The public service – servicing Australia? 37



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It was US President Ronald Reagan who memorably said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.”

I spent a quarter of a century working for National Party politicians up until the late 1990s and all were solid, dependable and clear-sighted sons and daughters of the soil. None could have been accused to channelling Churchill and most were taciturn to the point of being gruff.

They all shared a commendable clarity in their communication. People could understand what they said even if they didn’t like what they said. They expected their public servants to speak and write in crystal clear English so, when in a moment of idle curiosity I thought I would check out some senior ministerial-level jobs, I thought that I could do no better than check on who was serving Barnaby Joyce, the Federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources and Deputy Leader of the Nationals.

As it happens, his Department is advertising a Deputy Secretary position. A Deputy Secretary is a frightfully important top-level job that would have a corner office, a coffee table and tasteful prints for the walls.

The Department is crisply described thus: “Our role is to provide more sustainable, productive, international competitive and profitable Australian agricultural, food and fibre industries through policies and initiatives that promote better resource management practices, innovation, self-reliance and improved access to international markets and safeguard Australia’s animal and plant health status to maintain overseas markets and protect the economy and environment from the impact of exotic pests and diseases, through risk assessment, inspection and certification, and the implementation of emergency response arrangements for Australian agricultural, food and fibre industries.”

That 83-word sentence says what could be said in 10 words, “Our role is to promote and protect our primary industries.” You can be fairly sure that The Honourable Barnaby didn’t write that himself although, to be fair, he was an accountant once and that passes as an intellectual in National Party circles.

Then they get to the job itself.

Desired attributes include “high level representational skills, the ability to maintain excellent client and stakeholder relations and sound policy and risk assessment skills” not to mention “a collegiate personal style, energy and an enthusiastic approach, complemented by political acumen, sound judgement and the ability to motivate people.”

Then there is a list of 15 required attributes. Modestly, I think I could answer “yes” to the lot – after all, who wouldn’t?

I’ve even started thinking about my responses should I apply for the job. After all, it will pay a very hefty six-figure salary and perks package, presumably to bring it into line with your average Australian farmer’s income.

“Experience in managing a complex and diverse range of functions” – “Yes, I have. Only the other day, I paid the Council rates while eating a sandwich.”

“Be a skilful communicator with personal presence” – “Yes I can talk under wet cement and yes I do”

“Be forward looking”- “Yes I am and never look back”

“Be self-motivated” –“Yes I am. After all I decided to apply all by myself”

“Have excellent judgement” – “Yes I do. I have the wisdom of Solomon”

“Have a demonstrated capacity to build and maintain relationship” – “For sure. I’ve had more relationships than others have had cold drinks on a hot day”

“Have the ability to identify and assess emerging issues” – “I’ve been able to predict mummy’s reactions to just about anything for more than sixty years”

A pretty good start I think and only eight more required attributes to address. Mind you, it’s a bit unfair when they expect applicants to answer all of this – and more – in no more than one page given that they have hardly led by example, isn’t it?

And even if I do manage all of this I will be “required to obtain and maintain a security clearance to Negative Vetting 1 (Secret) as a minimum”. Fortunately, I happen to know a good vet and I’ll ask him to put in a word for me.

And, what is particularly nice and very democratic of the Department is that while, ”Relevant tertiary qualifications will be favourably regarded” they are not actually demanded so anybody can apply.

Another US President Franklin Roosevelt once put a public servant in his place when he said, “Are you labouring under the impression that I read these memoranda of yours? I can’t even lift them.”

So perhaps Minister Joyce should tell his Department that they would be wise to avoid writing drivel or, as a diligent public servant would write, “Simply stated, it is sagacious to eschew obfuscation”.


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Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. the drivel they write today is most difficult to understand. Simple English and straight to the point would be best but todays youngsters have the mistaken belief that it makes them appear more intelligent to speak that way. Blame the americans, they started it.

    2 REPLY
    • I don’t know if we can blame the Americans although they did introduce management speak, a good bingo game can be had at meetings to see whose bingo sheet of management speak terms reaches bingo as the bosses sprout drivel. The good old British Civil Service never used one word when ten would do.

  2. The thing I have noted through my own experiences is a total lack of understanding of an individual’s circumstances and lack of feeling.When dealing with someone that person should be their priority not just a means of filling in time until they clock off.They are not able or not willing to answer the most basic question .No wonder we get hot tempered after being on hold for over 30 minutes .I wish that I had no need to deal with them .

    5 REPLY
    • J Brian Henderson, you are correct. I think most of the people who work for the Public Service spend their time justifying their position so they can retain the job long enough to qualify for their very generous superannuation scheme !!

