What happened to the days of free and frank advice?


If any of you reading this have been a public servant of any seniority, you’ll know the internal politics and avoidance-of-decision-making that can sometimes go on in a government department.

You’ll also be familiar with the need to ensure no one upsets the horses, least of all the horse ridden by your Minister or those saddled up by the media.

One former Minister once said to me when I worked in government: “I do not want to be on the 6pm news defending a (insert impolite word).”

And that’s entirely understandable.

Politicians can live or die by the media sword. They want their media profile to be scrupulously clean.

So, as Josie Pagani’s recent Stuff column pointed out, our senior bureaucrats are more at pains to not offend than to push innovative ideas or narratives that risk unwelcome scrutiny around the Beltway.

But where does that leave us?

If you have to work with senior officials, or have ever been one, you’ll know that can lead to a stiffling of ideas, an aversion to risk, and a distrust of innovation.

As one MP said to me this week: “Officials tend to over-criteria things to protect themselves, but they do so to the point nothing gets done because no one can meet the criteria.”

And that’s particularly sad, because we, the tax payer, employ these people to develop real world and practicable solutions to the issues that confront our society.

Our public service is supposed to ‘serve the public’. They are actually supposed to deep dive into the issues, get to grips with them and come up with ideas that will work.

I think it would benefit us all if officials had the political freedom in the workplace (and personal courage) to make bold calls that reflect evidence-based analysis.

Too often tho’ that can be a career-limiting move. The days of free and frank advice seem to be over, which is a shame.