Last month, I was working with a group of graduates from a public service agency.
They were smart, keen, determined to do well.
The program and discussion was about policy and policy documents, when all of a sudden, out from the deep, someone asked the question: What should I do if I profoundly disagree with the policy, statements and actions of the government that I serve as a professional?
It’s a question that doesn’t apply just to work in the public service. All of us, potentially, will be asked in life to act in ways that don’t accord with our own values, with our own sense of what is right and proper.
The APS says that public service professionals must behave honestly and with integrity. In this, we face challenges on 2 fronts. The first comes when we are confronted with unlawful behaviour. The second arises when we find ourselves at odds with the policy of government that we serve.
The first is the easier of the two. In the face of unlawful behaviour our obligations are clear. Don’t act unlawfully. Don’t break the law; don’t bend the law; don’t use shortcuts to undermine the law. Furthermore, in the face of unlawful behaviour, professionals have a positive obligation to not turn a blind eye. We cannot assign responsibility for action to another. Such behaviour is to be reported, confronted and addressed.
In a perfect world, this sort of behaviour is just stamped out.
Organisations identify what went wrong and act to right the wrong. However, we are adults here. We have watched enough drama on TV or observed hearings of royal commissions, or sessions of Senate Estimates to understand that clear obligations do not make for easy action. Individuals are sometimes pressured – explicitly or tacitly – to just toe the line. We live in the real world. We work in teams. A power structure exists. A hierarchy exists. The prevailing culture shapes behaviour. Whistle blowers are treated shabbily.
Individual officers, therefore, must protect themselves. And to do so, they need a careful plan, strong support and detailed records.
The second challenge comes when we disagree with lawful initiatives of our employer – the government or the organisation that employs us. Our struggle here is one of ethics rather than law.
Nobody agrees all the time with their employer.
In Australia, our flawed system of democratic government and our imperfect federation exist as a force for good. An apolitical public service that professionally serves the government of the day is unequivocally positive for the nation. The separation of powers between executive, legislature and courts is a positive.
An apolitical public service, as an institution, is staffed by professionals who have to compromise and sacrifice their own personal views. After an election, government and power is transferred peacefully. The new government has policy priorities totally at odds with those of the old. An apolitical public service properly must advise on how best new policies are to be implemented – and how these new priorities are to be explained and defended.
For an individual to argue that up is down is an exercise in hypocrisy. For a public servant, however, the ability to faithfully serve a new government is a required and essential skill. The stability and effectiveness of our system of government depends on it.
According to this schema, therefore, personal views are irrelevant to the service that public servants provide. The job is simply to provide a service: all a professional has to do is to obey lawful orders.
Now, as a response this is good but it’s not perfect: an excuse that orders must be obeyed does not serve to justify lawful heinous action.
So we are pressed hard by the ethical questions: What is heinous and how is an individual to act?
A response needs to be graded. As a decision rule, the priority is to prevent harm and injustice. If policy is causing lawful harm, then we are justified in having objections. The first point, therefore, is about scale. The greater the harm, the greater should be an objection to policy or policy inaction.
Next comes scope and sequencing. At any point in time, governments have multiple problems to fix. Not all harms are equal; nor do they exist in an abstract environment. Government is a slow grind. Progress very often is incremental. Governments have the operating problem of deciding on sequencing and priorities. Personal views about a particular problem do not necessarily create a reason for the government to focus on that problem.
It’s a truth in government that a complaint is not a solution. Just because we disagree with policy does not mean that we have solution. So policy making demands we consider if we have a specific solution that is technically achievable and realistic.
Last comes the puzzle of how best should an individual respond, so let’s imagine I disagree with a particular initiative. It’s lawful, but I think that it’s wrong headed because it’s failing to prevent or is causing serious harm. The harm is serious compared to other problems. Objectively, it should be a priority. A solution is technically possible.
As a professional, my response has to be sequenced. In the first instance, I work within the organisation as an agent of good faith:
And only then, only after all of this and only if the stakes were high and only if all of my efforts were in vain, would I decide to give the game away.
Chas Savage is the Chief Executive Officer of Ethos CRS.