This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece by Shu-Ling Chua about being a public servant.
And I wanted to write about Canberra, this city that lures ambitious people from all over Australia, a city that remakes families, a city of clamorous debates and deserted streets, a city of words, permeated with an immense silence.
– James Button, Speechless –
Image - Shu-Ling Chua
In the dying days of 2012, I ploughed through From Postbox to Powerhouse, a centenary history of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. I read of employees who damaged radiators by using them to toast bread but nothing of being a young public servant in the 21st century. Five months later, I was flirting with a fellow public-servant-in-training (also known as a ‘grad’, befitting our junior status). “Deh-be-ce-de,” he smiled when the acronym for the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy refused to trip off my tongue. “Rhymes with obesity.”
Parliaments come and go but the Australian Public Service (APS) is a tradition that has existed since Federation. There is also a tradition of not understanding our role, unsurprising, given how few stories exist of, and by, public servants. Speechless, James Button’s memoir on his year as a speechwriter to then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is the only one I have come across to date.
I want to change this but there are things which I will never write, unless I want to risk losing my job or imprisonment. Unauthorised disclosure of official information may breach section 70 of the Crimes Act. Further to this, all employees are required to comply with the APS Code of Conduct and to uphold the APS Values: Impartial, Committed to service, Accountable, Respectful and Ethical.
As a junior policy officer, my work is co-authored and approved before going anywhere near the Minister. Depending on the briefing and clearance required, it may pass through a Section Head, Branch Head, Division Head, Deputy Secretary and in rare instances, the head of a department, also known as its Secretary. If it cuts across another policy area, build in time for extra clearance. I once interrupted a Dep Sec, halfway through her lunch on Melbourne Cup Day, in front of the whole department, to sign a brief. The Secretary thought it was amusing; I however was mortified.
Processes for board appointments, Cabinet and Budget seem tedious to an outsider but keep the grand machine of Government accountable and carefully ticking. There is a way of doing things, a rhythm and order to the Budget cycle, MYEFO (Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, pronounced my-ee-foe) and MoG (Machinery of Government, rhymes with slog) changes. My Melbourne friends expect tales of political drama when the role of the APS is to hold steady in the eye of the storm.
Most letters will only ever be read by a Section Head, Branch Head, quality control, ministerial adviser and the person it is addressed to. The meeting brief, once over, is redundant. I questioned whether my bread and butter, condensing complex policy issues into dot points, counted as ‘real writing’ but the question is not whether such writing is ‘real’ but what ‘real writing’ means to me.
Fitting complicated briefing to a page without changing formatting is satisfying as a policy officer but not as an artist. I want to challenge my readers, to make them feel something. Public service writing is concise, accurate, clear and appropriate for its audience and purpose. When one’s role is to advise the Government apolitically, there is little room for emotive language. Crafting arguments from fact is a form of storytelling nevertheless. As professor of political science Frank Fischer explains:
"...the reliance on policy narrative is evident in even the most casual examination of policy discussions, whether in everyday or official form. Citizens, politicians—and yes, even policy analysts... tell causal stories to convey the nature, character and origins of policy problems."
Good writing matters not just in the literary world but when explaining to someone why their electricity bill is increasing. In a chapter titled ‘The Dejargonator’, Button discusses the role of the public service in helping Australians to understand the policy challenges facing us, and thereby to strengthen democracy. Clear writing is clear thinking, he advises, quoting Orwell for emphasis:
"...to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers."
When a friend asked how I reconcile my job with writing, I replied, “I don’t, one pays for the other.” Try as I might, however, I cannot keep the two separate. Writing a memoir on my twenties, the bulk of which has been spent in Canberra, means touching on my APS experience, however so slightly. I will never know who I might have become had I stayed in the western suburbs of Melbourne. The public service, and by extension, Canberra, have shaped who I am, as a writer and a person.
In a world so uncertain, writing is my anchor; it reminds me that I am more than a job title.
• Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect those of the APS or the Government.
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Shu-Ling Chua is a writer, reviewer, Noted festival 2016 Live Producer and HARDCOPY 2015 participant. She blogs at hello pollyanna while living the memoir she hopes to finish one day. Her work has appeared in BMA Magazine, The Victorian Writer, Scissors Paper Pen, Capital Letters and Feminartsy. You can follow her at @hellopollyanna.