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Books | Has relentless scrutiny changed the bureaucracy forever?

Amanda Walsh 11 November 2019 1547 words

Strong persona: the outgoing secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson (right), with prime minister Scott Morrison at an Institute of Public Administration Australia function at Parliament House in August this year. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Megaphone Bureaucracy: Speaking Truth to Power in the Age of the New Normal
By Dennis C. Grube | Princeton University Press | $59.99 | 232 pages

Political scientist Dennis Grube’s new book is an energising piece of work that will appeal to readers well beyond the “Canberra bubble.” In fact, his proposals for fixing the leadership of the public service will interest anyone with a weather eye on politics, policy and the media — and the messy points where they collide.

Grube co-opts the term “megaphone diplomacy” to create “megaphone bureaucracy,” an approach to the business of bureaucracy that will have many Australian public servants gasping in horror, and their political masters apoplectic. His basic premise is that, in order to serve modern democracy, senior bureaucrats need to step up to the microphone (or raise their megaphones) and contribute their well-informed opinions to public debate.

At this point, some public service leaders will need a stiff drink. It’s one thing to develop a level of subject matter expertise — it’s quite another to enter the public fray and argue your corner. While Grube understands this reluctance, he is adamant that bureaucrats really don’t have a choice.

That’s because advanced democracies are sitting in a pivotal moment: if they want to respond to the rise of popular discontent (yes, think “Trump” and “Brexit”), they must do something. Grube’s contribution to arresting this slide into democratic dysfunction is to mobilise senior bureaucrats. For every “alternative fact” and bit of “fake news” being bandied about, there should be a public servant ready to correct the record.

But what about the obvious counterpoint, and the likely objection of senior public servants: that public policy discourse is a matter for politicians, and that public servants must stay in the background? Grube has considered this objection, and honestly, he doesn’t much care for it. He deals with it swiftly, in the opening lines of his second chapter: “Civil servants are political actors. Period. Claims to the contrary are constitutional fictions invented for convenience.” In other words, public servants who believe they are somehow above the political fray are kidding themselves.

For those senior public servants still intent on resisting, Grube provides a further piece of advice: the world is already changing, and public servants must adapt in order to perform. For Grube, the “relentless public scrutiny” of the political class has changed the game utterly. The 24/7 media cycle and the rise of social media mean that the once watertight information pipeline, controlled by ministers and government leaders, is now an “information colander.” In these conditions, the idea of public service leaders refusing to engage is absurd.

To his credit, Grube doesn’t simply dismiss concerns about public service politicisation and move on. His goal is to be persuasive, and to take his readership along with him. The strength of this book is the author’s absolute determination to win over sceptics, and he assembles his argument with skill.

To make the case for change, Grube reminds us of how far we’ve come, and how quickly. The modus operandi of government has changed enormously over the last twenty years: the speed with which decisions are now made and announced means there is a “lack of private spaces to engage in any kind of reflective decision-making.” This point alone may be enough to make many of us weep. The media-driven mania that powers twenty-first-century government may be disturbing, but Grube doesn’t dwell on it. Ever the pragmatist, he accepts the nature and pace of change, and says that senior bureaucrats need to keep up.

The centrepiece of the book is a new model for how public service leaders should operate in this new world. He proposes a “Washminster” hybrid that applies some of the slicker, bolder skills of US administrators to the Westminster model of public service. Grube does remain loyal to one of the central tenets of the Westminster model, that senior public servants should not argue with ministers in public or express partisan views. But all other elements of accreted Westminster practice are ripe for shedding.

The idea that a public servant is simply an extension of her or his minister, and has no separate identity, no longer stands up to scrutiny, in Grube’s view. Ministers have abandoned key elements of Westminster convention, notably that of taking full responsibility for the actions (or acts of omission) of their departmental public servants. When was the last time an Australian minister took responsibility for a departmental stuff-up and fell on his or her sword?

