Instant Experts

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Sunday, 19 April 2015 18:30 by 2353

To be in public life you need to have a sense of self-belief. How else would you cope with those that feel they can criticise your actions, private life, as well as decisions you have made in the past?

‘Stars’ such as elite sports professionals, actors, performers and so on can demonstrate that they excel in their field of endeavour. While you personally may not like how people like Michael Clarke or David Bowie perform their job, there are plenty of people that do — and they are entitled to their opinion. ‘Stars’ also usually keep their public pronouncements to areas where they have demonstrated expertise and considerable knowledge. If you don’t like the field of endeavour or the person, the public opinion of the ‘star’ is usually ignored and the world moves on.

It’s not the same for politicians. Politicians have a large influence over our everyday lives. On a recent Saturday morning, the Brisbane Times was reporting a newly elected Queensland parliamentarian whose former partner claimed she suffered domestic violence; leading to the premier referring him to the Police for investigation. He is also claimed to have structured his affairs to avoid his obligations in respect to child support. There was also a discussion on the number of federal politicians with more than one mortgage — the implication being that they may allow personal considerations to be a factor in any discussion or vote on the future of negative gearing in Australia. Neither of these issues would be ‘newsworthy’ if the subjects were the staff at the local supermarket.

Ask a politician why they went into politics and few of them would say it’s for the money or to gain fame. Until fairly recently they generally saw a need for something to be done in their community and decided that they were the ‘somebody’ that should do it. In recent years we are seeing the career politician emerging where they join the young [insert party here] club at university while doing a degree, then move on to the senior party and usually take a position in an existing politician’s office, or in the party hierarchy, before ‘blooding’ themselves in an ‘unwinnable’ seat then later being offered a winnable seat as a reward.

Once a person gains a parliamentary seat, they (depending on skills and popularity) may be offered a ministry. The person who can gain the most support then becomes the leader. While the system has worked for a century in Australia (and longer in the UK) with reasonable success — as evidenced by Robert Menzies, a lawyer, and Ben Chifley, a train driver, becoming prime ministers in the 1940’s — there seems to be a pattern for recent ministers to not understand the issue at hand. The Australian government’s website explains the role of a minister as a member of the legislature who has been chosen to also work as part of the executive, usually with responsibility for matters on a specific topic (his/her portfolio). It is a similar practice in the UK and other ‘Westminster’ parliaments such as in Canada and New Zealand. The website also notes that there is no mention of political parties, ministers or the roles of prime minister and opposition leader in Australia’s constitution.

In contrast, the United States of America has a different system whereby the president selects people they believe will perform well in the ‘secretary’ roles — which are similar to the ‘minister’ roles in Westminster parliaments. The person selected usually has some involvement in the industry he or she will regulate. The president can choose anyone he likes to be a ‘secretary’ but the US congress holds ‘confirmation hearings’ to endorse the decision. As party politics are involved in the selection and confirmation process, the confirmation process isn’t always smooth — as discussed here in respect to former Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel. Hagel lasted two years as secretary of defence: his resignation cited differences of opinion with the Obama administration.

In the ‘good old days’, while politicians nominally ran the various sections of the government in the Westminster system, they relied on the ‘frank and fearless’ advice of the permanent public servants provided to their (let’s face it) temporary leaders. The New South Wales Public Service Commission (PSC) discusses the concept here, while acknowledging that at times the action is fraught with danger. The guide includes the following cautions:

One approach (recommended by Stephen M. Goldman (2008) in “Temptations in the Office: Ethical Choices and Legal Obligations”) is to prepare yourself carefully before you give the advice by:
  • Digging into the facts. Seek out a complete account of the situation, including facts and acknowledgement of biases
  • Gauging similarities with past situations. Recognise any significant particulars between the current problem situation and past situations
  • Analysing your decision-making process. Don’t over-estimate or under-estimate your instincts or your rational analyses. Use them as “checks and balances” against each other. Propose options. Suggest a number of practical alternatives, both short-term and long-term, that could be taken to meet the Minister’s or manager’s objectives.
The NSW PSC also has advice for managers/ministers that are being told something they really don’t want to hear:

Your style of communication may not be compatible with the communication style of the person who is giving you difficult or distressing information. However, as a professional, it is your duty to get the information they are attempting to communicate even if you consider the way they are communicating is annoying or distracting. This is particularly important when people are giving you criticism or unwelcome advice, because if you become angry or defensive you may cause that individual to stop communicating with you, and more broadly, you may develop a personal reputation, a culture and work practices that will result in you becoming isolated, uniformed and ineffective.

