The advice to the public service from ministers remains the same: be honest, be frank, and present plenty of options. But Stephen Bartos reports some in the sector are cynical about the consequences.

“Smarter, better and broader”. That was the message to public servants at November’s annual forum, who were urged to make connections between the private and community sectors and across national borders.

The most popular session at the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s conference — and one of the most downloaded of the webcast recordings — was delivered by former ministers Chris Evans and Amanda Vanstone, who talked about what they expected from public servants. For all public servants, from the head of a large department through to front-line service delivery officers, there is one constant: the minister is the ultimate boss. Evans and Vanstone both emphasised the need for honest, straightforward advice, without jargon or bureaucratic language. They valued the public service — but also wanted it to be more open and more accepting of the democratic principle that elected ministers, not public servants, should make the policy decisions.

Indeed, Vanstone pulled no punches in telling public servants to smarten up their advice, give ministers real choices, and speak truth, be frank, and not woolly or obtuse.

A constant theme throughout the conference, from various public servants as well as the ministers, was that public servants should “speak truth to power”. It’s a philosophy that arose in public dissent organised by Quakers in the United States, but has become an underlying principle there: although truth can be confronting, government has to know it.

Gary Banks raised the question in his Garran oration, asking whether instead of the Australian concept around speaking truth, “frank and fearless” advice, the New Zealand formulation — “free and frank” — might be better. Courage in public policy has been in short supply, mostly due to the lack of good processes in policy formulation. Banks suggested more thorough processes for bringing evidence to bear on difficult public policy questions.

Twitter comment (#ipaa2013) was mostly cynical about the Garran address; some suggested that those who had spoken truth to recent Australian governments had been sacked. There were several anonymous comments — possibly from the social media-enabled junior public servants at the conference — that it was hard for public servants to speak truth to their own senior executives.

This was the first truly social media engaged IPAA conference. There was a constant stream of tweets throughout the conference, sessions were webcast and remote viewers threw in their comments and questions. In the audience portable handsets were used to provide text comments, rated the sessions, allowed responses to post-session questions and even could be used as microphones for those who liked asking questions the ol’ fashioned way. Webcasts were recorded, and the footage posted on the conference website.

Senator Eric Abetz, the minister assisting the Prime Minister for the public service, presented the Prime Minister’s awards for public sector excellence. He said the government turns to the public service as its pre-eminent source of advice, and ministers should work together with public service to counter the criticism it received from the parliament and public. He didn’t spread gloom about job cuts but instead joined in a celebration of public service excellence at all levels of government.

There were commendations, separate awards for innovation and collaboration, and silver and joint gold Prime Minister’s award winners. The two top awards went to:

  • The Department of Defence for development and validation of airborne countermeasures — that is, measures to stop planes being shot down by missiles or other aircraft. This is useful, especially if you happen to be in the aircraft at the time; our approach has been copied around the world including in the US.
  • The Australian Bureau of Statistics for the 2011 census, which achieved a world-leading participation rate.

There will always be excellent projects and particular initiatives that win awards, but what mattered more for the conference was the overall performance of Australia’s public services. The number of different speakers who emphasised the need to speak truth to power was an important reminder to public servants of the effort required to regain public trust.

*Key presentations from the conference, and papers from the research day that followed, are available on the conference website

This story was produced as part of a new partnership that IPAA National is working on with Private Media. To be kept up to date with how this partnership will bring information and analysis of public administration trends and issues to your in-box email us at info@ipaa.org.au.

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