labor Party under Gillard has become. This faction will drag the party down to the pits (for those who understand that reference), and if Turnbull is ever elected leader of the opposition, Labor will see the biggest electoral wipeout in the history of post-war Australian politics.

      KRudd indeed!

  2. Bernie M
    Bernie M is a Friend of The Conversation.


    When political advisors interpose themselves between public servants and their Minister as self-appointed gate keepers, things go wrong at a faster rate. Policy processes and implementation are a complex business, and it seems that both the quality and influence of political calculus close to ministers has become almost a national threat over the last few parliaments. Peter makes some excellent points, though I wonder if he is being fairly restrained about that issue?

  3. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Might have changed. Who knows? But back a while there were very clear distinctions between the interests of the Public Service and the Government. Inevitably.

    Awkward things were not mentioned. Problems were kept away from the Ministers' desk. While not as entrenched as Sir Humphrey, there were obvious and less obvious tensions between the policy/political end of the business and those who had a very different perspective on national interest, filtered through a thick lens of self interest…

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    1. Jane Kyle

      Social Policy Analyst

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter - I'm very sorry to disappoint, but any public servant who placed the words "in the fullness of time" or "when it is appropriate" into a document would be hauled in front of their branch head for an appropriate dressing down, post haste.

      Departmental briefings are succinct and to the point, as they have to convey all the relevant information in less than two pages of print. Those kinds of weasel words belong wholly and soley to the pollies, who seek to either not offend the electorate, or to obfuscate the matter at hand. Public servants, on the whole, have no axe to grind, nor barrow to push - they do their best to effect good policy outcomes within the parameters of the elected government's policy platform (and I can tell you that at times, that is like making a silk purse out of a pig's ear!) and continue to do more with less.

    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Jane Kyle

      God I wish you were right Jane. I used to spend 10 or more hours a day reading this stuff and it does your head in... you find yourself saying things like "I'm off to the pub - I'll be back in the fullness of time".

      I can recall spending two hours reading a proposal from a Department and despite my best efforts I had no idea what was actually being suggested. The idea itself turned out to be really good. But it was buried in a thick layer of process, procedure and technical detail. I would…

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    3. Yuri Pannikin


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter, I was fortunate enough to work with a regional manager of a large federal bureaucracy who had a great sense of humour and who constantly poked fun at the language of government.

      In letters to his Canberra superiors he deliberately used words like 'bailiwick' and even settled on a few popular but evocative words that he injected into correspondence at every opportunity. 'Infarction' was a favourite one to describe anything that had prevented some program or other from progressing.

      He'd walk into my office and say: "What do you think of this one?" And we'd burst out laughing. I'm not sure if his superiors thought he was a wanker or an intellectual. (Not that there's much difference!)

      One way to get through the boredom of public service.

    4. Jane Kyle

      Social Policy Analyst

      In reply to Yuri Pannikin

      Wow, you guys must work/have worked in a very different department to the one I inhabit, as I have never been corrected for anything more than ensuring my language is "to the point" and most definitely "plain". In fact plain to the point of having all music stripped from it when writing for the Annual Report - it apparently needed to be reduced to 6th grade reading level - very plain.

    5. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Jane Kyle

      Maybe it's changed Jane... but to try and listen to Peter Garrett suggests not... and he reads his own briefs and spends too much time with public servants.

      I ended up sending things back. If I couldn't find a decent verb in the first page, some clear explanation of why, then it was like making love through a raincoat...

      The public service I knew was very very good on detail and process - the how to - but gee the why was very hard to pin down... that was considered too overtly political…

      Read more
    6. Yuri Pannikin


      In reply to Jane Kyle

      Jane, I'm guessing that each deparment, authority etc has, to some extent, an evolved etymology and that culture is a little hard to break down.

      But time changes all things.

  4. Roger Crook

    Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

    From what I remember of the Rudd time, the staff entrance was a revolving door, which came close to perpetual motion.

