Free speech and public service

A minor controversy has broken out in Australia over restrictions on the free speech of public servants. The controversy was prompted by the Australian Public Service Commission issuing revised guidelines on the use of social media by public servants. The guidelines state that “criticising the work, or the administration, of your agency is almost always going to be seen as a breach of the Code,” and so such criticisms invite dismissal.

The Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd, who I worked beside many years ago when he ran public sector industrial relations  under the hard free market driven Kennett Government (1992-99),  made the already provocative guidelines worse by commenting that public servants may, subject to the discretion and judgement of their employer, be “in trouble” if they liked a facebook post of a family member on the issue of gay marriage. The current Government has a policy on gay marriage, which even some of its own parliamentary members criticise; but if a public servant were, however faintly, to express a differing view, then according to Mr Lloyd’s code of convenience, they would be imperilling the reputation and capacity of the public service to serve the government of the day impartially and professionally. They could be dismissed for a simple social impulse that takes one second to do and in no way affects anything they do at work.

These guidelines are deeply wrong. They breach the right to free speech of public servants, and breach other rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Let’s look at some of the articles of the covenant.

Article 17

1. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence [my emphasis], nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.

2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

The APSC social media guidelines expose people’s private correspondence on social media to the discretionary judgement of an agency, who may decide certain comments hurt the agency’s reputation. The consequence is to attack a public servant’s ability to perform their job professionally and hence their reputation.  Is the idea of the executive management of public sector agencies patrolling the social media posts any better than Stalin monitoring the correspondence of the dissident poets of the Soviet Union? Must we be like Akhmatova and burn our opinions after speaking them to another so that no evidence is left behind?

Article 18

1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought [my emphasis], conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

If I manifest my beliefs in a vocation of public service on this blog, and I criticise the leadership of the public service for failing to live up to those ethical beliefs, the ordinary virtues of governing well, that I espouse, then, according to Mr Lloyd, I should be sacked. In threatening such action, the new guidelines restrict my freedom of thought (and this right applies to thought and conscience, not only religion) and restricts my ability to manifest that belief.

There are two common defences of such restrictions – that it is necessary to protect the reputation of the public service as impartial and professional, and that is a right that I waive by signing an employment contract. The second of these defences may go to an interpretation of the rights and freedoms of others, ie of employers, as shown in several industrial cases. However, I think properly understood what is being defended here are the current interests of these others, not their fundamental rights and freedoms.

The primary defence of the restriction relates to the protection of public order, in the language of the covenant. How can public order be maintained if the servants of the government of the day can criticise Ministers and agencies willy-nilly, and lead the public to believe that government acts without a single voice, without a common body of authority? There is clearly a threshold issue here. No-one has the right to falsely scream fire in a cinema. However, none of the illustrative examples of breaches of social media use have the gravity of imperilling public order. They tend rather to expose senior managers who are hypersensitive to criticism, and unable to project legitimate authority.

Article 19

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

You do not have the right to hold opinions without interference if you are threatened with dismissal for shaping your thoughts on a blog that may be followed, such as this one, by less than fifty people. You do not have the freedom to choose the media of your choice if you are told you can say some things in private, but not by liking facebook posts.

As with article 18 there is a balance of right and responsibility in article 19. But Mr Lloyd’s dictats restrict many more acts of free speech than the relatively few that genuinely breach the rights and reputations of others. Criticism after all is neither sedition nor defamation.

These social media guidelines are not especially the work of one side of politics or another. They are part of a general regime of control and impoverishment of public debate by managerial elites. They reflect a general practice that ushers public servants, who often are well informed and capable of meaningful contribution to public dialogue, into a dark, silent corner, while inept political advisers and communications consultants dominate the airwaves with inane talking points.

I believe these guidelines, moreover, are a form of intimidation of critics by a managerial elite who are incapable of conducting respectful dialogue with the employees of their own institution. I am considering making a complaint on the matter to the Australian Human Rights Commission – but think that my energies are better spent looking at ways of sheltering, protecting and renewing the genuine ethos of public service that I espouse.

The irony, of course, is that this managerial elite has done far more damage to the reputation of the public service and its capacity to serve both the government of the day and the broader public with impartiality, professional ethos and pride in the ordinary virtues of governing well. I look around my own institution and see dozens of senior executives who have made their way their through patronage, partisan service in political adviser roles or mercenary service in management consulting.

