Skip to main content

In conversation: Dr Martin Parkinson, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australian Government

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Interviews

Dr Martin Parkinson, Australia’s equivalent of the UK Government's Cabinet Secretary, gives his views on subjects ranging from the challenges facing the UK after it exits the EU, to bridging the gap between policy development and implementation, and rebuilding the public’s trust in the institutions that serve them.

1. One of the main challenges facing the UK Civil Service is exiting the European Union. What opportunities do you think will open up to UK public services as part of a post-Brexit Britain?

Head and shoulders image of Martin Parkinson
Martin Parkinson, Secretary of the Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Through Brexit, the UK is making a conscious decision to withdraw from an economic and broader strategic grouping of nations in which you wield disproportionate weight. I’m not being critical of the decision, but framing it this way makes clear the scale of the challenges it presents and the need to exploit new opportunities for a post-Brexit Britain.

The opportunities for the public sector will of course depend in part on the final terms of Brexit. But several things are clear.

You’ll certainly need to rebuild capability in areas that were EU responsibilities, like your trade negotiating function

You’ll need to focus on other important issues too, like migration, and creating a regulatory environment and skills pipeline that support business growth in London and across the country.

Potential negative impacts on GDP growth from any reduction in EU market access can only be offset by finding new markets, so competitiveness will take on added importance. So, issues that currently hold back productivity growth will need to be tackled.

And your foreign policy – in all its economic, cultural, military and broader strategic dimensions – will clearly need to pivot. While maintaining your EU links, you’ll need to build broader regional and global relationships.

I suspect that, as you reorient to a post-Brexit Britain, you might also need to ask whether the current structure of the Civil Service, and its approach to issues, are fit-for-purpose.

Over and above these points, your task is to provide continuity through Brexit and to take a long-term strategic view to shaping post-Brexit Britain.

I imagine things are pretty busy and sometimes confusing right now – but the UK public service also has a tremendous opportunity to help set a foundation blueprint for your country. It’s an exciting position to be in.

Australia and the UK have similar institutions, values and economic frameworks, and our public services have a lot to learn from each other. We’re operating in different environments, but the bottom line is that we both need to be smart, confident and professional!

2. What are the challenges that face public services in a nation not belonging to a natural regional or cultural grouping?

Peter Varghese, who stepped down as Secretary of our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade last year, pointed out that Australia belongs to no natural regional or cultural grouping, and cannot buy or bully our way in the world.

Post-Brexit, Britain may find itself in a similar position.

For Australia, our strategic imperative is to be firm advocates for multilateralism, alongside our bilateral relationships; to be creative and constructive advocates and negotiators in international affairs; and to default to openness, not defensiveness, in engaging with the world.

Every country’s foreign policy is guided by, and founded upon, its values and the strength of its economy, society, military capability, and its political systems. We prepared a significant Foreign Policy White Paper in 2017, which concluded that “an outward-looking Australia fully engaged with the world is essential to our future security and prosperity”. The value of the White Paper process was to have a realistic picture of our contested world, and to set out basic principles for how we engage.

One of the key challenges for us, whether in Australia, the UK or other democracies, is to integrate economic and broader strategic aspects of foreign policy. Too often we treat them as separate, partly reflecting the siloed nature of our bureaucracies.

Yet, successful foreign policy is based on taking a broad view of our national interest and effectively deploying all aspects of our power – diplomatic, economic, military and cultural.

Martin Parkinson standing in an office corridor

3. We recently featured an article in Civil Service Quarterly that explored the challenge of developing and then delivering public service policy. Is this an issue experienced in Australia, and if so how can we bridge the gap between the two?

I’ve made clear my concern about a degradation of policy expertise over time in the Australian Public Service.

