Friday, April 15, 2016

Senior public servants need counselling, not coddling if they fear to provide frank and fearless advice under the public's gaze

This week several of Australia’s highest ranking public servants, including the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the head of the Australian Public Service Commission, publicly endorsed the position that Australia’s current Freedom of Information laws were restricting public servants from providing frank and fearless advice to government.

To put this in context, the initial comments from theSecretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet were made on the same day that the Department was hosting civic sector leaders to cocreate the development of actions for improving Australian government transparency.

As an attendee working on the Prime Minister’s Open Government Partnership commitment (read about the OGP day here), it was unsettling and disturbing to hear the Secretary effectively undermine the work of his own excellent team, as well as the Prime Minister’s personal initiative.

The argument from the Secretaries was that public servants are being cowed by public and media scrutiny of advice they provide, and therefore either delivered their advice on potential decisions to government via routes that could not be easily FOIed (such as verbally), or were failing to be as frank and fearless as they should be.

When I worked in the public service and various Freedom of Information Law changes were underway, I did hear other public servants talk about writing less down, to protect themselves, their agency and the government (generally in that order) from the eyes of the public.

Operationally the Secretaries may have a point, some current public servants may fear public disclosure of the advice and input they provide, whether due to fears of embarrassment should the advice be incomplete or poorly considered, or due to the wide, and sometimes extreme, scenarios explored when governments are considering decisions across a broad range of controversial topics.

However this is a poor argument - any fears of embarrassment, exposure or publicity that public servants have are a failure of public sector culture, not a failure of effective governance. There's no evidence that openness has restricted the ability of public servants to give frank and fearless advice - it's only a culture of fear and secrecy that appears to prompt self-censoring behaviours.

Equally claiming that requests from media for information under FOI are a nuisance makes me seriously question the commitment to good governance of any senior public servant making this claim.

In my view any senior public servant espousing that public servants need to be coddled and protected from scrutiny in order to provide the frank and fearless advice expected in their roles needs to be counselled, rather than supported in their cultural groupthink.

The public service works for Australia, serving citizens by way of parliament and has a contractual and moral obligation to provide the best advice it can to the government of the day.

There is no caveat in this obligation for ‘the best advice that doesn’t make a public servant feel embarrassed or uncomfortable’, nor is there a caveat for ‘being inconvenienced’.

Frank and fearless advice can, and should, be given in an open environment. 

The public service should, by default, make its advice public in order to both allow the public to understand the thinking behind why certain decisions are made, or not made, and to provide the scrutiny required to ensure that the public service’s advice to parliament is comprehensive and complete.

It is possible to place systems in place to reduce the FOI burden, something that departments appear to have repeatedly preferred not to do, in favour of making it as hard as possible to identify and request information in order to discourage citizens from daring to question their public sector ‘betters’. Taking an open by default approach, and redesigning systems appropriately, would likely significantly reduce the cost and time currently spent on keeping information unnecessarily hidden.

We live in a time when it is no longer possible for an organisation to hold all the wisdom needed in decision-making. Between limits to the expertise available within an organisation, the lack of time available to busy staff to research emerging innovation ideas, staff at any large organisation will find it hard to provide a comprehensive view of a situation or the available options without external assistance.

With less scrutiny of public sector advice there’s an even lower chance than now (with current restrictions on scrutiny) that the public service will be able to effectively advise government comprehensively, leading inevitably to worse policy outcome.

This is particularly the case when innovative solutions or on-the-ground insights are required.

Nor should frank and fearless advice be career limiting when made public, or for that matter when delivered privately. Shooting the messenger is a human trait and with limited public scrutiny it can be easier for politicians or senior public servants to punish public servants who, in being frank and fearless, step beyond what is considered within an agency or portfolio as ‘acceptable options’.

Concealing decision-making processes in the shadows can easily lead to good and well-evidenced options being buried by ideologues or those who feel these options may not support their public sector empire building.

Of course more openly providing frank and fearless advice can – and will – lead to greater public and media scrutiny. There will be more brickbats than bouquets and the public service will need resilient as it shifts its culture from a fear of embarrassment to embracing public debates that enrich government decision processes.

Given the comments by Secretaries and the leadership of the APSC, such a shift to a bias to open will require a reversal of their attitudes and the culture prevalent at that level.

This culture, a remnant of these individuals’ journeys through the public service over the last twenty to forty years, may have served Australia in the past, but has now become detrimental to an effective future for the Australian Public Service and for Australia as a nation.

It will do Australia no good to have the current crop of Secretaries appoint and promote public servants sharing their views. This will only perpetuate the cultural belief that frank and fearless advice can only be provided in the dark, hidden from the citizens on whose behalf it is being made.

So it appears that for Australia to make a clean break from the ‘protect and coddle public servants’ perspective, to embrace whole-of-society governance, where decisions are made in sunlight, significant guidance and culture change counselling is required for the leadership of Australia's public service.

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