Indeed, Mr Lloyd himself does not have a distinguished career of serving both sides of politics. He has migrated from one conservative government to another, and long been a member of the right wing industrial relations club at the Institute of Public Affairs. His appointment as Public Service Commissioner, in my opinion, dishonoured the service.

There are, indeed, much greater threats to the reputation, impartiality and professional ethos of the public service than the occasional impulsive social media post. We would do better acting on them, than persecuting people for opinions. Recently, a distinguished Commonwealth public servant, Dennis Richardson, called for a Royal Commission into the institution. He was quoted as saying:

“I sometimes wonder whether the time has not come for a second Coombs commission, in terms of the public sector. We had a royal commission into the public service in the 1970s and I think every so often institutions need to go back to their philosophical foundations. And I sometimes wonder whether the time has not come for a second royal commission, because community attitudes and standards have changed; the way in which ministers, ministerial advisers and public servants work together has completely changed; and I wonder whether we should not be revisiting the philosophical foundations of that.”

I agree with this call. I would also support such a Commission or Inquiry into the public service of the Victorian Government, which is very much rotting from the head down, led by a man who espouses a mercenary belief in something called the “public purpose sector.” Such a Commission or Inquiry should be able to look at the broader foundations of democratic institutions – parliament, parties, public serving universities, and public dialogue across many media.

Such a Commission or Inquiry would better preserve and improve the reputation and integrity of the public service than these contemptible guidelines on social media use.

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Commuting fragment: Julia sets

Commuting fragment: Julia sets

When people speak to me about complexity, I often pause and consider the synonyms that they might have used, if they were to be precise. Complexity can register perplexity, while posing for control. It may blow mists of befuddlement, a common response to getting lost in  big data. It often stands in for obfuscation, or at least muddies the waters on the values that inform any response to the usual murky predicaments those who govern must devise. And at times it can mean messy, intricate, gloriously defiant of human explanation in mere words, or just too big for figures of speech.

The paradox of complexity, which so many who wear it like a pinned icon on their lapels do not know, is that it can be described quite precisely, with mathematical formulae and even striking fractal graphs. It emerges from repeated iterations of sometimes simple operations. The simple formula for repeated iterations give rise to the strange, complex beauty of the Mandelbrot set or the Julia set presented here. 

So when next presented with a rush to cage complexity in a 4-by-4 checkbox chart, pause and reflect on the unpredictability of simple actions, as pictured in the Julia set

Why is alcohol policy difficult?

About 10 years ago I took a job running an alcohol and drug policy unit in the minor provincial government in which I serve as a lowly under-castellan.

It turned out to be a very rewarding experience, at least if you count the intrinsic rewards of work as the most important. I met some remarkable people – Robin Room, Stefan Grunert, David Best – and also struggled with some of the hardest questions, so it seemed at the time, of public policy.

Alcohol, so my colleagues kept telling me, was one of those wicked problems. For me though, coming to terms with the difficulty of alcohol policy was something more of a personal journey of recovery.

Serving the wayward and the drunken, it turned out, did very little for my career. I plunged deeper and deeper into a kind of career crisis, in a smelly eddy far away from the flow of success. But I also accomplished many things, and not the least of those things was a kind of understanding of my conservative disposition in which grew my attachment to the ethos of my institution.

It was that ethos that I saw forgotten and dishonoured all around me. It was the realisation that I had fused my identity with a culture that was disappearing from the world that would in time lead me into despair. About a year or so after leaving the alcohol and drug policy job, I wrote a conference paper that tried to make sense of it all. I gave this conference paper to the Kettl Bruun Society conference.

You can read it here:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265728731_Why_is_alcohol_policy_difficult_Reflections_of_a_bureaucrat

Or if you don’t want to bother with research gate, try this Why is alcohol policy difficult Kettl Bruun conference September 2014

Some time later, a student interviewed me about the experience when another great city took fate in its hand and succumbed to the grand follies of controlling the availability of alcohol.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat VIII: involved in what I know

VIII

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird

It was Mario Cuomo, now dead former liberal democrat, governor of New York, who first said that “you campaign in poetry, and govern in prose.” It is a phrase that has become a licence for political deceit. After all, poetry is grand, and prose is dull, are they not? So surely the public must understand that the political vaudeville is compressed and imaginative words that carry us away from the hard and prosaic accounting of compromised governing?

There is a misunderstanding in Cuomo’s words, that is never questioned when this licence to deceive is repeated to excuse every broken promise, every disappointing decision. Poetry and prose overlap; they are not separate realms. Poetry can be beautiful, and it can have a terrible new beauty. Poetry can be like God-given speech and it can be machine-written. Prose can be exquisite, of some other world, like Thomas Browne or his modern echo Max Sebald,; and prose can be execrable, unintelligible, devoid of all sense and purpose and beauty.

