Keeping pace with change: an interview with former Australian civil service chief Martin Parkinson

By on 30/10/2019 | Updated on 30/10/2019

In a world of fake news, says Martin Parkinson – the recently-retired secretary of Australia’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet – public servants must build a meritocratic, risk-taking public service focused on meeting citizens’ needs. By Mia Hunt

“It used to be that you could have your own views, but not your own facts. Well, it turns out that in modern democracies everybody seems to have their own set of facts,” says Martin Parkinson.

During Parkinson’s 40-year career in the Australian Public Service (APS), which took him from the lower ranks of the Treasury to become head of the country’s civil service, much has changed. And some of the most damaging developments, he says, are the consequences of 24-hour news and social media – including this blurring of fact and fiction, and the squeezing out of time for long-term thinking and rumination.

“The pace of decision-making has changed,” says Parkinson. “The media cycle and the rise of social media means ideas and debate get shut down – you’re getting this instantaneous feedback before government’s even had a chance to think about the issues. It’s not something the public service can fix, but I think it’s a really, really damaging thing for the nation.”

In Parkinson’s view, this ‘new normal’ – both a symptom of diminishing public trust, and a continuing threat to it – is in part a result of governments for too long promising “easy solutions for what are often wickedly complex problems”. And the rise of disillusionment in government, he believes, has become a “real inhibitor” to the operation of the civil service: “People don’t believe we do things in their interests.”

The civil service can’t do much about the engineering of online ‘facts’ and citizens’ knee-jerk reactions to them. But re-establishing public trust has become a priority for the civil service and prime minister Scott Morrison, who’s been pushing for an overhaul of the APS designed to make it public facing in all respects. People need to be brought “along on the journey”, comments Parkinson, being engaged in open and honest conversation about public services. Then, and this is key for Morrison, the government needs to demonstrate that it can deliver on its promises.

Bogged down in bureaucracy

Parkinson (right) with prime minister Scott Morrison (centre) and deputy prime minister Michael McCormack (left)

Morrison’s approach has caused some concern in Australia. Since being elected for a second term in May, he has made clear that the APS should focus on delivering the government’s policy agenda and not get bogged down in bureaucracy. Some have taken this to mean that he doesn’t value senior civil servants’ role in ideas development and policy design.     

Parkinson doesn’t sound too concerned. What Morrison wants, he understands, is for government to rebuild trust by delivering its policy agenda and not “going off and generating a whole pile of new things before we’ve implemented what should already have been done”.

There is, though, a caveat: “If, on the other hand, it is, as some critics have interpreted it: ‘We will do the thinking, you will do the doing,’ and that there’s no role for bureaucracy in ideas generation and development, then I think that would be a very bad outcome for Australia.”  

Morrison’s push for delivery and public service reform is to be brought into greater focus when the recommendations set out in the Thodey Review of the APS – commissioned by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and produced by businessman David Thodey – are revealed.

Parkinson welcomes the anticipated shakeup, noting that when he was in government it was clear that public sector reform needed to speed up. The APS “isn’t broken”, he says, but past performance is no guarantee of future performance. “Is the APS going to be fit for purpose in 10-20 years’ time? The answer I kept coming back to was ‘no’. We were changing too slowly.”

One key goal, he says, is to marry service delivery with citizens’ increasingly high expectations. “[People] know they can go to Amazon or another digital platform, get instantaneous service and have the product they want in their hands within a couple of days. They can’t get that level of service in the APS. They can’t get answers to their problems, they can’t get solutions, and often they can’t find their way around the public service because we don’t have one door in. We, like every other public service, are laid out, internally, for our own convenience and not the public’s.”

Parkinson advocates a single point of entry for citizens to access government services and a “virtual concierge” that directs people where they need to go “without them even knowing it”. In practice, this will mean joining up datasets, which Parkinson says the government is starting to do. But more broadly, he believes that a focus on agility and a willingness to take risks is what’s needed to improve customer service.

“In the private sector, if you don’t take a risk someone’s going to come along and eat your lunch. In the public sector, if you take a risk and it goes badly, you’re going to wear it,” Parkinson says. “But if you’re going to be responsive to the community, you’re going to end up having to take more risks. That’s something that bureaucrats have to get used to, and politicians have to be willing to live with.”

The need to be responsive to the community is something that Parkinson understands only too well. Having grown up a “working class kid” in a small country town in the south-eastern state of Victoria, he has seen how the withdrawal of various institutions from small towns has left a “physical gap” between the public service and the citizen. And “we’ve been very slow at using technology to shrink” that gap, he adds.  

Humble beginnings

Half of the secretaries in the APS are women, but, Parkinson says, “the job’s not done”.

Parkinson says his humble beginnings left him with a “concern for the unheard” – and many remain unheard in Australia, whose history has created pockets of “entrenched disadvantage that should be seen as a disgrace in any country”. But when he landed a job at the Treasury in 1981, he says, he found a genuine meritocracy where his background was no obstacle to progress. The Treasury is, he adds, “not the sort of place where where you went to school matters”.

“It was the case there that people looked for talent and when they found talent, they went out of their way to create opportunities,” he continues. “I’ve benefitted from that – I was able to go to Princeton University on a public service scholarship and I was able to advance on the basis of my ability.”