    Maxine will have a best seller. Having spent her ABC career leaning to the Left, she must have been ecstatic at knocking off the then PM, then only to plunge to obscurity as part of the 'collateral' damage, after the night of the long knives must have caused her to read McBeth for inspiration.

    Although I did recently see , Julius Caesar, done by the Bell Company, they had reduced the cast to about six and Cassius was a woman. Very contemporary!

    As Sir Humphrey said. "Never believe anything, Minister, until its been officially denied."

  5. Carol Daly


    Thanks Peter for a thoughtful and informed review. I look forward to reading the book.

    The value of your review and recommendation of the book is about the way in which it explains how policy is developed and administered by the Australian Public Service on behalf of 'the government of the day'. This is vital basic knowledge for all citizens, journalists and the commentariat who wish to influence or comment upon politics but sadly ignored. The ignorance completely skews our policy and political dialogue.

    The general approach is like mine to my iPad: I don't care how Apple apps are designed, I just want to criticise when they don't do what I expect.

  6. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    Among many other matters, I am ashamed that political leaders should suffer from such hubris and ignorance that an Australian prime minister would be so ignorant of government that rather than seeking advice from either her foreign minister and/or DFAT officers, and their services in Timor Leste, that she could show both unparalled gauchness and ignorance as to ring the president rather than the PM.
    The political advisors that this Government seems to prefer have universal traits. ... minimal intelligence and brown (Laurie Oakes tint) tongues.

  7. R. Ambrose Raven


    Ministerial advisers are only one of the causes of the degeneration of what was an efficient, apolitical public service. Jennifer Westacott is correct, as far as she went.

    Any discussion of public service performance should bear in mind the deliberate destruction of what once was. What before 1984 was the Public Service was efficient than now, certainly with much greater expertise, in no small degree because there was a wide range of government business enterprises that provided a wide range…

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    1. Bruce Moon


      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      @ R. Ambrose Raven

      Ahhh, let's look back and reshape the present to conform the present with that we see through the rose coloured glasses.

      - - -

      Following the appointment of an influential US policy analyst in the 1970's to refashion the then very conservative (and perceived as headstrong) public service, it is little wonder that we now have a 'Washminster' approach to policy undertakings and advice.

      After the above review, I will look forward to another appraisal of this multifaceted…

      Read more
  8. Lyn Gain

    Publisher at Valentine Press

    Interesting article Peter, here's another perspective on the relative influence of staffers/public servants on policy making and implementation. In the nineties I was head of an influential peak welfare lobbying organisation in NSW. This was the days of the Greiner and Fahey governments. I followed the advice of one of my predecessors who said ‘Always go to the staffers’. I found that staffers had more influence than department heads and if I didn’t like departmental advice on a number of issues…

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  9. wilma western

    logged in via email

    I've ordered both McKew's and Button's books , and after reading Shergold's article am glad I did . Surely there are public servants and political staffers who get outside their proper roles and too often adopt " Death Sentence " language ( in the words of an old boy of Korumburra High where I taught in the 60's) as well as those who do their jobs well.. The disease has spread to schools , is rampant in local government and also in corporations , so it's definitely not attributable only to Rudd and Gillard. But the press gallery has in general been far more caustic about Gillard and her "office" than they ever were about RuddPM's regime . It's amusing to observe some moderation in certain media commentary as the polls appear be more favourable to the present govt.

  10. Ngoc Luan Ho Trieu

    logged in via Facebook

    '...Far more worrying is that during Button’s time in PM&C, ever greater use was made of outside consultants to undertake policy work...."
    Peter, I think outside consultants trend started in 1997 following (i) the APS downsizing; and (ii) the abolition of the research stream in the APS.
    Mr Kevin Rudd, unfortunately, inherited this trend when in Prime- Ministership.

  11. alexander j watt

    logged in via Twitter

    Power is attractive and it corrupts. It seems to me that both the public service and parliament are systems finely tuned to keep lusts for power in check, which they do, but in the crack between these two systems there is a little unregulated space, and that is where the political staffers reside.