APS Commissioner, Peter Woolcott AO – Interview with Leigh Sales at the 2022 IPAA National Conference
Leigh Sales: We're going to jump straight into our first session, which is about soft power in the public service. Gives me great pleasure to introduce you to our next presenter.
Peter Woolcott is the Australian Public Service Commissioner, after a distinguished career serving in senior diplomatic positions around the world, including New Zealand, Italy, Geneva, and Honolulu. He was also chief of staff to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia in 2017 for his distinguished service to public administration in the field of international relations and as a lead negotiator in the non-proliferation and arms control field. Please welcome Commissioner Woolcott.
Peter, this session is about the idea of soft power as a tool for public servants and if there are any lessons that they can learn from the way that countries or diplomats go about their work. I think, let's start with a first principles question, what exactly is meant by soft power?
Peter Woolcott: Yeah, look, thanks, Leigh, and thanks for the introduction. Soft power came out of some work done by an academic called Joseph Nye in the late '90s and everybody knows what hard power is, that's coercion and the use of force. And soft power's about persuasion and attraction and influence. I guess there were sort of three different buckets you'd put it in. There were in terms of cultural soft power, also political values, and also sort of policies.
You can see soft power at its hardest and broadest form at the moment in what's happening in Ukraine, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And then you see, stay with the Russian analogy. You see cultural soft power at its most soft, in terms of the Bolshoi ballet and touring that and trying to attract people to Russian culture and ideas and thought. It's a sort of continuum, but it's a bit of a jumbled continuum. If you're looking at soft power going on in Ukraine, the Ukrainians are using hard power in response to the Russians, but they're also using really effective soft power in terms of engendering European support and American support and our support as well. And the Russians are using soft power, I think very, very poorly there.
To use hard power in a modern world, you actually have to also be thinking about how you use soft power as well in combination with that. If you also think about soft power, if you just think about it as a cultural soft power, it's pretty nebulous. It's hard to quantify and has long time horizons. But when you combine it with values and so it becomes an argument about values and competition about values, it actually is a very effective tool over the long term.
So, you look at things like American influence post-World War II, you look at the fall of the Berlin Wall, you look at the creation of the European Union, for example. They're all really very good examples of what you might call soft power combined with the cultural side, combined with the values, values and policy side. So, I think, even though it's jumbled and it's hard to sort of put in this little continuum, I think it's a really important part of the way certainly a country like Australia approaches diplomacy and particularly multinational diplomacy. I always liked the way Hillary Clinton described it when she was secretary of state. It's about smart power, it's about how you use power to get your way. How do you use it to get influence and gain influence and it's about being smart.
Leigh Sales: So, sticking with the Russia-Ukraine example, you mentioned Ukraine is using soft power really effectively as well as the hard power it's deploying against Russian forces. So, just breakdown for us, what are they doing that's working so well for them in a soft power sense?
Peter Woolcott: Well, they start from a position of advantage in that they were, I mean, obviously just invaded and the sort of Russian justification for that invasion has a lot with so- called denazification of Ukraine. And it's not a particularly credible argument and doesn't wash. What you see with President Zelenskyy and the way he is able to basically project Ukrainian attitudes and Ukrainian response on the soft power frame is really impressive, I've got to say. And if you look at how the Europeans responded, the Americans, how we've responded, it's largely in response to Russian aggression, but it's also in response to the continuous plight of the Ukraines, the way they're casting their message.
Leigh Sales: Yeah, he is, I noticed, very available for interviews, so you're hearing directly from him. I notice there's a lot of viral social media content that comes out of Ukraine around arts and things like that. So, that's all about then, if I'm understanding you correctly, influencing people's behaviour elsewhere, so they may then deliver aid, they might offer military support and so forth.
Peter Woolcott: Correct. That's exactly what he's doing.
Leigh Sales: Okay. You said Russia's not using soft power very well. I mean, would they even have any soft power options available to them in this context given the sort of heavy hard power option they've chosen?
Peter Woolcott: Well, Russian techniques are interesting. Obviously, they're trying to put out a message to the Russian people, which is probably because they control the media there. That's a lot more effective, I think. Internationally, I think they're struggling in terms of their messaging. But remember, it's one of the sort of conundrums about thinking about soft power now. How do you place malicious use of social media for example and essentially the distortion of truth in that sort of spectrum. And the Russians are using and have traditionally sought to use social media in Western democracies as a way to advance Russian interests. And you saw that during the election, the Trump-Clinton election for example, as a classic example of Russian attempts to shape outcomes through social media.
And they're again looking to do that.
