Secretary Professor Glyn Davis AC IPAA Annual Address to the Australian Public Service 2022

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Secretary Professor Glyn Davis

On 8 December 2022, Secretary Professor Glyn Davis AC delivered the Annual Address to the APS, hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) ACT in partnership with PM&C.

Good evening.

It’s an honour to join this tradition: annual IPAA review of the year.

I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the unceded lands on which we meet.

As Ngambri-Ngunnawal Elder Paul House said so beautifully last night at a function at Parliament House, respect is “looking to see, listening to hear, and learning to understand.”

With his reflections in mind I too pay my respects to the Ngambri and Ngunnawal Peoples, and their Elders, past and present.

I too want to dwell on an important obligation we public servants must honour – memory.

Alongside our roles of policy, impartial advice and service delivery, there is another key responsibility for the public service: stewardship.

As stewards, we know our society has no final goal, no end point.  Our job is to keep open possibilities for those who follow.

Few have expressed this more eloquently than British philosopher Michael Oakeshott. He wrote:

In political activity, men (and, I’m sure he meant, women) sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion. 

Politics – policy – all a voyage on a boundless sea, with the challenge to keep afloat.

‘Dear God, be good to me – the sea is so wide and my boat is so small’, as the traditional prayer goes.

There are stings in this nautical metaphor, though. Oakeshott was a sceptic about an active government, and about any normative goals for public policy.

His metaphor of a ship afloat a boundless sea echoes a warning from Plato that democracy is no way to run any society.

It was Plato who first articulated the idea of the ‘ship of state’ — as a reminder that navigation and steering are hard-won skills.

For Plato, a boat in which the sailors elect their leaders, fight among themselves about the destination, and solve disputes by vote is certain to flounder and sink.

Yet history suggests that democracies can be wise and careful.  However much Oakeshott disliked the welfare state, the millions it lifted from poverty during his lifetime might hold a different view.

But Oakeshott was right about one crucial element of staying afloat — what he called the use of ‘a traditional manner of behaviour’ to ‘make a friend of every hostile occasion.’

That is, like sailing, governing is a skill. It draws on collective knowledge which must be learned, developed, and mastered by each generation. To stay afloat the ship of state needs people who understand the sea and its many moods.

In our democracy here in Australia, collective wisdom about governing draws on two key sources — politics, which provides leadership and purpose, and a public service, able to inform, record, and implement democratic choices.

There can be tension on the bridge, as Plato feared, between the demanding, tumultuous, immediate world of politics and the more measured approach of officials. 

The German political theorist Max Weber wrote that politics is a vocation while bureaucracy is a profession.

As usual, Weber has it exactly.

Of course every public servant has a vocation, a calling, and politics can be the occupation of a lifetime. But Weber meant something specific with his labels.

An effective politician is someone who can read the public mood, responding with moral conviction and responsibility.

Skilled politicians sense the need for change before it is obvious. They lead.

The vocation of politics requires intuition and individual charisma.

By contrast, public service is a profession, a training to work within a system. Public service works best amid stability and accumulated intellectual capital. It implies record keeping so the rationale and authority of a decision is clear.

Public servants must be stewards, committed to keep the boat seaworthy so new generations of political leaders can take their place at the helm.

Neither politics nor public service is enough in itself. Politics without action is performance, public service without purpose is bureaucracy.

Since we are all in the same boat, staying afloat requires balance of political leadership and administrative nous. 

So in reflecting on 2022, I am keen to discuss the value of stewardship — how public servants maintain the vessel for an endless journey.

I do so amid some stormy seas. This year has seen not just war in Ukraine, new COVID strains and a continuous cycle of devastating natural disasters, but also a trifecta of transitions –

... from one government to the next

... one Parliament to the next

... and one Head of State to the next, as we farewelled a monarch.

All in a matter of months.

Each challenge teaches us something about stewardship in action.

Consider the 2022 Federal Election, and the critical role of the APS in delivering continuity.

