In Victoria a few years back, there was (and may well still be) a powerful group calling themselves The Backroom Boys. They were a loose coalition of public service, corporate, emergency service, and NFP staff, who met on an ad hoc basis – usually in a downtown bar – to discuss common issues. The criteria for membership was that you were the ‘power behind the throne’, the one who made things happen, influenced policy decisions, decided the timing and content of what the public should know and, most especially, you were never, ever in the limelight, quoted or publicly asked to justify a decision.
To a man (yes, all men), The Backroom Boys had the confidence and respect of their bosses, so providing frank and fearless advice was never a problem for them. That was their job and they were paid big money to make sure that’s what they did. They were ‘boys’ experienced in anticipating and interpreting the impact of and reactions to big decisions, experts in their particular fields, practiced and knowledgeable in how best to deliver advice.
Thinking about The Backroom Boys recently, we started wondering if the public service members back then faced an environment different to their counterparts today? Has it become more tenuous for public service employees to provide frank and fearless advice? Certainly security of tenure must have made a difference, with most mandarins now being engaged on short-term contracts, as opposed to the “jobs for life” provisions of the past. And modern media adds enormous pressure on those providing advice – the continuous (and live) news cycle, social media and citizen reporting, mobile phones that can record and transfer information in seconds, all mean the decision-makers and their backroom boys face demands for immediate answers.
In order to properly consider this issue, we need to be clear about the difference between public service employees and Ministerial staffers. The Victorian Public Sector Commission spells this out: “The Victorian Public Service supports the government of the day. It provides policy advice to Ministers and implements government policy. Policy advice provided by public service employees is not the same as policy advice provided by ministerial advisers.
“Public service employees provide impartial and objective advice. It is often referred to as ‘frank and fearless advice’.
“Ministerial advisers on the other hand, provide advice that is explicitly political. Ministerial advisers are not public service employees.”
These days the role of backroom boys is thrust into the spotlight from time to time, especially when dire consequences follow a contentious decision. This week, we’re hearing authorities defend the decision to fight fire with fire in the lead-up to the blaze that ripped through Wye River on Christmas Day.
In a number of discussions about the decision, the State Emergency Services Commissioner, Craig Lapsley, consistently returns to two points – the decision was a last resort, at the end of a very thorough risk analysis; and “we will back our controllers in, those making the decision on the ground”. Quite rightly, now the decision will be scrutinised through a number of internal and external inquiries, though Mr Lapsley says it’s one of those cases where “you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”.
“Backing in” those who provide the advice should be a given, hardly even needing to be stipulated, but is it? What protections are in place for those workers who are, after all, just doing their job?
Especially in the Westminster System, many governments include paragraphs on giving advice in their employee information. This is what the New South Wales Government Sector Employment portal says: “Giving frank and fearless advice may be difficult because of the perceived negative consequences of giving honest, impartial, apolitical – but sometimes unwanted or unappreciated – advice. There may be pressure to be “pragmatic” – that is, to give advice, or to act in a way that is expedient or convenient, but does not promote the integrity, trust, service or accountability of the public sector.
“In these instances, giving frank and fearless advice requires leadership, courage and innovation to develop practical recommendations that are consistent with the core values and will help the Government of the day achieve its objectives. However, experience shows there are several ways that such a challenge can be addressed.”
Along with many others, the backroom boys came in for some harsh words when Victoria’s acting auditor general, Dr Peter Frost, looked at the Government’s handling of the East West Link project. The appropriateness of advice supporting key project decisions was one of three audit parameters. The audit report states: “Over the life of this costly and complex project, advice to government did not always meet the expected standard of being frank and fearless. This highlights a risk to the integrity of public administration that needs to be addressed.”
In his book Speechless, James Button takes a look at the demarcation lines stipulated by senior, highly-experienced public servants. James has observed such matters from many perspectives – firstly, while Dad – John Button – spent many years in Parliament, including as a senior Minister in the Hawke and Keating Ministries; then as a highly-regarded political reporter for The Age; and finally as a would-be speech writer for Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Among his beautifully-worded tales on many subjects, James writes about the ethos and values of the Public Service. He respects and openly admires the senior officers and the support they give to their political masters, regardless of politics. He says (in the Rudd Government) senior public servants were always explicit about the need to maintain the independence of their advice. He observes the deputy secretary “carefully mark out the limits of the Department’s advice – ‘That’s for you to decide, not us’ – when the PM’s adviser began discovering the politics of an issue”.
But do enough of the backroom ‘boys’ have the right amount of experience, knowledge, respect and support to always be frank and fearless? To always know where those demarcation lines must be drawn? What do you think?
Pictured: No 1 Treasury Place
(photo source: Philippa O’Donnell)