This is partly about a loss of capability in the outsourcing era. It also reflects the challenge of adapting to policy-making in a very different world, as we grapple with complex, adaptive problems that aren’t amenable to simple, top-down solutions. We spend too much time on policy design and not enough on implementation – when you tackle really tough issues like domestic violence or entrenched disadvantage, you’ve got to spend as much time thinking about the local and delivery elements of policy as you do on the big picture.

I suspect many public services face similar issues.

This is one of the reasons that I recommended our former PM, Malcolm Turnbull, launch a major independent review of the Australian Public Service. The review’s job is to make sure we’re fit-for-purpose in coming decades, given the pace and scale of the change in the world today. The review is studying the UK’s development of a ‘policy profession’ and the other service professions with interest.

We’re rolling out some service-wide measures to lift policy capability, and agencies are also renewing their own professional development. But we all know how important on-the-job coaching and mentoring are – passing on traditions, insight and guidance is like a capability multiplier.

I sometimes think about my own public service career as a lifelong apprenticeship: I’ve never stopped learning from people around me and hope the Australian Public Service can deliver this for all its members.

4. The UK Government’s Industrial Strategy outlined four ‘grand challenges’: big data; clean growth; the future of mobility; and meeting the needs of an ageing society. What ‘grand challenges’ does Australia face, and how is it tackling them?

We haven’t used the ‘grand challenge’ language in Australia, but I like the way you’ve structured your thinking on these issues.

Let me talk about one big challenge we face in Australia and around the developed world: making the most of technology.

We’ve already seen significant technological change over the last decade. It has had an enormous impact on the way we shop, work, socialise and debate political ideas. I can’t see this process stopping, and there’s every reason to think that technology will dramatically disrupt industries and our labour market over the next 10 or 15 years.

I’m optimistic about this change. When it works well, capitalism is a remarkably effective mechanism for redistributing resources and promoting and adapting to innovation. And successful innovation will drive productivity and provide the potential to lift living standards – whether it does improve living standards, though, will depend on the policies we pursue.

It might not seem like it when trying to rip an iPad from your teenager playing Fortnite or spending too much time on Facebook, but technology really can make lives better. There’s no better example than the way technology can empower marginalised people, whether it’s giving sight to the blind or helping deaf people hear. Technologies like better data analytics and artificial intelligence are already giving us amazing tools to improve government services; and maybe technology can help us start to tackle some of those really intractable social challenges, too.

But equally we need to get this technological revolution right. Technology can and should make lives and our jobs better, not worse – we have a responsibility to ensure change doesn’t alienate groups in society, exacerbate inequality, or leave people behind. One phrase I like is, ensuring that we can ‘grow together’.

This is a huge public policy challenge. Whether you work in health, education or welfare, tax, industry policy or regulation, foreign policy, justice or many other domains, over the next decade we’ll all grapple with the underlying challenge of how to make the technological revolution something that ensures people’s lives are made better, not worse.

5. At the recent Australia UK Leadership Forum in London, you referenced the rising mistrust in government in the developed world. How can we ensure that the public trust policy decisions and ultimately the services they receive?

Partial reflection of Martin Parkinson in glass picture framesMany of you will have seen various publications demonstrating the long-term fall in trust of government and traditional institutions in advanced economies around the world. This is a problem because trust gives policy-makers ‘reform currency’ – the ability to work with the public in understanding the problem, developing solutions and getting buy-in for their delivery. The most elegant policy solution is no good if people fundamentally don’t trust it or the people rolling it out.

In response to evidence of the decline in trust, we often think about how to rebuild it. To me, this is asking the wrong question. Instead, the real question is: how do we earn trust.

I’m really interested in a few aspects of the data on trust. First, people tend to trust the public servants they deal with most, like teachers, police and other people actually delivering local services. Trust in government declines the further away it is. The second point I’m interested in is the degree of trust people place in new online communities and digital platforms, even after Cambridge Analytica-type scandals.

