Laura Tingle’s autopsy of policy-making in the Australian Public Service is accurate and revealing. I write as one of the Class of ’96, that generation of public servants reared entirely in the Howard era, when policy-making disappeared from APS departments. Tingle notes that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was spared the worst of the policy vacuuming – but it didn’t seem that way to me, as a fresh-faced newcomer. While DFAT is renowned as one of a handful of “elite” agencies in the APS, it was clear throughout the Howard years that policy-making was simply not in its remit.
I vividly recall sitting in a large function room in Canberra in 1995, preparing to sit one of the many DFAT entrance exams. With a twinkle in his eye, the official administering the exam provided some advice on the recruitment process: “Don’t tell us you want to join up for the policy work – we know it’s all about the overseas postings!” This was met with hearty laughter from the assembled university students, but it triggered a small alarm in my brain. “But I am in it for the policy work,” I thought, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
My subsequent career in DFAT presented me with many unique opportunities and lots of fun – but no policy work, not really. My overseas posting at least gave me the opportunity to write reporting cables – but I was not in an “important” part of the world, so my reports disappeared into the encryption system and landed in front of an invisible, mute audience. In three years, only one reader ever piped up to begin a dialogue about my policy analysis. (That person is now a senior public servant in the Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet – so perhaps there is hope!)
With the notable exception of the highly technical work of our negotiators in the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round, DFAT simply didn’t “do” policy in the late 1990s and the early years of the new millennium. The centralisation of policy work in ministerial offices – combined with foreign minister Alexander Downer’s open loathing of the APS – created an environment in which DFAT jumped when asked, but otherwise stood still. There was no culture of inquiry, let alone policy debate. Junior staff (many with qualifications in international relations and experience working overseas) prepared meeting agendas and ferried visiting dignitaries to expensive restaurants and outback tourist haunts. Hey, it’s a living.
It dawned on me gradually that policy-making wasn’t going to be part of my career. This was more than a little deflating. So I started a postgraduate research degree in my spare time. I worked at DFAT by day and analysed policy by night. The irony was not lost on me. I can reel off a list of former colleagues – all stunningly bright and personable – who left DFAT around the time I did. Without exception, they beat a path to policy-based work: in academia, think-tanks or politics.
I should emphasise that the problem of failing policy nous in the APS (as ably described by Tingle) is not confined to DFAT. I did try my hand at a designated “policy” job in the public service a few years later. This was in a portfolio closely related to my PhD studies, and I was hopeful of making a proper contribution there. The work quickly revealed itself to be mostly administrative – until the day a very senior executive phoned me in a flap to say that the newly minted minister wanted “some ideas for new policies.” I was given two days to throw together a list of proposals. There was no input from seasoned policy experts in the department – because they didn’t exist. Two days later, the senior executive professed herself delighted with my bare-boned list, which was duly despatched to the minister’s office. We didn’t hear back. Well, I don’t think we did – I quietly resigned a few weeks later. The APS is just no place for policy-making anymore.
Amanda Walsh worked in the Australian Public Service from 1996 to 2010, including several years in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She is currently a project manager at the peak advocacy organisation Early Childhood Australia. She completed a PhD in politics in 2015.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 61, Balancing Act.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY