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The seven P’s of working with the public service

The seven P’s of working with the public service

Working with the public service can be frustrating and difficult at the best of times. The task will become a lot easier if you pay attention to these seven P’s of working with public service organisations and employees.

The public service serves the public

Public service organisations are created by the governments of our nation to deliver products and services in the interests of everybody. Public service organisations exist not to serve your individual interests, but rather the broader interests of society. So when you need the public service to act for your interest, the task is a lot easier for both you and the public servants involved if you abide by these seven principles: Passion, Purpose, Proof, Perception, Persistence, Patience and Professional.


Passion has to be Number One. We all know public service organisations aren’t very good at change. Which means that working with government to achieve change isn’t simple or easy. It can be a frustrating and difficult task that takes a lot of time and effort – and seeing it through requires your passion. You have to make sure the change you want is aligned with the interests of the larger community. And everyone in that community has to share the same passion to get things done, so that you have the energy and commitment needed to keep coming back to the work that’s needed to organize, coordinate and research.


Purpose means knowing what you want. Be specific and focused in what you’re asking for from the public service. It’s not helpful to say something vague like ‘I want the government to provide better healthcare services.’ What does that mean? What’s better healthcare service? What’s ‘better’? And better for whom?

A more purposeful way of putting it would be ‘I want a new hospital built in my local community so that we can have immediate access to primary healthcare services.’ That’s the kind of specific, clearly stated purpose you can build a movement around. Nothing is more powerful in generating change in a democratic government than movements rooted in the community. When you’re precise in stating your purpose, you make it much easier for the public servants of our nation to genuinely help you.


Proof simply means evidence that the change you have in mind is worth pursuing. The government and the public service are always listening, considering and prioritising the huge number of concerns and issues that society in general and particular communities may wish for action on.

Proof doesn’t necessarily mean scientific evidence. Proof, in government, has more to do with whether a given cause has a genuine community behind it . Look at organisations such as the Institute of Public Affairs, the Minerals Council of Australia, GetUp! and the AYCC; they’re influential within government, first and foremost, because they’re organised. They’re able to generate the types of proof that governments take seriously.


Perception: in other words, read, listen, watch, prod, poke and test. Seek out the people in government and the public service who understand your point of view – and, even better, those who are sympathetic. Government is just people, after all. They have to operate within the law, and they’re subject to the imperatives of bureaucracy and faceless political ‘brands,’ but ultimately it is people who wield all that power.

If you’re perceptive, you’ll be able to pitch your concerns in a way that dovetails with the responsibilities of the public servants who hold power. If you understand the people who make the decisions, you can make it much easier for them to give you what you want.


Never take No for an answer. When it comes to government and the public service, No really means Not Yet or Not Now. This is especially so when the party in power is already biased against what you have in mind.

Persistence is really important for big social changes – for example the fight to legalise gay and lesbian marriage in Australia. For quite some time the very passionate LGBTI community has built public support for their cause. Today the issue is a key policy differentiator between the two major parties in our federal government. But it never would have gotten that far without years of persistent effort by Australia’s LGBTI community.

Never give up!


Governments are large organisations, facing lots of challenges and tasks with limited resources. Even the push to create ‘small government’ winds up saddled with some pretty big organisations. Big organisations of any kind take time to change, and that’s even more true for public service organisations. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to have stable public services to run our hospitals, schools and armed forces.

There are many legitimate reasons why a public servant can’t respond to your concerns. Legislation, politics, capability, capacity and funding all play a role. Even a small, local task, like fixing a pothole in your street, can take over a year to deal with, because the agency responsible must wait for the next funding cycle to kick in, and meanwhile your job is in the queue.

Patience and persistence go hand in hand. Practice both.


Be professional. Make no mistake, public servants do work for you. In fact, public servants don’t actually work for the government of the day. Not directly. They work for their public service organisations, which themselves serve under legislative charter.

The point is, public servants don’t have to put up with your bullshit.

It makes no sense to be disrespectful of those who hold the power to help you. So keep your emotions in check. It’s all too easy for a public servant to move your issue or concern down the list – or drop it altogether. Getting what you want from government means being on your best behaviour. When you are, you make it that much more difficult for a public servant to keep on ignoring your particular issue, concern or proposal for change.

Put it All Together

So there are the seven P’s of dealing with government: Passion, Purpose, Proof, Perception, Persistence, Patience and Professional. If you can keep them all in mind, you vastly increase your chances of success in getting government to take the action you want.

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