Yesterday the outgoing secretary for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese, delivered a fascinating and candid lecture at the Institute for Public Administration on the state of the public service and of public policy analysis in Australia. Of particular interest are Varghese's thoughts on the decline of deep policy thinking:

Deep policy thinking is an area where our system, at both the political and the public service levels, has struggled over the last decade.

It is becoming harder for the political leadership to think deeply about new policy approaches. This means that governments come to power with headline policy positions, often without the backup of detailed policy analysis. Once in government they look to the public service to fill in the gaps.

The public service meanwhile has itself lost depth when it comes to policy thinking. And so we have had the two systems, political and bureaucratic, talking past each other and each nursing a quiet disappointment with the other.


Varghese delivering a lecture at the Lowy Institute in 2015 – Photo: Peter Morris/Sydney Heads

What's to blame for this cultural shift?

Technology has changed more than the rhythms of our life. It has made us more connected but it has also truncated our thinking time. It puts a premium on an immediate response, on tasks and information, but not on reflection. Too often we are handcuffed to our iPhones, preoccupied with responding instantly to texts and constantly looking for the next message.

I fear that the combination of a relentless news cycle, social media that can often distort the centre of gravity of a policy issue, and the technology of instant connectedness, has weakened our capacity to reflect and to think deeply.

However, the buck doesn't stop with social media and short attention spans:

In relation to the public service other factors have also been in play. Over the last decade we have seen a significant shift towards implementation and service delivery at the cost of policy work and also a narrower bandwidth when it comes to the time senior public servants have to wrestle with complex policy issues. In other words, the more reactive political environment has also rejigged the focus of the public service, because ultimately the focus of the public service reflects the focus of the government.

Varghese is not the first to note these issues and the problems they engender in Australia's public service and political leaders, but it is refreshing to hear someone of his station articulate them so well. It is imperative, Varghese argues, for deep policy thinking to be re-established and reinforced:

However we got here we must find a way out. We must rebuild, at both the political and the public service levels, a capacity for deep policy thinking because without it we will not be able to chart our way through the many economic and other challenges we face as a nation.

And nor can we delegate this work to think tanks, useful though their contribution can be. Good policy making is an iterative process. It involves testing assumptions and teasing out options. It is best done through a close partnership between ministers and their public servants.

These excerpts are only from one section of the lecture; Varghese also touches on the institutions of a successful nation, how ministers and public servants should relate to each other, and why public service leaders should adopt a model of 'radical incrementalism'. The whole address is very much worth the read.