Silencing the ones who serve you: a public servant speaks out

Inaugural departmental heads of the Australian Commonwealth Public Service - 1901 (Source: Wikipedia).

Inaugural departmental heads of the Australian Commonwealth Public Service – 1901 (Source: Wikipedia).


As a public servant of some 20 years’ standing I don’t expect much support from the general population these days, but it has been heartening this week to see some impassioned responses from a range of respected commentators on social media to the new ‘dob in a colleague’ policy formulated for its staff by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPM&C).

The Community and Public Sector Union and the Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs, have also roundly condemned the policy.

There is no need to repeat here the arguments put so well by Greg Jericho (@grogsgromit) on ABCs The Drum; or by Paula Matthewson (@dragonista) in The Hoopla; by Michael Burge (@burgewords) in No Fibs, and Jennifer Wilson in No Place for Sheep, but I want to add a few observations of my own.

Following the 1996 election I remember clear directives from management that we were now to consider the government of the day and our Ministers as our key stakeholders, not the client.

The Australian Public Service (APS) consists of over 100 agencies and approximately 165,000 staff. It provides services to the Australian community on behalf of the government of the day, which range from pension payments to the aged and to veterans, to agricultural and trade policy, education, the environment and science, women’s rights, transport and defence. In other words, the responsibilities of the Australian public sector cross all aspects of social and civic life.

On the other hand, most individual public servants work within quite discrete portfolio areas. The bulk of work done within the public sector, as others have observed, is processing payments, managing contracts, and routine administrative work. While I accept the argument that an employee of a company with a very specific function, such as Qantas or even News Corp, puts their employment at risk if they openly criticise their company or their boss, it is difficult to apply a similar set of standards to an Australian public servant. This would imply that a public servant working, say, on the counter at Centrelink, could not take a publicly critical view of the current government’s policies on climate change, or on asylum seekers. That is an absurd proposition.

In the past I think most public servants would have assumed that they have a right as private citizens to belong to a political party, to write to their local member of parliament on issues of policy, and to join other citizens in peaceful protests. Very few would see these activities as an impediment to fulfilling their daytime responsibilities of administering government policy and programs as required, in a professional and non-partisan way. Further, very few public servants are known outside of the work place as ‘public servants’. They generally don’t wear uniforms, nor do they have other identifying marks: many never interact directly with clients, and most would never even meet their Minister, let alone advise him or her directly.

I have worked for governments from Hawke to Abbott. While I have held personal views that have sometimes been critical of each successive governments, Labor and Coalition, I have been able to discharge my responsibilities as a public servant according to the Australian Public Service code of conduct. I have exercised my right to protest at rallies and I have expressed views based on the evidence about the adequacy or otherwise of government policies on a range of issues that are important to me. I have always considered that it is my right as a citizen to respectfully disagree. I have also on occasion expressed my agreement and support for a range of government policies and actions.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) in its statement issued April 9, 2014, indicated that it would like to see a more reasoned discussion with the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) which would lead to the formulation and articulation of clearly understood policies in relation to the use of social media by APS staff. Currently for public servants, there is just confusion. We don’t know, for example, whether the policies initiated within DPM&C might become policy across the sector. We are confused about where we might stand in relation to signing a public petition, being photographed at a rally, writing to a newspaper, adding a comment on Twitter, clicking the ‘like’ button on Facebook or joining a Facebook group which has a political agenda. Also, following the public hounding of a private citizen by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) it seems we could all (not just public servants) be held accountable for the comments others add to our posts.

It is also hard to know how each agency interprets the notion of ‘criticism’. Who determines what is harsh, gratuitous or offensive? Is it acceptable, for example, to retweet a newspaper cartoon that caricatures the Prime Minister, or to circulate a published article critical of government policy?

The CPSU advises its members in its circular on social media to:

  • never assume you’re anonymous. There are many ways to find out the real identity of an online alias.
  • remember that publishing is permanent. Even if you delete a post straight away someone may have already shared it or taken a screen grab, and it is searchable in web caches.
  • maximise available privacy settings on sites like Facebook, and ask friends to be mindful when posting photographs or information about you.

