Beyond the Gloom: Tackling the Pessimism in our Public Sector

4 Jun 2019

IPAA National President Peter Shergold shares the Victorian findings of his recent ‘deep dive’ into the mindsets of Australian public servants – along with some suggestions of what we can do to stop the rot.

On 2nd August last year, IPAA Victoria hosted a lunch for me as National President. It was a by-invitation event held at KPMG Tower in Docklands. The venue was prestigious, the food excellent, and – most importantly – the debate after my address was robust.

That visit was part of a nine-city speaking tour, through which I sought to reflect on the extent to which Australia’s public service is ‘fit for contemporary purpose’. That goal, I suggested, would depend upon preserving what was best of the past while embracing imaginatively the future. Public services need to maintain the traditional vocational values associated with non-partisanship, but at the same time demonstrate that bureaucracies can be flexible and agile in employing new technologies and approaches.

At each presentation, I sought survey feedback from participants on how they saw the current state of our public services. I received 817 completed surveys, with some 73% of respondents working in State or Territory public services, 15% in Commonwealth agencies, and the remainder comprising a mix of consultants, contractors and retired public servants.

The results of the survey, which I delivered at the IPAA National Conference in October, revealed some alarming levels of pessimism and disquiet related to issues of personal confidence and professional appreciation – with only 31% of respondents nationally believing that the public service is ‘fit for purpose’. Although the survey was not based on a random sampling, and its responses should thus be treated only as suggestive, I believe that it raises a number of issues that require serious attention – and intervention.

Victorian variations

Now, for the first time, I am releasing the survey findings from Victoria, where we had 265 completed responses – including several with detailed commentary. While overall the views of Victorians were broadly in line with their interstate counterparts, there were some interesting variations.

Table: Characteristics of the public service (click to enlarge)

Table: Characteristics of the public service (click to enlarge)

Victorian respondents see continued strengths in public administration. Some 82.5% think the public service is professional and 74.9% believe that it genuinely cares for the welfare of citizens. However, they are rather less positive about their chosen vocation than elsewhere. Around 74.3% of them believe that the public service is ethical, compared to 76.6% of State officials nationally and 84.1% of Commonwealth officials.

Around 69.3% of Victorian public servants indicate that they would recommend the sector as a place to work. However, this does not necessarily represent a ringing endorsement. The survey did not provide the 10-point scale necessary to calculate an employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS). However, on the basis that those who ‘strongly agree’ are workplace ‘promoters’, those who ‘agree’ or are ‘unsure’ are ‘passives’, and those who ‘disagree’ or ‘disagree strongly’ are ‘detractors’, the Net Promoter Score can be calculated at +2 (the NPS ranges from -100 to +100). As context, it is generally considered that only +10 and above is an indicator of strong employee loyalty.

There are a few other questions the answers to which suggest that public servants perceive their work positively. Overall 65.5% of Victorian respondents believe that administrators still have strong policy skills. More worryingly, only 43.1% assess that public services deliver projects well. The equivalent Commonwealth figures nationally are even lower (56.4% and 37.3% respectively).

Around 48.3% of Victorian respondents believe public services are outcome-oriented but just 37.5% think that they make effective use of taxpayers’ money. In this instance, it is Commonwealth public servants who feel somewhat more optimistic, at 45.2%.

The survey suggests that these modestly positive answers are overwhelmed by the scale of the negative responses. Just 48.2% of Victorians surveyed think that the public service is outcomes-oriented and 34.1% that it is innovative. Only 31.3% affirm that public services take a whole-of-government approach to public administration. Just 24.6% think they are agile. Of more concern, 73.9% of Victorian respondents believe that public services are too hierarchical and a mere 14.2% of Victorian respondents indicate that employee performance is handled well.

It is difficult to put a positive spin on such abject responses. Only 39.4% of Victorian respondents opine that the public service is efficient and productive. Worse, perhaps, a worryingly low 54.2% believe that it remains apolitical and non-partisan – significantly lower than the 65.9% of Commonwealth public servants nationally.

In general, public servants in Victoria share the views of their colleagues in other jurisdictions. The survey results suggest to me that they feel that their status is under threat. They sense a loss of situational authority. Around 62.5% of respondents conclude that ministerial advisors are now playing too great a role in governance and 67.3% think the same of consultants.

Table: Personal reflections on public service (click to enlarge)

Table: Personal reflections on public service (click to enlarge)

This is puzzling. Most public servants I talk to do not believe that senior administrators should have a monopoly in providing advice to Ministers. I suspect that concerns relate to the lack of transparency and accountability associated with the power wielded by advisors, and the extent to which internal budgetary constraints (rather than value) are driving decisions to appoint consultants. I wish I had posed a few more questions to test these interpretations.