    • Ross Liesch the current public service superannuation scheme is no different than most workers. The more generous scheme for new workers has long gone. One of the problems most public servants have is that the system they work in is broken, managers have no concept of the complexity of the lower level jobs and the sheer amount of stuff they are supposed to know. The computer systems can be more of a hindrance than a help laborious to navigate, painfully slow to bring up information. One department can have many parallel systems running and some staff may only be familiar with or even know about one or two out of six or seven systems, so no your address change isn’t recorded everywhere at times. I worked with people who came in from the private sector and found themselves working harder than they had before. Trust me too, often they feel your frustration, think the system unfair, know you are struggling and wish they could magically help. The legislation and rules they work under are binding and have no compassion and sometime questionable reason.

    • Wow,Barbara that’s an insight not many of us have! So often you hear the problem stems from the computer system they are using!

    • Christina Smith I hear you and know the pain of working within that red tape. A lot is there for good reason, if not for some of the painful and tedious procedures there is scope to rort the system from within.

  3. I was a public servant for a good few years. Selection criteria were an absolute joke. Every single job I applied for required you to have a knowledge of OH&S and equity in the workplace. Most managers didn’t have a clue beyond vague notions that some things might be unsafe. The ability to talk your way into a job more important than your ability to actually do it. So many managers able to talk the talk but not walk the walk. Mission Statements, endless policy documents around equity, safety, multiculturalism an endless list of the political whim of the day. I feel very sorry for the front line workers in the public service, they cop the complaints, they usually work extremely hard and their senior managers are often totally useless. All the staff from the client service area I once worked in were sent off to learn how to provide good service. We learnt nothing we weren’t already doing. The most common comment by the staff attending was, “have our managers done this course.” The problem lay not with the front line staff but their senior managers in most cases.

    2 REPLY
    • So right Barbara thanks for your input, it was interesting. There’s s lot of wasted time and money spent in Canberra. I had two relatives working there. It’s not living in the real world there.

    • Christina Smith I think the public service very varied. Some of the policy based areas without a great deal of client contact can be disjointed from the real world. Not always the fault of the public servants as they grapple with political thought bubbles only to come up with a solution, costing and the like only for that bubble to burst and be replaced by another so their work is scrapped and they start again. It can become quite soul destroying to work on endless projects that never see the light of day.

  4. Translation – a political hack has already been selected for the position, but apply because the HR Department need to justify their ridiculous salaries.

  5. I have applied for Gov jobs unsuccessfully. After dealing with Gov departments I have realised I was not dumb enough

    2 REPLY
    • i used to think the whole recruitment system nuts. We would have wonderful temporary staff working with us. Trained and very capable. The jobs would come up for permanent filling and the temps had to apply. Only once did a temp get a permanent job and that was through a family connection at the job agency. The staff sent along were all new straight of the unemployment list. So we would start from scratch and spend weeks retraining a bunch of people who were often not as good a st the temps they replaced. The employment agency however got its money for placing all the staff and again for placing long term unemployed.

  6. I was a public servant for many years. Most wouldn’t make it in the real world and many of the senior managers are left to run there own race for their own ends. Toxic environment where there is no accountability on who people are treated. And yes I’m bitter for being shafted by people in senior positions that I though I could count forget they are dealing with people and not machines being a manager with feelings is why I was made redundant

    5 REPLY
    • Yes it can be an appalling place to work. Some absolutely useless managers. I left around the time management became its own skill set and actually knowing something about what the organisation did, or what your staff did a total irrelevance. Endless underestimation of the knowledge and skill needed by the lackey at the bottom. They get paid more so consequently they must know more and be more talented. There were some really good and knowledgeable bosses but unfortunately a bit of a minority. As for getting contractors in to build and stuff up computer systems on vast salaries only for them to leave a broken system and go off on another vast salary to break a system somewhere else/

  7. It is always easy to knock performance of others until you are required to do it then it suddenly becomes “oh this is difficult”. Like everywhere, there are highly intelligent people and some who possibly got the job because of good looks (happens everywhere, male & female). Those who knock PS – have you ever worked for a family run business with bosses’ children getting the best jobs but they don’t know a thing and are arrogant as well? There is good and bad everywhere so lets just get on with life and not whinge that much!!!

    2 REPLY
    • Owen Gustafson of course why didn’t I think of that!!! But we were not talking about who pays but that they are not enough qualified or did I misinterpret that as well?

  8. They should learn about budgeting ,you cannot keep borrowing billions to give billions away ,doesn’t add up .

  9. The Public Service needs a COMPLETE clean out with a new broom. Nepotism; Boys Club mentality and suppressing initiative keeps the “boys” in their well paid jobs without any threat of being replaced. The Public Service is a joke and it will never be fixed as it is a culture – not a dynamic workforce. Compared to the private sector, most Public Servants appear to be on Valium. (Doctors and Nurses exempt).

  10. Might add that I have successfully worked in some very stressful positions. It is not only PS that have to deal with public and dubious management

  11. It is my experience that from middle management up the only thing that concerns them is preserving their salary. Bad performance gets rewarded because bosses don’t have the guts to deal with them.

  12. i have worked as a temp in government departments as a secretary and was told on more than one occasion to slow down as it would be expected from them in the future. I didn’t slow down. Fair days work for a fair days pay is my motto, not the union way of seeing it.

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