During his first stint at the Treasury, he was rarely in a role for more than 12 months: he’d be plucked from one job and put forward for another, depending on what was “hot or interesting” at the time. He rose up the ranks, left the Treasury tasked with setting up and heading the Department of Climate Change, and returned to the Treasury in 2011 to take up the role of secretary.

Whilst there, he appointed Jan Harris, the first female deputy secretary of the Treasury in its then 112-year history, and implemented the Progressing Women initiative. Within two years, the proportion of women in the senior executive had risen from 20% – where it had been stuck for a number of years – to 35%.

Reforming the selection process was key to the initative’s success. Interview committees were told that, rather than simply interviewing people who applied for roles, it was their job to proactively go out and find the strongest candidates. And if interview groups were less than 50% female, the committee had to explain why. “That didn’t mean that people got into trouble and it didn’t mean that women got an easier ride, but we were actively encouraging people to think about recruiting differently,” Parkinson says.

Now, across the wider APS, half the secretaries – nine of them – are women; something Parkinson says could only have been achieved with the support of Turnbull. But public service leaders can’t yet relax: “It’s fantastic that we were able to get to nine secretaries, but it doesn’t mean we’ve broken the problem,” he says. “We’ve never had a woman head of an intelligence agency; we’ve never had a woman running the Treasury; and we haven’t had a woman running the central bank. The job’s not done, but we’re in a better position than we were.”

Improving gender equality in the APS is one of the achievements of which Parkinson is most proud. And what were his most difficult moments? One was returning from Princeton to the Treasury shortly before the 1990 recession and the “intense period of work” that followed, he replies. Another was setting up the Department of Climate Change in a country where the topic is so divisive that it has played a part in the downfall of several prime ministers. And he did not enjoy being told, when prime minister Tony Abbot was elected in 2013, that government didn’t have faith in his ability to run the Treasury – though, in the end, he kept his job.

A blot on Parkinson’s last chapter

Parkinson’s advice to his younger self? “I could have achieved the same outcomes by being a little less brash”.

Perhaps the most grating episode of his career, though, came at the very end of his tenure as secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet – a position he had held for three years. Parkinson had earlier investigated Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop, two former Coalition ministers who’d taken jobs with consultancies, over potential breaches of ministerial standards: he’d concluded that they had stayed within the rules.

There was subsequently an inquiry into Pyne’s and Bishop’s conduct, at which Parkinson appeared on his last day in office. He had found no grounds to believe that either minister had breached the standards, he says, and told the inquiry that if people disagreed with his assessment then there was a difference “between the standards as they exist and the standards that people seem to want to be in place”.

A month later, however, senator Rex Patrick launched an unusual and scathing attack on him. “The investigation appears to be either a demonstration of a lack of competence, which goes to ability, or a carefully crafted sham which purports to be an investigation but was in reality a political fix, which goes to character. I suspect it was the latter,” he said, calling it the low point of Parkinson’s career.   

For Parkinson, it was a bitter pill to swallow – and he’s robust in response. “What I say to him is that it’s complete crap,” he says. At the inquiry, he recalls, Patrick “asked me a single question, and it wasn’t a difficult one. He had the opportunity whilst I was there to have a serious conversation with me. He didn’t, and then he spoke about me the way he did – that says everything about him and nothing about me. His comments were utterly out of line.”

The episode clearly marred the last chapter of Parkinson’s APS career, but the man who rose from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of the Australian Public Service is not one to dwell. He looks back fondly on what he has achieved and, asked what advice he would give his younger self, says: “Use your ears more than your mouth. We’ve got two ears and one mouth, and perhaps at times I didn’t use them in the right proportions. In other words, I was a brash young thing, and I could have achieved the same outcomes by being a little less brash.”

And does he have any advice for the next generation of Australian public servants? Fight for truth and evidence in this world of ever more contested information: “Continue to have a view; be curious; understand what is happening at the forefront of policy and policy-related research; engage widely with stakeholders from all parts of the community; and be resolutely committed to advocating for truly evidence-based policy.”  

Global Government Forum: five thoughts for better government

Martin Parkinson on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. This is an edited version of Martin Parkinson’s answers.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you and your former colleagues?

I think some of the work that was done in New Zealand around the social investment approach to welfare, which we picked up and ran with, has been a really good initiative which we’ve learnt from abroad.

Are there any Australian projects or innovations that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

One of the things I think we’ve done pretty well has been around data analytics. Drought is an example. Parts of Australia have been in severe drought for many years, and spatial data and analytics have created really helpful tools for communities and for farmers.

Another idea which is interesting is the way in which our Department of Finance is using data analytics. It’s taking data from the Australian Public Service census and is trying to distil, at a work unit level, what characteristics are common amongst the teams that are highest performing.   

How can the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas be improved?

I think it would be good if the OECD were more successful in shaping parts of their work programmes to reflect the concerns of senior public servants in various parts of the world. That would be a very valuable addition to what the OECD already does.

What are the biggest global challenges facing governments and civil servants in the next few years?

I think in Western democracies we’ve got a problem with the loss of trust in government, and the disquiet that we’re seeing in large segments of the population about the people who are leading. We need to think about what we can do to ensure the public believes in our beneficial intent – our intention to do things that are in their interest – and that we are responding to their needs and communities’ needs. We need to assure the public that we’re competent in doing so.

What book have you enjoyed recently?

I’ve just read Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, which is about big data and what the internet has been able to reveal by looking at people’s actions, rather than what they say is important to them. It’s a really interesting read.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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