Perhaps most concerning, too few public servants working in Victoria feel loved by those whom they serve. Only 28.5% believe that they are appreciated by governments – somewhat lower than the 32.9% recorded for public servants nationally. This is not the basis of the reciprocated trust and respect necessary for an effective working relationship with Ministers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, asked if the public service is a better place to work than in the past, only 37% of Victorian respondents agree. Some 37.8% are unsure and 25.2% disagree. This is a somewhat lower result than nationally, for which the equivalent numbers are 39.1%, 34.2% and 26.8%. Questioned directly about whether the public services within which they work are fit-for-purpose, just 33.5% agree. Some 35.9% are unsure and 32.4% disagree.

Troubled times

I did not expect these results. The speech I delivered in Melbourne, although it addressed the scale of the challenges faced by public servants, did not lead my audience to such pessimistic conclusions. I am left in no doubt that many seasoned Victorian administrators are troubled by the organisational capability of their workplaces. They worry whether the ethos and values that are inherent in their chosen vocation are being maintained and defended. They feel uncertain or pessimistic about the future.

Such gloom comes at the worst possible time. The foundations of liberal democracy appear to be increasingly fragile. Populist responses to complex public policy conundrums are becoming attractive to disillusioned voters in search of simple answers. The authoritarian impulse is becoming more evident. Faith in expertise is declining. Conspiracy theories run wild – especially on social media.

In Australia, trust in politicians is at a low ebb. The young, in particular, seem unpersuaded of the relative merits of democratic politics. Political fragmentation and extremism, coupled with the increasing incivility of political discourse, makes the professional moderation of public servants less attractive. There is a rising tribalisation of Australian politics and culture. In this ‘post-truth’ world, the value of a skilled public administration, trained in looking at all sides of a political proposition in a considered and thoughtful manner, is not necessarily regarded as a civic virtue.

Yet the capacity to anticipate the unintended consequences of a policy proposal, to imagine alternative solutions, and to seek common ground, is vital to government decision-making. This is especially true at times of political turmoil, which sadly appears to be a hallmark of modern representative democracy. In today’s uncertain environment, the ability of public administrators to serve successive governments in an apolitical manner has become significantly more important to the healthy functioning of the machinery of democratic government.

Of course, it is important for public services to improve their managerial capacity. They need to develop their people and organise their resources in a more efficient and effective manner. And this is one area in which IPAA’s professional support can make a significant and lasting difference.

Our professional development courses are second to none in the country. Our Communities of Practice provide an important platform for networking and sharing expertise. Our events are engaging and well-attended, and place a premium on involving younger public administrators.

The danger, perhaps, is that too many of these activities – even those engaging members of the private and community sectors – tend to focus inwards. IPAA’s voice, in American jargon, stays ‘inside the beltway’. If IPAA Victoria is to meet its aspirations to be “a collective voice for the public sector”, and to articulate more widely its “service to the Victorian community”, then it needs to find more opportunities to speak to a broader public about the significant contribution that the Victorian public service makes to a civil and democratic society.

Together we need to build on the disarming honesty of the Victorian survey respondents and to appreciate their critical self-awareness as a source of strength. Our task must be to use mainstream and social media to persuade the wider community not just of the efficiency and value of the State’s public administration, but of why it is so vital to our collective democratic future.

David Thodey’s recent interim report of the Independent Review of the APS: Priorities for Change talks of a public service “acting as an apolitical steward of the common good” and providing “a bedrock of stability and continuity for Australia’s democracy”. Now is the time for us to seize on this expansive language, to embed its sentiments in our training and discussions at all levels of public administration, and at the most senior levels to promulgate its powerful message to the broader community. I have a hunch that speaking outwards will, paradoxically, exert a profoundly positive impact on self-belief, trust and confidence within the culture of our public service.

Extolling independence

Although the Fit for Purpose survey provided a relatively bleak view of Victorian public servants’ mindsets, I am not sure that too much should be read into their comparative pessimism on specific issues. The fact that disquiet was expressed about issues related to ethical standards, non-partisanship and political appreciation suggests to me that more may need to be done by government leaders not simply to ‘authorise’ innovative practice, but more strongly to extol the independence, integrity and value of public services – particularly beyond the bounds of their own offices and workforces.

At the same time, the upper echelons of Victoria’s public service may need to be even bolder in talking – and walking – the language of non-partisanship on a consistent basis. They should give initiatives like IPAA Victoria’s Integrity and Ethical Leadership Program, with its emphasis on building a robust and impartial culture, a strong imprimatur of authoritative approval. And they should – they must – do everything in their power to incentivise and reward those employees who go above and beyond the call of duty, every day, to deliver those services on which our communities depend.

Table: Views of the public service (click to enlarge)

Table: Views of the public service (click to enlarge)


Peter Shergold AC is the President of IPAA National and the Chancellor of Western Sydney University. He had a distinguished career in the Australian Public Service, including serving as Australia’s most senior public servant – Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet – between 2003 and 2008.