If senior public servants have an identity separate from that of their minister, then it is their responsibility, Grube argues, to contribute their individual talents and expertise to serve the public directly — while also continuing to serve their minister. Yes, the potential for conflict here is very real, and Grube does not shy away from the fact.

Heads of public service agencies must walk a line that avoids cheerleading for the government of the day but also keeps them out of the line of fire if they withhold “full-throated support” for a government policy. Grube acknowledges that this is tricky terrain — but he says that bureaucratic leaders simply need to assess the risks and weigh the potential benefits on a case-by-case basis. They may not always get it right, but it’s often riskier — to the quality of government and democracy — not to act.

Grube’s method for teasing out issues and advancing his argument is very effective, and frequently entertaining. The book is part manual, part narrative. The author selects four of the Westminster system democracies — Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada — and compares them with the United States, where the independence of public officials is often formally protected.

The book is full of well-chosen case studies. While some of these are from the United States (think James Comey), most are drawn from the four Westminster countries and are therefore immediately comprehensible to an Australian audience. They allow for plenty of “compare and contrast” moments, along with the occasional “he did what?”

Crucially, Grube also has access to a pool of forty-five retired (and anonymous) public service leaders from the four Westminster countries. He quotes extensively from interviews with them, and part of the fun is in trying to guess which former secretary said what about whom. Tellingly, Grube’s interviewee pool is divided between those who applaud a more public profile for bureaucrats and those still clinging grimly to the Westminster traditions.

Of course, the question for an Australian audience is: how do we fare in the book? How does Grube think that Australia is doing?

Briefly, he concludes that public service leaders in Australia (and New Zealand) are more likely to “embrace a public persona” than their counterparts in Britain and Canada. To do this, he makes good use of case studies, including the tale of Treasury secretary Ken Henry’s role in developing the Rudd government’s mining tax. The “resource superprofits tax” was a recommendation of the Henry tax review in 2010, but it quickly became mired in bitter political debate, largely because of the mining industry’s belligerent response. Henry was seen to “own” the policy, and he responded to the political furore very publicly and with considerable vigour.

Grube emerges as a fan of Ken Henry’s public leadership style, holding it up as an exemplar of his Washminster model. But Grube also reveals that at least two of his interviewees — retired Australian secretaries — remain critical of Henry, claiming that he “weakened Treasury” and “went too far on [sic] a number of instances.”

Grube’s analysis of press reporting turns up a fascinating result. Sifting through newspaper archives in the four Westminster countries for the period 2010–13, Grube finds that Henry attracted much more press attention than both his own Australian colleagues and the heads of agencies in the other three countries. As Grube notes, a kind of “exceptionalism” in Australia allows the head of Treasury to rise above the parapet and engage with the public via the media.

In fact, Grube thinks that Washminster-style leadership may already be emerging in Australia. Readers will be able to think of other examples, beyond Treasury, of strong “public personas” among federal mandarins — Martin Parkinson at Prime Minister and Cabinet, Mike Pezzullo at Home Affairs, and even heads of traditionally reticent agencies, such as Frances Adamson at Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Grube even wades into the murky waters of public servants’ use of social media, and for those wondering, he does mention the Banerji case (recently the subject of a landmark High Court decision) although only in passing and not by name. He concedes that social media is the riskiest field of public engagement for public servants — at all levels — and that Australian policies on social media use are highly risk-averse.

By the end of Megaphone Bureaucracy, Grube has decided that some sacred cows of the Westminster tradition need to be slaughtered. Pondering the hallowed relationship of trust that allegedly exists between political leaders and public service mandarins, Grube asks whether it is “essentially illusory already.” The tradition of ministerial responsibility is already “hanging on by the skin of its teeth.” If these supposedly central tenets of Westminster practice are almost gone, why should public servants feel incapable of change? For those public service leaders tempted to forge a new path, Dennis Grube has written the guidebook. •