Or the official response to the death of the Queen.

Or the monumental and ongoing policy challenge of COVID-19.

Each calls to mind a different aspect of stewardship.

A change of government

A change of government is a moment when keeping the ship afloat truly matters. One group of leaders is suddenly replaced by another.

Once again 2022 proved the APS handles electoral transitions with dexterity and grace.

A ministry and their staff depart.  Meanwhile, services must continue, even amid extensive work to support the new administration.

Just as the wind can shift direction suddenly, and require quick adjustments to the sails, so a change of government demands quick machinery changes — new portfolios, departments and responsibilities must be seamlessly stood up.

In 2022, as in previous election years, the Australian Public Service anticipated electoral possibilities, with blue and red books setting out issues, timetables and plans. 

The APS was ready to rearrange important functions of government, change policies to embrace new leadership, and support an effective transition of administrations.

On seeing this complex enterprise unfold, incoming Prime Minister Albanese was impressed.

He marvelled that Australia can have an election on Saturday, a swearing-in on Monday morning, and the new Prime Minister on a plane to Japan for an important global meeting before midday.

Every detail anticipated. It was a public servant’s job — even before the election — to make sure Anthony Albanese held a valid current passport.

He did not.

One was swiftly arranged and the new Prime Minister departed for the Quad meeting in Tokyo.

The point is simple: our APS can deliver an orderly and rapid transfer of power.

The APS has since supported the new national leaders through its first parliamentary agenda, a packed schedule of international visits, Cabinet and National Cabinet meetings, and agenda-setting events including the Sydney Energy Forum and the Jobs & Skills Summit.

Such stewardship reassures government – and the Australian public – that the ship of state can embrace a new course, be configured anew even as it sails. 

Death of a monarch

That same ability to sustain continuity through change carried us through the loss of Queen Elizabeth II.

No currently serving public servant or politician has lived through the death of a head of state, and the ascension of her successor.

Yet the Australian Public Service has planned for this eventuality for around a decade, in the form of Operation London Bridge.

A plan meticulously updated for successive Governments, tweaked for each Prime Minister.

So when in September the call from Buckingham Palace came – at 2:35 am Canberra time – the response was immediate, and sustained over the weeks that followed.

Operation London Bridge was a plan designed and executed by public servants in Britain and Australia who understood there would not be a second chance to get this right.

Teams worked across APS agencies to coordinate communications, bring together the Executive Council, organise a 96-gun salute, deliver the Proclamation ceremony, and coordinate the Prime Minister’s attendance at the State Funeral.

Along the way, speeches were prepared, information disseminated, parliamentary sitting days rearranged, and a national day of mourning arranged, all coordinated with the Palace.

This was a whole of APS undertaking.

Colleagues from PM&C and Government House began the process, with a team in the office shortly after the news broke, working through the early morning and all the following day without rest to ensure London Bridge unfolded as planned.

The Department of Defence delivered the gun salutes and Federation Guards, and arranged ADF members to be involved in the Queen’s funeral in the UK.

Officers from Veterans Affairs were part of travel arrangements, along with skilled DFAT diplomats who assisted on the ground in London.

The Department of Parliamentary Services handled many aspects of the events at Parliament House, and new Parliamentary sittings.

The National Capital Authority organised traffic and amenities as the public gathered at Parliament House.

The ACT Government lent a hand, too — 44 pairs of hands, to be precise, to help with flag raising.

As a PM&C colleague observed “to be part of such a historic moment was an honour and privilege. The offers of assistance ... were overwhelming.”

Or, the way another colleague put it, this was “A testament to the very best traditions of Public Service.”

Stewardship is the ability to anticipate, plan, record outcomes, and learn. Stewardship is about now and the endless future, a public service with a shared memory and capacity to act when required.  

Such capacity which may only be called on occasionally, yet proves vital when the inevitable wild storm descends.

COVID-19 aftermath

… a storm such as COVID.

This pandemic has tested stewardship more significantly than any other challenge in our working lives.

