Democratic Governance

Around the world liberal democracies and their political institutions are being tested.

In 2016 the political landscape was marked by turbulence, anxiety, and transition. Britons voted to leave the European Union, Australians went to a double dissolution federal election and perhaps the biggest surprise, America elected Donald Trump as President.

In 2020, not much has changed. Liberal democracies continue to face serious challenges to their institutions and traditions as the recent U.S. presidential election attests. These challenges – identity politics and tribalism, growing polarisation and the erosion of the political centre; the rise of populist politicians and re-emergence of authoritarian impulses, the appeal of seemingly simple, populist solutions to complex policy problems and the disdain for evidence; and the adverse effects of social media which reinforces tribalism and ‘us and them’ approaches to politics and governing – are not abating.

Democracy it seems is in a state of deep malaise. The Global Satisfaction with Democracy 2020 report published by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University paints a discouraging picture. Their findings?

  • In the mid-1990s, a majority of the citizens in countries surveyed, including in North America, Europe and Australasia were satisfied with the performance of their democracies. Since then, the share of individuals who are ‘dissatisfied’ with democracy has risen by about 10%, to almost 58%.
  • The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005.
  • Many large democracies are at their highest ever recorded level of democratic dissatisfaction, including Australia, the US and UK.

With democracy in a state of deep malaise, the role of a professional public service is more important than ever. Public servants – nonpartisan, apolitical public servants able to serve successive governments with equal dedication and commitment, committed to honesty and integrity, and working within a framework of public accountability – serve as important stewards of democracy.

It’s timely to revisit some sage advice from Professor Peter Shergold AC provided at IPAA Queensland’s 2019 Irene Longman Oration. Drawing on his decades of experience leading several APS departments, including Prime Minister & Cabinet, he outlined five ways in which public servants can strengthen the liberal values that sustain democratic government in Australia. Some excerpts on each are shared below.

Speaking truth to power

First, senior public servants need to comprehend that their role in providing policy advice is to speak truth to political power. Whilst fully accepting that it is the role of elected politicians to form governments and make policy decisions, the role of the nonpartisan public servant as a ‘critical friend’ is crucial.

Public servants can suggest a variety of policy solutions to the challenges that face their Ministers; help to ensure that Cabinets work effectively in providing a mechanism for collective decision-making; identify the unanticipated pitfalls, unforeseen consequences and unexpected risks of proposed approaches; and suggest alternative ways by which they can achieve their objectives.

They can gauge how to frame their arguments in order to increase the likelihood of influencing their political ‘masters’. In discussions that should remain confidential, and without seeking to usurp political power, they can prosecute arguments for and against proposed policies.

How do public servants know when they have argued their cases enough? There is no simple answer, for it depends in part on the gravity and consequence of the matter being discussed. My regular response, repeated here, is that public servants should ensure that governments make their decisions – good, bad or indifferent – with their eyes wide open. Effective public service should protect Ministers from being shocked at the outcomes of their actions.

There is a tendency to think that speaking truth with courage is a matter only for Secretaries, Director-Generals or their senior executives. That is not the case. In public services that remain functionally demarcated and hierarchically structured, middle managers need the courage to challenge the views of those above them. So, too, do the community organisations, which often deliver outsourced government programs under the direction of public service contract managers. That purchaser-provider relationship is fraught with danger: it takes fortitude to question the wisdom of the paymaster. Power, in public services, generally extends a long arm. It needs to grasp at truth.

Bring expertise to policy

Second, public servants bring expertise to policy. This is increasingly important at a time when intellectual proficiency is often treated with scorn by populist politicians who proffer simple answers to the complex economic, social and environmental problems that beset nations. Public problems are ‘wicked’ for many reasons. They can be long-term global challenges that need to be addressed by short-term focussed national or provincial governments; they nearly always involve trade-offs, in which some sectors of the community will have to bear the costs in order to provide benefits to others; at a time of austerity, spending on assessed priorities will necessarily impose opportunity costs in terms of other unmet demands; and it is far easier to respond to the visible consequences of social problems rather than address their less visible causes.

Additionally, many problems are exacerbated by tensions between the rising expectations of citizens of what governments are able to do and their strong sense of what governments should not do. The public is a fickle beast. Its members often hold unrealistic views of what governments should provide relative to what they, as taxpayers, are willing to fund: given a chance, citizens vote for higher spending and lower taxes.

The role of the good public servants is to sift the evidence and to assist successive governments to weigh the relative merits of different approaches. This involves more than undertaking desk-top research and applying the skills of conceptualisation, analysis and synthesis.

Access to frontline experience may be as valid and more timely in formulating policy than the conclusion of an article in a peer-reviewed but poorly-read academic journal. That means having the skill to apply the learnings of behavioural psychology to the human-centred design of policies.

Public servants need to comprehend the lived experience of individuals and communities if they are properly to inform government interventions. The key is not to adapt evidence to support a preferred decision but to introduce research findings sufficiently early that they can influence the decision.

