Open letter to Mr Stephen Sedgwick AO, Australian Public Service Commissioner

Dear Commissioner

The purpose of this open letter is to articulate a number of issues relating to the apparent thinking of the Australian Public Service Commission and, indeed, the way the Commission goes about its work. In particular, it is a matter of concern that the Commission’s stance perpetuates a repressive corporate management culture.

Self-limiting view of social media

It is writ large that the Commission is, itself, a social media no-go-zone. The Commission has no significant social media presence and, in particular, has made no use of social media technologies to enable ongoing open dialogue between public servants concerning such issues as the reform of the APS, innovation, organisational culture and, for that matter, the nature of leadership and management.

Instead, the Commission prefers to perpetuate a culture of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). The peddling of FUD is evidence by Circular 2012/1: Revisions to the Commission’s guidance on making public comment and participating online which states,

When APS employees are making public comment in an unofficial capacity, it is not appropriate for them to make comment that is, or could be perceived to be:

so harsh or extreme in its criticism of the Government, a member of parliament from another political party, or their respective policies, that it raises questions about the APS employee’s capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially. Such comment does not have to relate to the employee’s area of work

so strong in its criticism of an agency’s administration that it could seriously disrupt the workplace. APS employees are encouraged instead to resolve concerns by informal discussion with a manager or by using internal dispute resolution mechanisms, including the APS whistleblowing scheme if appropriate.

What this circular does is sanction APS agencies to engage in practices that effectively tell employees to ‘Watch it and shut up”. As you will see from my post Australian Taxation Office on Social Media it is very clear that no thought has been given to bringing any precision to what discussions should be conducted online.

What the Commission is alluding to here is that the discussion of APS issues and practices could destroy the reputation of the entire APS. As pointed out by Julian Assange disclosures made via Wikileaks did not destroy the national security apparatus of the United States. Despite illogical assertions of the State Department.

Similarly, there is no logical reason to suppose that taking a more reasoned and positive approach to online dialogue between public servants and, indeed, between public servants and the community would harm the Australian Public Service.

Such dialogue may, of course, embarrass the leadership and management of the APS by introducing a much needed layer of transparency. However, the benefits in terms of harnessing the capabilities of all APS employees and ensuring dysfunctional issues and practices that impede the service are discussed, before they become entrenched and costly, outweigh subjective considerations such as embarrassment. That is, of course, unless one is so risk averse and self-interested that leadership and management have become ends in there own right.

Self-limiting view of leadership and management

As evidenced by the APS Leadership and core skills strategy 2012-13 and your recent speech toAustralian Government Leadership Network leadership and management are seen as the critical means of creating high performing APS agencies. This is a continuation of the approach taken by the Commission for decades and is a reflection of the value attached to hierarchy and the primacy of leadership and management.

However, given the public comments of yourself and, for example, the role of the APSC Strategic Centre for Leadership, Learning and Development it is apparent that the approach being taken by the Commission is essentially more of the same. There does not appear to be any thinking as fundamental as that being undertaken by the Management Innovation Exchange.

In regard to the Commission holding a self limiting view of leadership and management I draw your attention to the Management 2.0 Hackathon Report. In particular, I refer you to Gary Hamel’s lecture on the Pathologies of Management 1.0.

The salient points are that many of APS leadership and management practices, indeed the APS’s very notions of management and leadership, are grounded in the past. The leadership and management practices of the APS are:

  • Exclusive rather than Inclusive
  • Unsocial rather than Social
  • Morally disengaged rather than Morally engaged
  • Systems centric rather than People centric

This approach (and failure), is mainly being mainly driven by the corporate human resource function and, I put it to you, that this approach is containing rather than liberating the talent of APS employees. This is unaffordable in the 21st century.

Worse still, I put it to you that this approach is the genesis of workplace bullying across the Australian Public Service. This is due to the selective over-emphasis on process which results in ‘good people doing bad things’. And that, in its rawest form, is what characterises moral disengagement. In that regard I refer you to Albert Bandura discuses Moral Disengagement.

Bullying and defensive routines

As a result of my work on workplace bullying it has become very clear to myself and others that public service notions of what constitutes leadership and management within the Australian Public Service are a primary cause of workplace bullying. The significance of workplace bullying within the Australian Public Service is that it signals organisation dysfunction, represses the talents of individuals and destroys lives.

These notions are, of course, advocated by leaders, including those who lead corporate human resource areas. A belief in the primacy of leadership and management coupled with the unhealthy premium attached to blind compliance and conformity are the hallmarks of leadership and management practices within the Australian Public Service.

The important point here is that these are very traditional notions skewed towards the maintenance of a self-interested status quo and do not serve us well in an age of hyper transparency and engagement. The approach taken to leadership and management and social media by the Commission is, I put it you, a defensive routine. One that perpetuates workplace bullying and creates a climate of fear where people are afraid to discuss issues and practices that need to be discussed openly and transparently.


By way of closure it is worth pointing out that the common thread running through the three key issues I have focused on in this open letter is the need to adopt a more decent and progressive approach to the way in which public servants can engage with one another, with complex issues and with citizens.

The current approach being taken by the APSC and APS agencies is not conducive to decency or progress and, so far as workplace bullying is concerned, encourages managerial abuse. The challenge with the latter being that we are, in the main, talking about ‘good people doing bad things’ courtesy of the policies, processes and practices that surround them.

Given the fact that this is essentially about policies, processes and practices we would like to know what the Public Service Commission is going to do to:

  • Remove the climate of fear, uncertainly and doubt so that the public service can develop a widespread and deep capability to engage online.
  • Facilitate the open online discussion of complex issues and problems.
  • Shift Australian Public Service notions of management so that they they are more inclusive, socially and morally engaged and, of course, people centric.
  • Reduce the use of defensive routines by Australian Public Service leadership and management. Especially corporate human resource areas.
  • Actively support the targets of workplace bullying to discuss their experiences online in a professional manner.

We look forward to your response to these important and challenging issues.

Yours sincerely

Steve Davies

Founder, OZloop

Co-founder, Public integrity Australia

18 October 2012

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