Again, it has required extraordinary coordination across the APS, and placed a stress on the Commonwealth Department of Health not seen since its creation just over 100 years ago during the last major pandemic, Spanish Influenza.

COVID is a crisis with us still, as colleagues in Health and across the APS deal with new variants and plan against further outbreaks.

Earlier I suggested our ship relies on two very different types of skill to stay afloat — those elected to lead in a crisis, and those who can advise based on deep experience, and then turn agreed instructions into actions.

During COVID, these two sides — politicians and officials — worked closely together, side‑by-side in media conferences explaining the advice from experts and the decisions from elected leaders.

Since the start of COVID, politicians have been called upon to understand the sea and the weather. To weigh political risks about lockdowns, borders, freedoms; to make the final calls and bear the political consequences.

They do so drawing on advice from the public service. It has been officials who assemble the data, provide the options, and then get working on implementation.

This has been a mammoth collaborative effort, requiring mobilisation and leadership on a national scale.

During the crisis over the last two and a half years, thousands of APS staff have been redeployed to meet urgent needs. To process JobSeeker claims, more than 2,000 staff, including museum curators and COMCAR drivers, were seconded to Services Australia, trained, and put to work. 

As one COMCAR driver observed during this extraordinary effort, “It’s nice to know that every claim we finalise means [helping] someone in hardship.”

There is no better example of ‘all hands on deck’.

In fact, in the 2020 APS Census, nearly half the respondents reported shifting priorities to work directly on COVID-19 at some point during the year.

Suddenly new policies, new forms of service delivery, were required. This was achieved with impressive speed, thanks to collective commitment and much fine leadership across the APS.

Of course, the COVID response was much more than a Commonwealth effort. The national mobilisation relied heavily on the political leadership, and dedicated public services, of the states and territories.

Together jurisdictions pursued genuine innovation – Telehealth, digital vaccine certificates, huge vaccination centres and programs.

Even the failures – remember the CovidSafe app? – helped the public sector keep learning, helped us to see what didn’t work and calibrate change.

Throughout the response, the APS drew on its deep reserves of expertise.

From DFAT operations using Pacific networks to distribute vaccines across the region, to the National Indigenous Australians Agency deploying their local knowledge and links to keep remote communities safe, the COVID response highlights the depth of the APS.

No doubt at moments the task seemed overwhelming — a tiny vessel on a vast sea of uncertainty.

Yet, as Oakeshott would put it, we used our resources to make a friend of this hostile occasion.

We see the results in the recent independent review into Australia’s COVID-19 Response, chaired by Dr Peter Shergold.

Along with some constructive advice, that review found Australian governments got “many of the big calls right”. 

Review, evaluation, reflection – all essential elements of good stewardship, whether or not a policy worked.

The Shergold findings will help shape a longer-term pandemic strategy.  And as long as the virus threatens there is more to study, practices to change, better preparations to begin.

The goal is not perfection, but building on what we learned to stay safely afloat.

Like COVID, the next big storm will likely arrive unbidden and unwelcome.

It will be, again, a world of known unknowns and worse, struggle and strife on the high seas, times when, like the Ancient Mariner, we find ourselves disoriented at the mercy of an unforgiving ocean.

Staying afloat requires the direction of those elected to lead and the quiet work of maintenance and storage, of ensuring we have the skills on board and materials needed for our endless voyage.

Through 2022 the APS demonstrated it can deploy skilled hands in the right places at the right times. 

We have demonstrated that if we plan, work together, and apply what we learn, we can make an enemy sea our friend.

We have been reminded why stewardship should be a core value of the APS reform project, an essential element of capability, an enduring responsibility.

As public servants we work with elected officials as stewards of this vessel. Our shared duty is to keep the ship of state seaworthy for this moment, and for those who follow. 

For as Genevieve Bell said in her Garran Oration, “our ideas will always end up in someone else’s hands and, when they do, we need to hope we gave them enough grace and shape to hold the future.”