Tag Archives: cynicism
Some regard the Westminster tradition of a politically neutral public service as a self-serving fiction. Others see it as an ideal to which governments and their civil services should aspire, though may never quite attain.
There are few hard and fast conventions involved in cultivating an independent government administrative system. Yet there are traditions or principles that many see as fundamental to good governance, or even to an effective democracy.
Straying from these leads to accusations that the government is politicising the public service. But what that means isn’t exactly clear. It might suggest the appointment of party-political representatives to public positions; the appointment of known government sympathisers to public positions; or some other way of preventing professional civil servants from providing “frank and fearless” advice to ministers.
Despite the lack of agreement about what politicisation means – and its significance – there’s almost universal criticism of governments that stray from the principles that underpin neutrality.
In practice, the accusation of “politicisation” often accompanies appointments made by an incoming government. These may be to departments; to government agencies, such as the ABC; to integrity agencies, such as the ombudsman; and, more often, the appointment of former politicians to diplomatic postings.
Obedience and integrity
The Australian Public Service operates near to the model of a professional public service where it serves successive governments without fear or favour. Changes of government typically mean that experienced, professional secretaries have remained to pilot their new ministers through.
There have been aberrations, such as the 1996 “night of the long knives” that dispatched six departmental heads. But most governments in past decades have relied on a cadre of professional civil servants to head departments and agencies even after power changes hands.
It is this cadre that enables the public service to remain as neutral as possible, especially when incoming governments are determined to implement their “mandates”. This reflects a fundamental principle that governments need to be “responsive” to their electors.
But problems can arise when appointees pay little attention to “frank and fearless” and see their role largely as doing the minister’s bidding. That’s stretching the notion of responsiveness too far.
The civil service is traditionally required to act in an impartial manner – that is, not to privilege particular interests over others and to behave in a politically neutral way. This is especially significant in relation to government agencies that investigate and adjudicate on complaints about and mistakes made by government.
Integrity agencies, such as the Office of the Information Commissioner or the Human Rights Commission, are required to investigate citizen complaints about government behaviour. They need to be seen to be at arm’s length from government.
Other agencies, such as the Electoral Commission, the Auditor-General or research bodies such as CSIRO or the Productivity Commission, also need to be at arm’s length so they can operate credibly in providing balanced advice.
Much more can be done to promote the independence of these agencies. A fundamental problem is that they rely on funding through the budget process. Some governments, at both Commonwealth and state levels, have used this as a lever to constrain agencies from following their remit when governments are unhappy with their activities. The Human Rights Commission is a recent example.
Making these agencies responsible to parliament, rather than to the government of the day, would mean that funding, and accountability, would be delivered through bipartisan bodies, such as the Public Accounts Committee. This would protect integrity agencies from direct government interference.
Governments are expected to represent a diversity of interests. That becomes less likely with a politicised public service.
Public agencies with responsibilities to consider the impact of policy on broad community groups, for instance, or to manage grants programs, need to have appointments that reflect community diversity. These appointments need to be treated with care to ensure they remain free of accusations of favouritism, cronyism, nepotism or vote-buying.
Cynical observers may be concerned about the politicisation of policy advice, especially that provided by public inquiries. When chaired by appointees with known views on the subject they rightly engender public cynicism about the likely outcomes of these ostensibly independent inquiries.
This was the case when noted climate sceptic Dick Warburton handed down a report on the Renewable Energy Target, and when education conservative Kevin Donnelly reviewed Australia’s national curriculum. These reports usually find their way to the rubbish bin once governments of a different hue assume office.
In contrast, more broad-based and less politicised inquiries – such as the Gonski review of school funding – may well retain their currency for longer.
There are arrangements in place that may dull the excesses of political appointments – such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Senate estimates process, codes of ministerial conduct and independent audits.
But unlike the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, Australia hasn’t appointed an independent commissioner for public appointments. An independent appointments body may help ensure that the government of the day cannot directly influence appointments to agencies and programs that specifically require diversity of interests and arm’s length from government.
The public service has gradually become more politicised in recent years. But this is a bigger problem for agencies broadly described as integrity agencies and for bodies where public perception of neutrality are important to their operations, such as the ABC or the Electoral Commission.
Institutional change, along the lines of what’s already operating in other democratic systems, might produce independent appointments and reduce the public angst each time a “political” appointment is made to such boards or commissions. In these cases, governments might finally accept that arm’s-length governance is preferable to public cynicism and diminution of the standing of important agencies that serve to uphold democratic standards.
This article is part of a series on breaking political conventions. Look out for more articles exploring various political conventions in the coming days.
If we want to use scientific thinking to solve problems, we need people to appreciate evidence and heed expert advice.