It seems that now the CPSU should add:

  • never ‘friend’ or follow a colleague on social media; and
  • never share your social media activities with colleagues, even those from another department.

Clearly, it is crucial for the public to have trust in the Public Service and the APS should never be seen to be too closely aligned with government. The APS Values and Code of Conduct requiring employees to be apolitical and impartial are important elements in securing public trust. But it is perfectly reasonable to accept that an individual who is a member of a political party can at the same time be apolitical and impartial in the discharge of their duties. I am not myself a member of a political party, but I have worked with those who are, and this has never interfered with their capacity to work professionally for the government of the day. For those for whom this is not personally achievable, perhaps the Public Service is not for them.

In my mind something more than just the advent of social media is at issue here. From my experience it seems that there has been erosion of trust between public servants and governments over a number of years now. Before 1996 I experienced a sense within the sector that public servants and government were partners in delivering services to the Australian people. The client was the key stakeholder in this endeavour; we were, after all, public ‘servants’, charged with serving the public. Following the 1996 election I remember clear directives from management that we were now to consider the government of the day and our Ministers as our key stakeholders, not the client. This was a significant, and for many of us, an uncomfortable shift in the way in which we thought about and managed our work.

Under Keating and more so under Howard we also saw the outsourcing (or privatising) of work previously done within the public sector to the private for profit sector. Since that time, public servants have come to be regarded (or perhaps to regard themselves) as mere functionaries, managing payments and contracts, often with little regard to the experience and expertise they bring to the job. Nevertheless the public sector still competes with the private sector for the brightest graduates and it wants to be seen as an employer of choice.

Is it any wonder that a few public servants may write a few disgruntled tweets?

Just as oppositions routinely talk down Australia’s world class health system for political purposes, the public service is fair game for all oppositions.

As a result, the public has little sympathy for a public service which is patently not respected by its leaders. Indeed, even though they too have mortgages and families, job losses in the public sector are rarely reported with empathy in the media in the way that jobs losses in manufacturing and other industries are. Public Servants are often characterised as lazy, over-paid and over-entitled. It is common to hear politicians criticise the public service, to demand increased productivity and improved service delivery times, and to prioritise cuts, but it is exceptionally rare for politicians or government ministers to praise or commend their public service.

Ministers are often privately very grateful to their departments and their staff for their support during Senate estimates and the like, but such praise is rarely expressed publicly. A public sector that feels little respect from its employer for performing often very difficult jobs is bound to compound feelings of lack of trust and respect.

Over 5,000 Public Service jobs have been cut by the Coalition since the 2013 election, with many thousand more still to go in order to meet their target of 12,000. Next is another round of cuts at the Department of Environment and CSIRO. Is it any wonder that a few public servants may write a few disgruntled tweets?

During a time of resource constraint, of significant machinery-of-government changes, and increasing workload, it would seem sensible for government to work with its public sector, not against it. However, when governments imply, as the DPM&C has done this week, that there is good reason not to trust its staff, and indeed for its staff not to trust one another, the public service may be in real difficulty.

In the same week that the Government’s Royal Commission into the operations of trade unions began its work, the DPM&C’s directives to its staff on social media use may prove to be an unintended recruitment boon for the CPSU. A friend advised me just today that they have finally joined the union.

No Fibs will track the Abbott Government’s censorship of social media users closely. For more on this subject read our piece Silencing the bird.

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  1. Freewoman says

    This proposal is just incredible. It completely echoes the Soviet style party membership requirement. Will George Brandis have the right to authorise ASIO to investigate all the private communications of any public servant or applicant and purge anyone with ALP or Greens sympathies?

    Have you ever clicked on a Get Up or other petition eg What newspaper subscriptions do you hold, applicant? Have you ever participated in any ethnic community festival, applicant? Marched in any march? Called up any shows around political satire eg iview?