This data tells me that part of the solution for us is trying to create a public service that feels like its local, personal and responsive to each citizen, even if we can’t physically be there all the time. That’s why I’m so interested in place-based approaches to policy problems, better use of data to understand both macro trends and micro issues, and the opportunities to develop genuinely responsive and tailored digital services.

6. What role do you think the media plays in shaping policy decisions and delivery?

Great question. It’s clear the media has always had an enormous influence on policy and the political environment. That’s democracy and a free press.

But how this works has changed dramatically. Even 15 or 20 years ago, the ‘media’ really only comprised a relatively small number of television, radio and newspaper or magazine outlets. Now, the media landscape is so much more diverse. It shapes and filters public opinion in such different ways.

A good way to understand this is looking back, two decades ago, to when the Australian Government introduced a goods and services tax, what we call the GST.

Before announcing the plan, ministers and public servants spent a great deal of time talking to the major economic journalists about it. This meant that the first reporting of the plan was accompanied by in-depth analysis in the major daily newspapers.

While the media reporting didn’t shy away from sensationalist issues, it ultimately played an important part in the government’s ability to get public understanding and support for the reform.

A government would need a vastly different approach to this sort of reform today, and honestly I think many governments – and certainly public services – haven’t really worked out how to effectively get buy-in for hard reforms in the new media environment. I’m worried by the amount of misinformation peddled online and by the ability for communities of interest to rapidly come together, united only by their opposition to a change. Opposition is legitimate, but social media magnifies the voice and it can be difficult to determine the true extent of disagreement, or to explain the case for change.

There is a lot of criticism of social media, so let me be clear – it’s not the fault of social media per se, rather that we haven’t worked out how to use it as a tool for positive reform more generally. We can take for granted the freedoms social media provides. Social media gives everyone a voice. A few decades ago you needed a spot at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, but now everyone’s phone is their soapbox. This helps hold government to account and is part of the way social forces operate. So, even with all its challenges, I’d prefer free speech and social media over severe restrictions of the net.

7. What would your advice be to someone working in policy keen to nurture and reward innovation?

Simple: have a go! You’ll be surprised what you can achieve if you have a plan and something to suggest.

At its heart, innovation really just means doing new things or doing old things better. It’s about making a difference, whether it’s exploiting the latest technology, dreaming up new approaches, or simply pushing back on the status quo.

I know this is easier said than done. There is a great quote from Machiavelli about the difficulty of changing things:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

He went on to explain that reform has only lukewarm defenders among its advocates, and fierce opposition from those who stand to lose from change.

The antidote to this is good old-fashioned policy work, from understanding the problem and collecting and analysing the evidence, to understanding your political and operating environment and the motivations and interests of stakeholders. You can’t advocate change as if you’re proving a mathematical equation – you need to appeal to people’s heads and their hearts.

And of course, we need a healthy approach to taking risks. While we shouldn’t licence recklessness, we need to accept that innovations don’t always work and you can’t crucify people when things go wrong.

Sharing and comments

Share this page

1 comment

  1. Comment by Marija Liudvika Drazdauskiene posted on

    Thank you very much, indeed, for this interview. I appreciate the points made but I suspect that encouraging the spread of public media and participation in it entails an internal risk. I cannot believe that the Secretary of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of the Australian government has not noticed how burdensome, one-sided and trivial public opinions are and they are likely to be only more spread and polluting if the public is encouraged to participate through the media. It seems to me that government ministers and secretaries would soon be fighting the onslaught of useless and fit-for-nothing views and opinions. The likeliest issue would be a struggle of government representatives to extricate themselves from the grip of media voices. There is a great difference how countries are ruled and how common people view it. The readiest approach from the public is likely to be "give us enough of this, that and the other thing", while people in government know very well that the giving resources are always limited and that governing takes them away from the immediate bed-bread-and-butter needs. I doubt the success of governments who trust the media. An acceptable route might be to let the public speak and take no heed of it, but this may soon be rejected by the public itself. Thank you.