I have known moments of lucid inescapable rhythms in my working life as a bureaucrat. Once indeed I was called upon to write some poems. The Cardinal once decided that the Australia Day oath was not to his liking. A talk back host had objected to its corny lines, and the Cardinal wanted to impress his master with a better result. So he asked me to write some alternative poems to replace the oath. I wrote three. The one I liked best, which lilted to a Presley song and conjured toes curling in the sand of a summer beach, was rejected, and another took the place of the doggerel oath.

Other times, action has had noble accents. I have stood vulnerable before drug users and wanted to make changes to how we treat addiction to consecrate their pain. I have stood in a life and been confronted with the deepest questions – what is culture? And how do we change it – and gone on to answer the call responsibly as best I could.

In all these moments, the bureaucrat has been involved too. Beans have had to be counted. Forms filled out. Commands obeyed. Details checked. Poetry and prose intermingle in the culture of governing.

13 ways of looking at bureaucrat IV: in unity is death.

13 ways of looking at bureaucrat IV: in unity is death.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, stanza IV

The supreme fiction of government is the unity of politics and administration. This fiction is told through many conceits and many variations. Sam Finer’s glorious achievement, his multi-volume History of Government from the earliest times, written after his retirement from the university, distinguished decision-makers and decision-implementers. Woodrow Wilson, long before entering politics, as a young doctoral student, looked to the Prussian bureaucratic tradition to imagine a science of administration not dirtied by “the poisonous atmosphere of city government, the crooked secrets of state administration, the confusion, the sinecurism and corruption ever and again discovered in the bureaux at Washington” (“The Study of Administration” 1887, quoted Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: from the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy (2014). There, in an unworldly puritanism sickened the patronage of politics, public administration was born as a field of study.

Weber composed his conceit differently, with a more tragic foreboding, as rational-legal authority. Duller economists compose mathematical formulae on the principal-agent problem to seek to explain away messy human problems. Both hide away in rules or in contracts the divisions between politics and administration.The Westminster system itself, that common resort of scoundrels among the top echelons of the bureaucracy, vests this fiction in myths of Ministerial responsibility and meritocratic appointments. And then there are the true believers in political will, reform, integrity or leadership, who dream that their vision of the world can be imposed through government as one. The leader, their Cabinet, the top officials, the minor officials, the public sector unions, the stakeholders will all get on board as one, and the great Reform, the last Utopia, will reveal itself to the world..

Two cannot be one. Nor can three, and even less any higher number. We live in unresolvable plurality. Our lives are long acts of distinguishing ourselves from others. It is in finding the differences in our being and living together with them, not confusing our leaders with “unifying intelligence,” that we find authentic identities and life-giving freedom. And it is only by abandoning the supreme fiction of unity that we can see truly the presence of the bureaucrat in governing.

After all, it is not as if bureaucrats have been much loved by the politicians who are the true rulers of governments. A government is, as both the Oxford English Dictionary and Stein Ringen (in his masterpiece, A Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obediencedefine it, is a body of persons who govern a nation. That body of persons are the Ministers who form the ruling party. To distinguish the government from governing or the vast strange web of governance is to see clearly the blackbird flying into view like the holy spirit. As Ringen writes:

we need to unwrap the system that generates governance and explore what goes on inside it. For me, the relationship between the political bosses and their civil servants, for example, is very much a part of the mystery of governance, and I don’t want to hide that mystery away in a definition that says that both bosses and servants are parts of the same thing” (A Nation of Devils).

To see the differences, we need to look past the nice compliments and befuddling stories of cohesion traded by serving and retired witnesses of high politics. Behind closed doors, or when pressed by recurrent failures, the venom and the hatred of difference comes out. What better example than that great advocate of reform and vision, Tony Blair, who Ringen magisterially assays as a master of “activism in all things, and accomplishment in none”(A Nation of Devils). A master of appearing across his brief, Blair’s unifying intelligence could never grasp why the institutions at his command did not unify before his fluffy will. His whipping boy was the civil service. He would describe them as the “sinecure cynics who despise anything modern and are made uneasy by success” (Tom Bower, Broken vows: Tony Blair – the tragedy of power (2016)).

