This is the second of three posts of an article I wrote based on an interview with Glyn Davis, CEO of the Paul Ramsay Foundation, former Vice Chancellor of the Universities of Melbourne and Griffith and a senior public at various stages of his career.
The first is here.
In this second piece, Glyn starts by reflect on a sense of duty and public purpose, ideas as revolutionary in contemporary conditions as they might appear quaint and old fashioned.
Which they are not.
On several occasions, Davis nominated a lively sense of duty and public purpose as a big motivating force in his decisions.
Peter Beattie earlier and, more recently, former PM&C Secretary Martin Parkinson both made appeals to the chance to “step up” to national and State priorities that needed his skills and experience.
When your country calls, so to speak (and, sometimes quite literally), you have to respond. Sounds a little quaint, but perhaps not so unusual amongst those whose see at least part of the value of their public careers thought a vocational lens.
Davis speaks powerfully of the role of competition to lift standards, both in terms of talent recruitment and the quality of policy making.
His experience of the live “experiment” in his time in the Queensland public service with prison reform and privatisation taught him how competition opens up new dimensions of performance. But not only for the public sector, but for private providers too.
What mattered, Davis reinforces, was the mutual learning about what running a good prison meant. And just as it was a chance to test the virtues of private provision and the skills and culture of the private sector engaging public work, so it was also a chance also to test and learn from the values of the public service, of public provision and accountability.
Learning from leaders and leading to learn have been hallmarks of the Davis career.
He has met strong and effective leadership “types” who can counter ideas from politicians and others with firm and rigorous analysis and strong, sometimes unwelcome advice. The trick is combining principle and pragmatism to mobilise the pursuit of good policy and service outcomes.
What this invariably entailed was learning from those who had learned how patience and playing a “long game” (“good ideas are never lost” is a Davis mantra that seems especially subversive right now) enabled careful navigation of inevitable constraints and limitations.
It’s a sentiment that would feature in Davis’ advice to any bright young and rising star looking for counsel about whether to engage in the policy world. His answer would be yes, but don’t expect it all to fall into your lap or assume you will simply get to do why you want.
The real skill of the effective public servant is to make good ideas useful across government and in the public service. It builds and requires a kind of campaigning and strategy capability that all public servants need to master if they want to be effective. Just because you are fired with ambition, intelligence and a requisite sense of duty doesn’t mean you get Instant or easy progress. It’s up to you to make the ideas count.
The point of public policy is not adherence to a pure and simple theory of how it should be done, but gradually learning how to manoeuvre around obstacles and opposition to find foundations of opportunity and impact. Arguably, that’s what all good public leaders do and the best do it well and consistently over long periods of time.
Davis is the co-author of what remains a standard text on Australian policy making, one that has, by his own admission, attracted some criticism as well as support over several editions. [Reference]
He recounts that, during the period of the Borbidge LNP Government the original edition was banned by a government convinced it was only interested in delivery and administration (a claim that sounds eerily contemporary). Apparently, the Premier was against the language of policy on principle, although Davis still isn’t clear what the principle was.
In response, he and co-author Peter Bridgman wrote another edition, starting again from first principles.
On a vexed issue, which was the subject of considerable attention in the Thodey Review on which Davis served, he believes the shift away from tenure for Secretaries to contracts that can be too easily terminated at will by Ministers has swung the accountability pendulum too far.
And that has big implications for leadership and the quality of policy advice.
If, he argues, you find yourself at the mercy of a Minister and his or her office who decide they don’t like you or can’t work with you, or who have taken a set against advice you have provided, and you know that the system allows few, if any processes that effectively check and test the instinct to fire, it’s inevitable that advice and the ability to say “no” or argue contrary cases will become much harder. Or perhaps disappear altogether. “Frank and fearless” is an institutional and professional muscle that atrophies with disuse (or “use it, or lose it” in the more direct vernacular).
As he ponders over 30 years in and around its work, Davis reflects that the public sector is smaller than it was back in the 1980s when he began his accidental career. And that’s apart from the wholesale transfer to the private sector of previous huge public entities like Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank and Telecom Australia/Telstra.
That means fewer resources, a shallower pool of expertise and steadily, dangerously eroding institutional memory.
For public sector leaders, moving a more limited workforce around contending policy priorities becomes harder. There are invariably fewer subject experts to go around, whose best efforts can’t always counter the risk of further eroding a knowledge base and familiarity with policy domains whose intricacies and complexity become simply harder to engage over a sustained period.
The erosion of tenure, the dilution of both quantity and quality in staffing, the unchecked and still largely unaccountable influence of Ministerial advisors all contribute to a contemporary leadership context that, Davis believes, is much tougher than when he was actively in similar roles over 20 years ago.
Accepting his complicity in at least some of those changes when he was inside the system, he accepts that these deregulating trends have all gone too far. The Thodey APS review put forward what Davis feels were measured and sensible proposals for reform, including in areas like Ministerial staff, staffing caps and a least some checks and balances in the system of hiring and firing Secretaries especially. They have all been rejected.
In his discussion of issues like digital transformation, which Davis feels isn’t equipping agencies and their leaders with the necessary combination of platforms, data and ease of access and use, he calls out the the relationship between competence and trust.
If public agencies can’ build and deploy the same kind of modern delivery and response platforms we are used to in most other parts of our lives, then surely “that’s a problem for trust in government,” Davis argues, “and belief the government knows what it’s doing.”