But the Australian suspicion of authority extends to experts, and this public cynicism can be manipulated to shift the tone and direction of debates. We have seen this happen in arguments about climate change.
This goes beyond the tall poppy syndrome. Disregard for experts who have spent years studying critical issues is a dangerous default position. The ability of our society to make decisions in the public interest is handicapped when evidence and thoughtfully presented arguments are ignored.
So why is science not used more effectively to address critical questions? We think there are several contributing factors including the rise of Google experts and the limited skills set of scientists themselves. We think we need non-scientists to help us communicate with and serve the public better.
At a public meeting recently, when a well-informed and feisty elderly participant asked a question that referred to some research, a senior public servant replied: “Oh, everyone has a scientific study to justify their position, there is no end to the studies you could cite, I am sure, to support your point of view.”
This is a cynical statement, where there are no absolute truths and everyone’s opinion must be treated as equally valid. In this intellectual framework, the findings of science can be easily dismissed as one of many conflicting views of reality.
Such a viewpoint is dangerous from our point of view.
When scientists disagree with one another, as they must to ensure progress in their field, it is easy to argue that it is not possible to distinguish between conflicting hypotheses. But scientists always agree that critical thinking done well eventually leads to a better understanding and superior solutions. All opinions are not equal.
If you are flying in an airplane at 30,000 feet, you will not be content with just any scientific study about whether the wing will stay on the plane. Most people will want to put their trust in the calculations of an expert aeronautical engineer who understands the physics of stresses on the wing.
So why do we not want to trust experts in bushfire management, or climate change? Because most people are happier with experts whose conclusions fit their own ideas.
This encourages people to express their opinions, and the internet allows those opinions to get a wide viewing. This makes for interesting times, but not always effective solutions.
The internet is filled with information and ideas. Everyone can quickly find “answers”, and this means that everyone is an “expert”.
But using Google to find the answer to Trivial Pursuit questions is not the same as researching a complex question. Experts do have skills and one of those is the ability to use high quality sources, up to date theoretical frameworks, and critical thinking based on their experience in a particular field. This is why an expert’s answers are going to be more accurate and more nuanced than a novice.
For example, people who use Dr Google to diagnose their symptoms before visiting an actual doctor, sometimes ask to be tested for diseases they do not have, or waste time seeking a second opinion because they are convinced that their “research” has led them to a correct diagnosis. If it were really that easy, would doctors have to spend all those years in medical school?
There is another problem called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which states that “people who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact”.
In other words, people who think all answers can be found on Google are likely to be unaware of the effort involved in solving complex problems, or why years of specialist training might help.
This is almost more dangerous than complete ignorance, because unlike Donald Rumsfeld, they don’t even know what they don’t know.
Easy access to huge volumes of confusing information sits very comfortably in a post-modern world. Unfortunately, the outcome is that most people are reluctant to do the intellectual hard work of sifting through competing hypotheses. So how are we to engage in robust scientific debates in such a public arena?
Science is not enough
It has been said many times that scientists need to communicate their research more broadly. The challenges are well known – peer reviewed scientific publications are necessary for our careers and time spent engaging with the public is time away from the field, our computers and laboratory benches.
Nevertheless, if we hope to influence government policy we cannot assume that the implications of our research will be understood by those who most need to know what we are doing.
Reaching out to busy bureaucrats and politicians is not something that comes naturally to scientists. To turn science into policy we need a diverse team of people with different but complementary skills who share a commitment to the task.
Skills that are not commonly found in scientists may be found in political scientists, lawyers, sociologists, public relations companies, the arts community and the media.
Forming relationships with people who can translate our findings into something that cannot be ignored may be critical to success.
Consider what we are up against, lobby groups with deep pockets have come up with brilliant assaults on the thoughtful management of our environment.
“Cutting Green Tape” or “No fuels, no fire” – these clever bits of spin threaten decades of rigorous research and policy development. This is not a failure of science, but a triumph of imagination. We have been dramatically out-manoeuvred, shown to be amateurs, in the world of presenting competing ideas.
At a recent fire forum we learned that current policy is: “Based on science, but driven by values.” This means that despite the best evidence, the values of our current society will decide when to act. This introduces another definition of truth seeking, based on who made the best argument in a political or legal process.
Science is meant to be done dispassionately and objectively, so scientists are not well equipped to participate in debates about values. This is the realm of ethicists, philosophers, artists and theologians.
But if we are passionate about applying the lessons learned from our research, we will need marketers, lobbyists, communication experts, accountants and economists. A multi-disciplinary team is required to convince society to change.
Perhaps the people with these complementary skills will be able to help break down the anti-intellectualism we face, for the benefit of all.
This is based on an address delivered by Professor Michael Clarke at the 2nd Biodiversity Forum held at the Royal Society of Victoria, Melbourne in 2014.