His recurrent sallies at reforming the National Health Service all failed, so that he resembled some latter-day Don Quixote, who had lost touch with reality through reading too many business magazines and crisply titled consultants’ charts. He surrounded himself with advisers who comforted him in his delusions, but he could not ever really see the real people in the institution and how it might be made to work better.  The civil service was always wrong, always a problem, always in need of reform and modernisation. Tom Bower’s remarkable account of Blair’s tragic years in power is informed by many interviews with the most senior and many more officials who served around Blair’s sofa court. Through their testimony they make clear that Blair ran a government at odds with itself, and with any decent culture of governing. Politics itself was fragmented, and his intellectual divorce from the “traditional culture of government during his decade in Downing Street” undermined all achievement. His undeclared civil war within government itself led to the tragic failures of Iran and Afghanistan; but more Bowers concludes:

“We now realise that the path to the two wars was not an aberration but all of a piece with the way his government behaved across its entire domestic agenda, especially in the areas of health, education, energy and immigration. In a tragic sense, Blair had been consistent.” Bowers, Broken Vows, p 594

Unusually, Bowers in his biography of Blair leaves the last word to a bureaucrat. There were three top civil servants, Cabinet Secretaries who served Blair – all competently and loyally in Bowers’ judgement. They all Bowers said, after witnessing the strife of politics and administration and Blair’s many questionable acts, later judged that “Blair had not been a laudable guardian of the public’s interest.” The book closes with the reflection of longest-serving under Blair of these Cabinet Secretaries, Richard Wilson:

“There are events during my period as Cabinet secretary that make me shudder at what I remember because we had high hopes and we were so disappointed. He promised so much, but in the end so little was achieved.” Bowers, Broken Vows, p. 594

More disappointment had been harvested from the supreme fiction of government. What might have been if this illusion had been dispelled, and stronger leaders of public institutions had acted with a belief that in unity is death?

 

Image source: Daily Telegraph

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat III: the craft of the cameo actor

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat III: the craft of the cameo actor
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, stanza III
Imagine yourself at a crowded and vexed public meeting. A few hundred ordinary people, that legendary topos, have gathered to discuss an issue that is causing concern in the community. It could be any one of the myriad of issues governments must decide in a fog of conflicting opinions, where complex layers of political, institutional, legal, professional, interest group and moral decision-making grind up against the life-worlds of these ordinary people. It might be about the siting of a new prison, or a proposal to redesign an important local medical service, or a provincial government’s plans to extend a train network in a way that damages some residents’ amenity. It might even be about more elevated topics – the directions of a country’s foreign policy, ways to promote new industries or anaesthetise dying businesses, how to protect people against violence, or ways to promote social cohesion in a world of disarray. The issue does not matter: let us focus on the roles of the actors on stage.
There will be a spokesperson for the government, under whose authority proceedings are convened. It may be the Minister. It may be a Minister’s trusted adviser. It may be a proxy in the form of an eminent person, a representative of the community, the chair of a review panel. Whoever they may be, they are the focus of the attention, and they are the person for whom the performances of this pantomime (to echo Stevens poem ironically, since this theatre is far from comic, far from pantomime) are made. There will be the protestors, armed with placards, t-shirts and slogans. There will be a few quietly intrusive representatives of the private interests which are most disturbed by any decision on the issue. These sleek fellows will usually be dressed in suits (if not ties, since they appear to be going out with the dodo at such events) and seated towards the front. They will speak in calm and insinuating terms, suggestive of an unwanted intimacy with decision-makers, and present themselves as a reasoned contrast to the abusive, angry protestors. There may be one or two academic experts, some of whom will have sided with one or other of the disputants. They may even have been invited to speak as an expert to help inform the audience, in a rite of evidence-based policy.
In the shadows and the wings, there will be a few bureaucrats. They may not say much. Then again, they might say a lot. They may be put on the spot by the outraged community activist, who is exasperated with decisions made without us, and challenged to find the best methods to defuse and deflect anger. They may be asked questions by lawyers with attitude, which these advocates know they cannot answer without embarrassing their Minister. Then again, they may perform a part with calm assurance: quickly bringing a long and convoluted question  to the nub of an issue; concisely summarising the key points of debate; displaying a virtuoso command of the statistical and scholarly information that can help guide a war of passions. Their assurance may be completely silent, like a playwright gently nodding approval of a troupe’s fine realisation of his script.
However well or poorly performed, this is the whirl in the autumn winds. The flight of the bureaucrat in this flurry can only be made with craft. Craft is the enemy of management and tactless innovation. But craft is the ally of those who seek to govern well. We will know the ordinary virtues of governing well only through the craft skills of the bureaucrat. We will applaud the fine performance – even if we do not realise – not only because of the striking poses of the leading men and women, but in response to the subtle tissues sewn by the acting craft of the scarcely known cameo artists whose careers are made in shadows.
Image source: Van Gogh, Wheatfields via Harper’s Magazine

