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

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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