    Have you LAUGHED? No?

    Vee don’t beeleeve you.

  2. Lisa White says

    I am saddened that this public servant feels invisible. That’s one of the tragedies of the portrayal of them as bureaucratic fat cats – the work of public servants is critical – they’re not meaningless pawns in the game of politics. However, it’s a typical divide and conquer scenario. Standing united, staying strong and being part of the union opposition is enormously important!

  3. Stan Jezioranski says

    My parents immigrated to Australia from Soviet controlled eastern Europe. They would tell stories of “walls having ears” and the way people would be careful of what they said for fear of the dreaded knock on the door in the middle of the night. Re-education, perhaps loss of employment, or a stint in a camp.
    They were glad they were now in a “free, democratic country” where you could stand up and criticise a politician and not fear reprisal.
    How lucky we were to be in such a wonderful country. Such things could not happen here, it was inconceivable to imagine otherwise.

    My parents are now in their nineties. I don’t think I’ll tell them that things are slowly changing in Australia. It would break their hearts.

  4. Jan Carroll says

    It’s so true then – history really does repeat itself. Anyone watch George Clooney’s film Goodnight and Good Luck – masterpiece. It would seem we are on our way back to the McCarthy era where everyone was under suspicion. All it shows is just how insecure this present Government is. Very secure when in Opposition and all they have to do is be negative and with the media loving negativity they easily make Government and uh oh what now? Any legislation been passed since the Coalition came in Over 6 months ago? Just slash and burn, is it? No surprise to me, that’s what they do. I was a public servant too and worked extremely hard. Under Greiner a lot of our staff were laid off and then we were supposed to increase productivity – if I’d had time, I would have laughed!

  5. From 1984

    “Under the spreading chestnut tree
    I sold you and you sold me
    There lie they, and here lie we
    Under the spreading chestnut tree”

    George Orwell was a few decades out.

  6. Great story and absolutely true. If it is good enough for a non-Australian citizen – Rupert Murdoch to criticise a government and use his undue influence to affect change, why should any Australian be denied that same right to express an opinion.

    Governments of all persuasions have spent the past 20 years deliberately demonising and disparaging the public service, debasing the work they do and stripping their capacity. This is a long-term strategy aimed at dismantling unionism in the workforce, driven by the Neo-Liberalist ideology that small government is good, with a view to ultimately privatising many government services to the for-profit sector.

    As a result of these concerted attacks, the public have been led to believe the public service is full of inefficient dullards and lazy curmudgeons who sit idly around squandering public monies, so when the time comes for the government to slash positions, the public are largely supportive, instead of being outraged at the degradation of essential services.

    So effective has the manipulation been – go to the comments section of any story about government cuts and see the venom unleashed by average punters, like a rabid lynch mob they take great delight in seeing their fellow Australians thrown out on the street, with no thought of their families, their homes, their lives, or the work they did in providing frontline services to the nation.

    The threat of staffing and budget cuts hangs like a Sword of Damocles over most government departments nowadays, providing an unnecessary distraction and a clear threat not to speak out of turn, or take the bold step of joining a union. Competition is already fierce for the remaining positions and the government, in encouraging staff to dob-in their colleagues for speaking-out, will only exacerbate the tensions evident in the workplace.

    Government agencies are no longer servants of the people, instead they have become compliance machines, filled with people so fearful they no longer speak-up against wrongs or injustices, unwilling to put their head above the trench for fear of having it shot off. Workplaces full of plasticine people, happy to be moulded into whatever image the government of the day wants them to be – no longer frank and fearless as their lives now depend on complying with the wishes of the minister, or his minders, just to keep their job.

    Reduced budgets and staff numbers mean remaining staff must try to co more work to maintain business as usual functions, which means training and development is missed, creating a knowledge gap. When new initiatives are planned, the knowledge gap is identified and addressed through the recruitment of contract staff, normally at vastly inflated wages, which meets the temporary shortfall but doesn’t address the longer-term knowledge transfer. In many government offices, long-term contract staff outnumber permanent employees and their higher wages comprise a significantly larger portion of the budget.

