I recently read an excellent Quarterly Essay by journalist Laura Tingle entitled ‘Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How to Govern’. Tingle argued that several political processes in Australia have eroded the institutional memory of both the public service and the parliamentarian wings of government. Successful Australian leaders chose to remove heads of department, for fear that they were too entrenched in the politics of previous leaders. Alternatively, heads of departments were rolled out as scape goats for policy mistakes of governments, reducing the inclination for those in the public service to propose policies that are inherently risky. Alternatively, the public sector increasingly outsources work to consultancy firms deemed to be more ‘expert’ in the provision of advice, or outsources program delivery to private sector organisations deemed to be more ‘efficient’ than the public service. And all the while the aptitudes of public servants is increasingly judged based on their ability to move swiftly from one branch of the public service to another, working well at communicating and liaising but never developing a level of expert knowledge in one particular area. The result, said Tingle, was a public service that is never asked to, and is also incapable of, providing informed, coherent policy advice.
The following QE includes letters of response to the Essay. For the first time in my reading of QE the letters were all supportive of the ideas proposed in the essay. Many of the respondents voiced that they had also felt, while working in the public sector, that there was never an opportunity (or even an expectation) to develop quality policy advice. People were instead scrambling to deliver the programs that governments had unilaterally decided to endorse. Or people were spending their time massaging statistics and reports to find ‘good news lines’ for politicians to read out during door stop interviews. The idea that the public sector could, or even should, be developing policy seemed to be overlooked in most departments.
The findings of this QE weighed heavily on my mind for weeks and had me reflecting on my own experiences in the public service. I talked about the findings with people who are, or were, working in energy policy with me. Their feelings largely reflected the findings in the essay. One has recently retired and been asked to provide energy advice to a political party in the lead up to an election. “Finally!” he told me “after all these years I’m writing energy policy!” The feeling was familiar. Finally, in academia, I can develop informed opinions on policy, rather than develop speaking points.
The reason I chose to leave the public sector was that after three years I hadn’t had the opportunity to work on a single policy through to its implementation. Instead I worked on policies that I knew full well were never going to be accepted. I worked on policy frameworks that had been years in the making, and would be years further still before something happened (if anything happened at all, that is). I worked to deliver on promises made by governments, regardless of their merits. I felt underutilised and impotent. I felt like there was no way to make a difference.
Tingle’s essay concludes that the Australian parliament and public sector must reform itself if it is to avoid a never-ending repeat of the farcical merry-go-round of political leaders and publicly opposed policy. She says that governments must accept that the public service is best-placed for developing advice, and that in turn the public service must be given the opportunity to grow its talents and be allowed to try, and potentially fail, to deliver its own policies. I hope that there are some in government who have taken Tingle’s message to heart. In the meantime, in a world of employment freezes and reduced responsibilities for the public service, I suppose I’ll just watch from the sidelines…