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat (II): the three-eyed raven

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat (II): the three-eyed raven

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, stanza II

In Game of Thrones the three-eyed raven is the seer who is withdrawn from the world, and yet travels, embodied as a raven, to witness the world’s events, even though he already knows everything, from the beginning to the end. His third eye multiplies his perspectives exponentially. It gives him a greater vision of both the past and the future, but no more ability to influence events. Indeed, his knowledge humbles him. He does not seek to change the world, but only to be a compassionate witness, a servant to the fates, and to find his successor in the seer’s tree, Brandon Stark.

Game of Thrones is a melodrama of power, about a world in which power is dictated by warrior codes of honour, family, and renown. It is not a world of power peopled by many bureaucrats. There are the maisters, like the loyal servant of the Starks at Winterfell, who is pledged to serve Theon Greyjoy despite his bloodlust and his folly. There are the spymasters and social climbers, like Little Finger and Varys. But is it possible to see the three-eyed raven as a symbol of a certain kind of bureaucrat?

Another fable of sorts may sharpen the image. Winston Churchill once said that if you put five economists in a room, you get five opinions. Unless, that is, one of the economists is Mr Keynes (John Maynard Keynes), in which case you get six.

I doubt these days if you put five bureaucrats in a room you would get five opinions. You would be lucky to get two. Some would say we can do whatever you wish Mr Churchill. Most would take their lead from the first to express a view, lock in behind it and reassure the Prime Minister that this was a big idea that would secure long-term reform. One or two might quibble about certain risks, but be careful to ensure they were not being seen as sticks in the mud, sceptical of the benefits of change. “I am sure our communications people can hammer out some lines – just a few dot points – that will manage this, Minister,” they might say.

There is, however, at least so I hope and dream, within the scarred and decaying world-tree of government some trios of blackbirds, ready to sing some different songs. They are hard to find these trios since so many have been driven out over the last twenty years as the intellectual culture of the bureaucracy has succumbed to waves of bad ideas and thugs disguised as clerks. But in a few places, not least in my mind, they endure. What do you see when you look at such a bureaucrat?

You see a person of a genuinely open mind, who is capable of generating multiple perspectives on an issue. Such a bureaucrat might, for example, be tasked with devising ways to reduce alcohol problems in the community. They will look around and see quickly that the stakeholders are grouped into armed camps, each convinced in their convictions. On one side is public health, convinced that if you control availability – tax and ban – the problems will go away. On the other side, is industry who will say you need to do something about the problem drinkers, and with a sometimes mixed conscience assure you that regulations always fail. Such bureaucrat will ask is there not a third way, or a fourth, and even a fifth. They will investigate each of the many alternative paths, even if none accompanies them along that way. And they will come back and ask – what do the drinkers have to say about this? What about the principle of nothing about us, without us? Since such bureaucrats can speak many tongues, they will hear the subtleties in every case of special pleading. They will reach across the barricades of entrenched groups, and ask attentively about conditions there. They will present each piece of advice not as a “case for change,” but as a scene from a never-ending drama. The characters will be vividly drawn. They will speak in their true voice. The conflicts will be fundamental – like Weber’s warring gods of ultimate values – and the audience will receive no trite fable. They will be asked to search their own depths for their own most authentic answer, and will know they have responded to a deep question. “What shall we do, and how shall we arrange our lives?”

I cannot be sure how many share my sense of such a vocation of bureaucracy. I know we appear today to be scarce, and even under siege. But I live in the faith that this fragment of culture – and governing is culture, a form of human conduct – is worth preserving. It is a tradition that may be imperilled, but cannot be allowed to die. These figures must persist: the three blackbirds in the tree who give choices to how we arrange our lives together, the three-eyed raven who sees the manifold possibilities of past, present and future, the bureaucrat whose inquiry makes possible choices, compromises and peaceful cohabitation in our society, fragmented into pluralistic totalitarianism, who neither listen, nor speak nor open their minds to strangers.

Inlaid on the marble floor of the Queen’s Hall of Parliament House in Melbourne are these words from Proverbs 11:14: “Where no Counsel is the People Fall; but in the Multitude of Counsellors there is Safety”.

 

Image: Queen’s Hall Vestibule, Parliament House of Victoria