That cautionary distinction between ‘policy-based evidence’ and ‘evidence-based policy’ is now well understood. But the ability of skilled public servants to address it has become far harder in a world in which the authority of Dr Google provides the unwary researcher with almost unlimited and immediate access to information, much of it of doubtful provenance.

In the easily curated world of social media one often only hears the voices of these who share one’s existing beliefs. The role of the public servant in assessing the reliability of information and turning it into evidentiary knowledge has become harder and far more important.

Voice of moderation and judgment

Third, in an era of growing incivility in public discourse, the way in which public servants operate seems increasingly quaint. It is for that very reason of greater consequence. The modus operandi of public servants, whether exhibited behind closed doors or in appearances before parliamentary committees, is to provide a polite voice of moderation and considered judgement on public policy. This is at odds with the ferocity and ill-temper that often marks the arena of political contest in which they work and the uber-aggressiveness of social media commentary on public policy decisions.

Public servants design and deliver policies in a world of iterative negotiation and compromise largely hidden from public view. For most seasoned veterans, their ability to craft a second-or third-best solution is generally considered a better option than achieving no outcome at all.

To the frustration of generations of ministerial media advisers, they are trained to present policy in a careful, cautious and studied manner. They seek to be apolitical in their advice but have the political sensibility to understand its context. Their challenge is to achieve an equilibrium between disinterest and eagerness: exhibit too much of the former, and it comes across to ministers as studied indifference and unresponsiveness; show too much of the latter (often my failing) and it may present to political oppositions as can-do  political enthusiasm for the government of the day.

When so many people have taken to shouting at each other, generally online, public servants need to take pride in their ability to understand different points of view and to search for approaches that might help bring them closer together. It represents an institutional voice of moderation in an era of political fragmentation.

Deliver services that meet expectations

Fourth, it is necessary for public servants to recognise that their role in designing policy for governments can only be judged as successful by the manner in which it is implemented. The administrators that the public are aware of are those on the front-line who execute government decisions. Trust in democratic governance depends in large measure on public servants delivering programs not just on time and on budget but in a manner which meets public expectations.

A well-functioning bureaucracy, with all the checks and balances, is a highly successful way of implementing large-scale programs – whether collecting revenue, making payments or delivering services. It can do so with considerable accuracy and little opportunity for corruption or nepotism. It provides quality control. It can also be slow and cumbersome.

It is in recognition of these characteristics that public services now espouse the language of agility and flexibility. Increasingly they trial new programs in demonstration projects; tailor service provision to the particular needs of places or communities; allow commissioned organisations to deliver government initiatives with less prescriptive input control and more payment on the basis of outcomes; and build cross-sectoral collaborations for the creation of public impact on the basis of genuine partnerships.

Governments seek to provide citizens with the same responsiveness as market competition tens to do in the private sector. There are now hundreds of such initiatives underway in the line agencies of Commonwealth, State or Territory public services. The question, to which I do not have a definitive answer, is whether these more innovative and adaptive approaches to delivering public policy can move from the periphery of public administration to become its core. If the public service is seen by the community to deliver the policies of government well, it will go a long way to addressing the democratic deficit of trust that increasingly prevails.

Bring government closer to citizens

Fifth, public services need to lead the way in bringing government closer to citizens.  Today, party membership has plummeted and public walkabouts are carefully stage-managed to minimise questions and maximise photo opportunities. Only compulsory voting, and the promise of a burnt snag, persuade many Australians to attend the ballot box (although more and more now cast their vote in advance.)

Political engagement often takes place online and, with the ‘woke’ generation, that generally involves posting or tweeting brief comments designed to exhibit to those of like minds one’s own political virtue. With rare exceptions social media commentary fails to create sustained political action.

Identity politics – based on groups defined by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation marginalisation – tends to constrain public conversations, fracturing the civil polity and reinforcing marginalisation. Ongoing participation in mainstream politics is diminishing and, as a result, confidence in established politicians and faith in traditional democratic processes declines.   

Fortunately, there are seeds of hope. Governments, often encouraged by their public services, are embracing new initiatives. In a few key areas such as aged and disability care, service recipients are being encouraged to participate in ‘customer-directed’ approaches in which they are encouraged to take greater control over the services they choose and the provider they prefer. They can be given the opportunity to design their own solutions, creating public impact at a personal level.

More profoundly, public servants are beginning to take on a stronger facilitative role in helping citizens to navigate the complexity of government processes that are functionally and jurisdictionally demarcated. They can enable members of the public to contribute more directly to the framing of government policies and the design of publicly-funded programs.


Public servants need to speak truth to power, draw on their expertise to frame policy, bring a polite voice of moderation and considered judgement to political and public debate, deliver services and implement regulations in accord with public expectations and bring governments closer to citizens.

In doing so, public servants should recognise themselves to be stewards not just of the nation’s resources but of the liberal values which sustain democratic government, civic enterprise and civil engagement.

Public servants need to convey to the public their vital contribution to governance and, with quiet pride, ensure that politicians and citizens properly understand the crucial role that they play in maintaining the values of a liberal democracy.  


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