(Image: Private Media/Tom Red)

The Sydney advertising guru Siimon Reynolds isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, especially since he inserted an extra “I” into his first name (like the S in Sussan Ley) for numerology reasons — an affectation which gave Siimon, creator of the knock ’em over like bowling pins HIV/AIDS scare campaign of the 1980s, that all important brand differentiation. Pretentious? Moi?

But Reynolds hit the nail on the head when he said you “can’t bore people into action” — a comment he has made on the federal government’s new band-aid-on-the-arm COVID-19 campaign to get people up and out to be vaccinated. 

To be honest you didn’t need him to tell you that the sight of a dozen band-aids on (diversity correct) arms somehow fails to get the blood pumping. But why didn’t someone in Canberra get that?

Reynolds is one of those creatives alien to the denizens of the Canberra bubble. They arrive like a rainbow on a grey day, all leather and jeans in a sea of suits. But his comments illuminate a greater truth about federal public servants. They might be world class on policy. They might be the one thing that saves the country from the now hollowed out political class.  But when it comes to actually dealing with the public they are, time after time, woeful.

It is final proof of the horror prophecy that bouncing from Narrabundah to Downer to Belconnen risked producing a class of very smart automatons — automatons, that is, who make the final decisions on comms programs.  

We all know the classics of the genre. From stiff competition, my all-time favourite remains the Department of Finance recruitment video showing real public servants having real conversations that had been scripted by the creatives. Did I say stiff? “Just act natural when you mention that paleo banana bread in the canteen. OK. Take 47.”

This year alone we’ve had the immortal milkshake series, which attempted to educate teenagers on the power dynamics of sex and consent by a series of quirky comic book interactions that seemed to skirt the central questions.

But if only a failure to communicate was restricted to paid advertising campaigns put together by those crazy creatives.

The true menace to the well-being of Australians lies in the horror of everyday communications from Canberra — its tortured MyGov and My Aged Care and Centrelink platforms. The websites that take you through a thicket of impenetrable directions and categories, all in the service of providing digital government — which is OK if you have a computer, an internet with unlimited broadband, a smart phone, a university education and four or five hours to kill.  

As it turns out this pretty much matches the description of your average federal public servant — which might go some way to explaining the kind of communications we get.

In fact it completely explains it. 

Exhibit one is an extraordinary admission made by a top mandarin, the much decorated Kathryn Campbell AO CSC.  Campbell really is one of Canberra’s finest and was appointed late last week for her latest challenge: running the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It sounds like a promotion from running the Department of Social Services, and judging by its location in the parliamentary triangle it probably is.

Back in 2018 Campbell delivered a speech to her fellow public service heads at the Institute of Public Affairs titled “Why delivery matters”, a disconcerting subject choice given the fair assumption that public service departments actually only exist in order to deliver things to the public. Never mind. It gets more alarming.

Campbell began with the idea that citizens might not care too much about policy frameworks but they have “a high expectation of public services because they are paying for the service through their taxes”.’

Campbell’s example of bad service delivery was the government’s robodebt scheme which ultimately did over thousands of Australia’s most vulnerable to the tune of more than a billion dollars, pushing many to the edge of despair and beyond. Campbell was head of Human Services which “delivered” robodebt for the government. And to make matters worse it wasn’t just lousy policy. It was terrible delivery too. 

Campbell doesn’t exactly say that. What she does say is this:

Listening to the voice of the citizen ensures that policy will be delivered in a manner most likely to achieve success. Some policy will be welcomed by citizens and some policy less so. Co-design means working with the recipient or participant to determine how best to deliver services. It can be achieved by the use of focus groups or one-on-one in customer experience laboratories. The bottom line is that we hear from the citizen. It is fair to say that we didn’t initially do enough co-design when we were rolling out the online compliance initiative (OCI) which came to be known as robodebt.

Translation: robodebt was so badly communicated that people didn’t understand what they were meant to do until it was too late and the debt collectors were on their case.

The solution, Campbell said, lay in bringing in some actual people — “real recipients” — “to test our letters and ICT system interfaces. Watching the co-design participants review what we had thought was good design was refreshing. Their insights were powerful.” 

And the lesson? 

The department identified the need for a chief citizen experience officer. (Not a joke.) Naturally enough the CCEO needed to be recruited from the private sector because it would appear the upper echelons of the Australian public service aren’t populated by regular humans who can talk to other regular humans.   

Siiiimon! Where are you? Who cares how many “I”s you’ve got now. Scotty from marketing needs you.