    As a result, innovation is stifled, creativity curtailed, confidence undermined and collaboration gone. Once seen as an employer of choice, the Public Service now fails to attract the best and the brightest – instead these candidates opt for the lucrative consulting agency rort. Ultimately, these people will work for the public service but in a consulting capacity, demanding considerably greater money but with far less responsibility.

    Again, all this plays into the hands of the long-term Neo-Liberal strategy – to dismantle the public service and privatise many of its functions. By reducing staff, workload increases affecting morale and performance. Slashing budgets leads directly to a reduction in the quality of services provided. Preventing staff from speaking freely, fear builds in the workplace making them dysfunctional and ripe for devolution to the private sector, where many of the entrepreneurial sit eagerly waiting for an opportunity to get their money-grubbing mitts into some very lucrative government contracts. Just have a look at how must we are paying to outsource our asylum seeker management

    As is patently obvious to anyone with half a brain, most of our politicians have long given-up any pretence of serving the public – they couldn’t give a toss about the nation or the people, They are in the game purely for themselves, to do the bidding of their sponsors and corporate masters, so they can set themselves-up with connections to money and secure their future, while they sell our entire society down the river. The destruction of the public service is merely a small part of the ultimate end-game of supplanting democracy with a global corporatocracy.

    • Fully agree Anomander. The reductionist analogy of public servant to an employee of a corporation is a deep insult. Originally they were citizens of this country serving the people of Australia along similar lines to the military though in an administrative rather than military capacity. They have always been nation builders. Australian citizens employed in corporations have allegiances outside those corporations. On what planet is Abbott living to think that public servants should be machine men and women who relinquish their right to participate as citizens because of their employment. It is an extraordinarily preposterous suggestion from a very authoritarian and utilitarian view of life. This must be vigorously rejected by Australians who treasure freedom.

      Do people realise that this would exclude everybody in the PS? Everybody from some Indigenous health worker in a sandy central Australian location to a navy man on leave at home in the some Adelaide suburb to somebody who reads meteorological equipment on the east coast to somebody who works in the National Library in Canberra. This would silence a very large slice of the Australian population. It is so extreme! What are they thinking in the Abbott government to come up with such a bizarre idea???

  7. They are called Public Servants and not Politician Servants for a reason. If they can’t hold and express opinions in private then the government might as well go the whole hog and exclude Public Servants from voting. After all, isn’t voting the ultimate expression of your pleasure or displeasure of the government of the day? Wouldn’t want those lazy, incompetent fat cats voting for the ALP would we.

  8. Richard Jackson-Hope says

    As a former public servant of another time I maintained it was my right to to be critical of government be it private or as a servant of the government.
    The bulk of the politician in this country have a vested interest be a Union or Business association and they do not have the interest of the country and the people they represent.
    If they did they would all be working flat out the change the way this country is being ripped off by large corporations and the up and coming state owned corporations of China.
    Slick Tony and his 700 strong gang are doing their best to sell Australia down the drain in China as I type this Have Your Say.
    They would also be ensuring were were not destroying our environment for little capital gain.
    One day Australians will wake up when it is too late and the wealth of this nation will have departed and we will be left with black holes and contaminated water for our live stock and food producing areas.
    I say to all public servants speak out and use your vote if you want to save this country from the corrupted political system that has developed over the past 20 years.

  9. DiddlySquat21 says

    If anything demonstrates the sickness of government and the disarray in Australia’s public services, it is the current ICAC inquiry. Intense pressures are placed on honest, competent and civic-minded public servants who care for their neighbours and communities, to comply with stupid, corrupt activities of minister’s advisers and ministers. THIS MUST STOP. All senior bureaucrats in all States and the Commonwealth must be put back on permanent public service employment and off contracts and the revolving door between big business and senior levels STOPPED. People have lost faith in government and the poison must be stopped.