It must have seemed to be a good idea for federal Treasurer Joe Hockey to appear on Q&A to discuss the release of his ‘Intergenerational Report’ during March 2015. Sadly for Hockey, it wasn’t. Hockey was shown to be out of touch on the economics of current ‘hot button’ issues such as negative gearing and infrastructure spending by John Daley, CEO of the Grattan Institute. As Hockey raised the usual talking points that had no doubt been tested by focus groups of party faithful and fed to him by senior advisors vetted by the prime minister’s chief of staff he was, as reported in Fairfax media, outclassed by someone who knew what he was talking about.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne was probably expecting a relatively friendly interrogation from David Speers on Sky (given the reputation of the broadcaster), however it didn’t happen. Pyne also forgot the adage that if in doubt say nothing, as his claim that he is ‘the fixer’ has come back to haunt him on a number of occasions since.

Prime Minister Abbott is not immune to criticism here either. Abbott claimed at a press conference that he had no concerns about metadata when he was a reporter in the 1980s. At best, Abbott was badly informed when he claimed to a group of journalists (the usual job description includes the ability to research quickly and accurately) that he wasn’t concerned by something that didn’t exist.

Prior to entering politics, Hockey was a banking and finance lawyer as well as a policy director for the New South Wales premier. Pyne also was a lawyer prior to being elected to parliament at the age of 25 and Abbott has various qualifications in economics and arts and, prior to being elected to parliament, was a journalist, concrete plant manager and director for an anti-republic organisation. While they have had varying experience prior to politics, and all have tertiary qualifications, it is unrealistic to expect that they become instant experts on all the matters in their portfolio.

As we discussed earlier, Menzies and Chifley were considered good prime ministers, but they also certainly didn’t have the personal experience to be instant experts in all the detail needed for a government to function — especially in wartime. The difference between the 1940s and 2010s is a permanent public service not afraid to give ‘frank and fearless’ advice, because in the 1940s the public servant delivering the dissenting view was a permanent employee and wasn’t neutered by the fear of their contract not being renewed. The public servant also was a long term employee — not someone appointed by the government of the day — nor did they have to deal with the ‘Minister’s personal staff’ (who have been ‘approved’ by the party hierarchy) disagreeing with them.

Not that the US system is any better. While the ‘secretaries’ are usually chosen because they have some direct experience in the area covered by their portfolio (unlike Australia), there is considerable opportunity through the selection and confirmation process for ‘the best person for the job’ to be ruled out due to some previous alleged misdeed or political belief.

Australia is also subject to political ‘ethnic cleansing’ of ‘permanent’ heads of departments, as witnessed in Victoria and Queensland following the recent changes of government. A master of the art was former Prime Minister Howard, who effectively sacked six ‘permanent heads’ soon after his election because of their perceived closeness to the former Hawke/Keating ALP government.

So Australia has the worst of both worlds. Not only do our ministers generally have no direct experience in the portfolio they control, the higher echelons of the public service are on employment arrangements that can be legally broken by either side should they feel the need. Could it be possible that the ‘need’ could be giving ‘frank and fearless’ advice to their minister?

The Political Sword has discussed the marketing and media management of politicians on a number of occasions. Is the ultimate expression of the failure of Australia’s current political system demonstrated by ministers clearly not being across the details of their portfolio? Is this because the political minders only give the minister the message or theme of the day rather than the information they need when someone goes ‘off script’?

The Westminster system of government clearly has the potential to deliver better solutions to the problems faced by the citizens of the country concerned, as the minister takes advice from experts in the particular field, employed by the government on a permanent basis and thinking with a ‘long term’ view. The experts know that they have the right and obligation to present dissenting options to the minister if needed and discuss the possible detrimental effects of the possible decision — which the minister subsequently makes with all the information at hand. The opinion given should not have any effect on the continued employment of the public service officer. The US system has flaws when the ‘confirmation’ process for the various (probably partisan) senior staff and advisers to the President can take some time or be declined for potentially some party political objective.

The problem is when the politics overrules good government. Those that operate successful businesses look for the best and brightest to manage the business elements the owners don’t understand — such as small business operators timetabling regular meetings with accountants and lawyers to assess the current situation and future plans. The current government maintains that Australia should be run like a business; and then buries the people that could provide the best advice under a layer of political appointees. The result is that ministers open their collective mouths to change feet as demonstrated above and policy is decided on party priorities rather than national priorities.

The scandal in all of this is that both sides are equally culpable; we’re paying for it now and will continue to in the future as less than optimal policy will be implemented.

What do you think?

About 2353

After reading 2353’s post, what do you think? Perhaps we can’t expect our politicians to be instant experts but are we, as a nation, allowing politics, instead of what is in the national interest, to rule our policy? Should the public service be encouraged to return to ‘frank and fearless’ advice? Is there another way?

Next week Ken suggests that the Abbott government may not be as shambolic as it appears in his piece: ‘Beware, there is a plan’.