17 October 2022

Public servants need to learn more about the strength of soft power

| Chris Johnson
Join the conversation
Peter Woolcott

Former diplomat and current APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Public servants must hone their diplomatic skills and employ soft power when dealing with the government they serve if they want to get things done.

That’s the advice Public Service Commissioner and former diplomat Peter Woolcott offered an audience of public servants attending the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s national conference in Canberra this week.

In conversation with Leigh Sales, and under the heading of ‘Soft Power and the Public Service’, Mr Woolcott said there was much public sector leaders could learn from the exercise of soft power.

‘Soft’ power – the use of persuasion and influence through explanation and understanding, rather than the coercion of ‘hard’ power – is increasingly necessary in a changing world.

“To use hard power in the modern world, you also have to think about how you are going to use soft power as well,” the Commissioner said.

“The fundamental rule of diplomacy is trying to actually understand the other side and where the other side is coming from. You are continually trying to work out compromises.”

READ ALSO Australia must be assertive over China, Defence Secretary tells public servants

He said while diplomats are by necessity having to employ soft power techniques on a daily basis, senior public servants could learn from the example.

“If you’re a department secretary or a senior public servant that has to advise a government minister, all you’ve got is soft power,” he said.

“You can’t use hard power. They don’t give you weapons and sticks.”

Soft power understands that in every negotiation, it is primarily about keeping relationships intact, and if discussions reach a stalemate, soft power becomes even more important.

“It’s all about preserving the relationship. They might need you now, but you might need them later,” the Commissioner said.

“If you can, have a break. Take some advice. Have a chat with them on the side, have a coffee. Again, understand where they’re coming from.”

And delivering bad news?

“Be transparent, be open, have no surprises. It has to be built on trust,” he said.

“Make it pretty clear to them where your lines are.”

READ ALSO Ambitious and enduring reform agenda for APS

Mr Woolcott said soft power needed to be employed in the public service when dealing down the chain as well as up the chain of command and also with external parties.

“We need to be better as public sector leaders at dealing with stakeholders,” he said.

“You can get a little insular living in Canberra and not understanding stakeholders out there … stakeholders now are very influential.”

A touch of humility never goes astray and fosters healthy interactions, often with improved outcomes.

“It’s crucially important we get better at engagement,” the Commissioner said.

Bringing it all back to diplomacy, Mr Woolcott added that the use of soft power was increasingly important in a volatile world where “there is real soft power competition … between a view of the world from China and a view of the world that is from us and others like the United States”.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.