Public servants not demi-gods

One lesson here is that our public officials, even the hard-working, highly intelligent ones, are far from demi-gods. They have the same blind spots and tendency toward analytical failures of anyone else. Secrecy allows public officials, whether in the world of monetary policy or others like national security, to create a Wizard of Oz like illusion of holding great power, of maneuvering levers with information in hand that mere mortals can only dream of. When reporters interview a high official, there is often a subtext the high official aims to convey: If you knew what I know, you would understand the supreme wisdom of my actions.

Seeing what the Fed officials were saying privately, to each other, in 2007 is a reminder that this isn’t always so, and just because a person has more information, it doesn’t mean he or she has the right answer.

Neil Irwin.

He is talking about the Fed in the run up to the GFC. Our own monetary authority was even worse – raising interest rates going into the crisis.

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20 Responses to Public servants not demi-gods

  1. Lloyd

    It doesn’t help when the Public Service becomes thoroughly politicised.

  2. JC

    Our own monetary authority was even worse – raising interest rates going into the crisis.

    The ECB raised rates 25 basis points in July 2008, making things even worse by signaling to the markets there were more increases on the way.

    Take a look at the stock market around the time Lehman collapsed. The indices actually fell marginally – around 4% or so from memory after the bankruptcy announcement. It was only after asset markets realized that the Fed wasn’t understanding the true picture that the collapse began in earnest.

    Throughout a decent part of 2008 the major CBs were talking about the risks of inflation- this while asset prices were collapsing.

    More importantly they totally misunderstood the rise of commodities as being an inflation problem when developing world demand was causing the spike. It was in fact a change in relative prices.

    As far as I’m concerned they caused the crash.

  3. Des Deskperson

    ‘It doesn’t help when the Public Service becomes thoroughly politicised.’

    Evidence?? Portfolio Secretary jobs have always been ‘politicised’ in so far as the Minister has to have a say in who is appointed and it’s expected that the appointee will understand and empathise with what the Minister wants. This is implicit in part 7 of the Public Service Act, which sets out a very loose framework for Secretary appointments, at least compared to the merit provisions applying to everyone else.

    As for the rest of the APS, well, there’s certainly a lot of patronage and favouritism, but it’s far more likely to depend on what local rugby club you belong to rather than your political affilitions.

  4. H B Bear

    Public servants are not demi-gods

    Who is going to tell the Wombat Whisperer? I used to look forward to Senate Estimates when he deigned to lower himself and move among us mortals to tell us how the world works.

  5. The Courier Mail had an interesting piece back in November last year about the relationship between senior public servants and government.

    It was relevant in Queensland at the time given the imbroglio involving Caltabiano and his minister, although there was an element of internecine LNP grudge politics behind it.

    I’ve had close contacts with plenty of senior public servants over the years (including my brother who retired as a Deputy DG).

    He got booted sideways once because he told his minister something she didn’t want to hear.

    From my personal observation, the effectiveness and efficiency of government agencies has gone downhill since the development of the Senior Executive Service.

    This is particularly the case with Queensland Health.

    Bottom line is, self-interest will always trump honesty (except for aberrations like my brother), so SES personnel will always tell the pollies what they want to hear.

    From the linked article –

    But the biggest problem with this change from Westminster-style administration, which has career public servants providing “frank and fearless advice”, to something closer to the US system of making political appointments to senior posts is that, in the words of political analyst Scott Prasser, “governments get the advice they want rather than the advice they need”.

    Ain’t it so…..

  6. stackja

    It doesn’t help when the Public Service becomes thoroughly politicised.

    As for the rest of the APS, well, there’s certainly a lot of patronage and favouritism, but it’s far more likely to depend on what local rugby club you belong to rather than your political affilitions.

    Sir Frederick Geoffrey Shedden (1893-1971), public servant, was born on 8 August 1893 at Kyneton, Victoria, youngest of five children of George Shedden, a Victorian-born wheelwright, and his wife Sarah Elizabeth, née Gray, who came from England. Fred was educated at Kyneton State and Kyneton Grammar schools. Placed fourth out of 300 candidates in the Commonwealth public service examination, he began work in the Department of Defence at Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, in March 1910. Apart from service overseas, he was to work at the barracks until 1971. In his spare time he studied accountancy and learned shorthand, but the heavy workload caused by the outbreak of World War I forced him to abandon his law studies at the University of Melbourne.

  7. Rodney

    Clearly all problems will be resolved by apointing more women to key positions.

  8. Samuel J

    One lesson here is that our public officials, even especially the hard-working, highly intelligent ones, are far from demi-gods.

  9. JQF

    Hey, be fair. Mixing with politicians every day could easily convince you of your god-like intellectual superiority.

  10. Tetlock showed pretty convincingly that experts with access to privileged information didn’t improve forecasting performance over a base line of ordinary speculation by any intelligent person with a passing interest.

  11. Tintarella di Luna

    Clearly all problems will be resolved by apointing more women to key positions.

    Don’t know about the wimmin bit – so many are simply facsimiles of that Wong chappie.

  12. johanna

    “Seeing what the Fed officials were saying privately, to each other, in 2007 is a reminder that this isn’t always so, and just because a person has more information, it doesn’t mean he or she has the right answer.”

    I don’t understand why this is controversial.

  13. Lloyd

    Ever heard of GetUp!? A big chunk of their membership are Canberra public servants. It has a distinctly left flavour. ‘Nuff said.

  14. sdog

    I’ve had close contacts with plenty of senior public servants over the years (including my brother who retired as a Deputy DG).

    He got booted sideways once because he told his minister something she didn’t want to hear.

    Numbers has a handy personal anecdote for any subject that comes up here. It’s really incredible.

    He should think about getting his own blog. “The World, Everything In It, and How It All Relates To Me”. I’m pretty sure it’d be hugely popular.

  15. Des Deskperson

    ‘Ever heard of GetUp!? A big chunk of their membership are Canberra public servants. It has a distinctly left flavour. ‘Nuff said.’

    Not quite enough, LLoyd. As Simon Sheik himself claimd in an SMH interview on 19 June 2010, the average age of Getup members is 55. Most long serving Commonwealth public servants retire before 55, due to an actuarial glitch in the old super scheme that gives them a bigger pension if they do. So when he talked about public servants, I suspect he meant retired public servants.

    In fact, every public gathering of lefties in Canberra looks like an army of eld. They even have their own uniform, Akubra hats, sun glasses secured around their necks, Kathmandu tops and corduroy trousers (in summer they switch to those trousers – also made by Kathmandu – that convert to shorts when you unzip a few panels).

    More broadly, it’s actually possible for mature adults to separate their private views from their professional responsibilities and their pride in doing them well. I emphasise once again that I’ve know dozens of public servants who hated John Howard’s guts but served his Government with efficiency and effectiveness.

  16. NoFixedAddress

    how come filthy rag heads control

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