Leigh Sales: What about economic tools, are they consider soft or hard power? So, say, for example, economic sanctions or what we've seen China do in the Pacific where they're giving big development deals or setting up cooperation deals. Is that hard or soft power?
Peter Woolcott: I think we're in an interesting stage in international diplomacy at the moment where you've actually got again a sort of war over social, over soft power, like you did following the end of the Second World War, and it's China trying to protect an image of itself and the Americans and the West trying to protect an image of ourselves. And so, there's a competition for influence very much through soft power and media. And you see that in the South Pacific as well. Hu Jintao, who I think in 2007 said, "China must get strong in this use of social, of soft power." And
if you think about President Xi at the moment, both in terms of vaccine diplomacy and Belt and Road, that's all-classic examples of soft power. And so, it's a very live issue at the moment.
I think a classic example of our use of smart power in response to Chinese use of relatively hard power was in relation to trade sanctions, not trade sanctions, but when they looked to spike Australian trade interest into China, we responded in a very measured way. We sought to use WTO in those processes. And again, we're very moderate in our response, but a very effective and smart response which includes at the moment saying to the Chinese, "Well, we'll look at your application for access to the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the context of the way you behave in the trade arena." So, again, you have some use of pretty hard power by the Chinese in regard to our trading interests. And our response has been pretty smart, I think, in the way we've responded.
Leigh Sales: A diplomat has the power of the state behind them, so you might have a policy that's popular or unpopular or whatever, but they also have their personal charm, the power of their individual relationships. How did you go about it when you were working as a diplomat in the first instance, in building good relationships, by which I mean the kind where you could advance what you needed to get done?
Peter Woolcott: Yeah, I mean, a big part of soft power and it's about influence and persuasion is its always relationships, and it's relationships, whether it's in diplomacy or whether it's working in the public service to get the outcome that you want. And so, relationships are hugely important and that requires energy, it requires putting the effort in, requires listening, understanding where someone else is coming from, their particular views, their red lines.
Preparation is hugely important. We tend to think in diplomacy, a meeting is sort of the culmination and often, if it's a big meeting like Paris Climate Change or whatever, is always going to be a crisis before you get to your resolution, if you're going to get a resolution. But there's a huge amount of work that gets done in the lead up to that meeting so that you set the stage for an outcome.
In the public service in terms of outcomes, again, it's that preparatory work, it's listening, it's understanding the opinions and views of others. It's building that relationship. And then of course, it doesn't end with the meeting. Often, you need to continue working with those people as you go forward. Things tend to keep going on. And so, it's that ability just to have a continuing and growing relationship with someone, which I think is fundamental to influence.
Leigh Sales: Do you think much about what constitutes good listening? Because I do notice myself in interviewing people or gathering information that a lot of people don't actually listen very well because often, they're thinking about what they're going to say next, rather than actually really paying attention to what the other person is saying.
Peter Woolcott: Yeah, that's a very good point. But so, there's a fundamental rule of, I think, diplomacy is actually understanding where the other side is coming from and what the other side wants to get out this. So, you're already thinking about potential compromises and ways in which you can manage this over the negotiation. And
it's a very good point, but in terms of how if you're trying to work an issue through in the public service for example, it is crucially important you actually do your work to understand what they want out of this and what they need out of this. And even if you're not listening at the table, you at least should understand that.
Leigh Sales: One of the popular questions from the audience is to maybe just give them a bit of an example of what's an example of public servants using soft power that made a difference to a policy or its implementation?
Peter Woolcott: If you're a secretary or head of an agency or deputy secretary or you're dealing with minister’s offices and you're dealing with ministers, soft power's absolutely crucial. You don't have hard power in terms of telling a minister-
Leigh Sales: They don't give you weapons when you-Field list
Peter Woolcott: They don't give you weapons or big sticks. And so quite often, I mean almost all the time in terms of working an issue through, some are straightforward. If it's a complex difficult issue, you're going to have to exercise soft power in terms of influence, in terms of understanding where they're coming from, understanding where the stakeholders that they're having to deal with are coming from, and being persuasive. And that's one of the issues that the public services is facing, I think, these days is we no longer have a monopoly on advice. It's a much more contested space for advice. So, we've got to be very good at soft power in terms of influence. I've got to say, I think if you're secretary of the department or head of a major agency, you're there because you're very good at soft power. You're a judge, you don't need soft power. But as a-
Leigh Sales: The chief scientist was here yesterday, Cathy Foley, and I think she probably hit the nail on the head when she was talking about the way that she offers advice and she said, "I try to make myself a trusted figure. I deliver very clear advice, I set it out as clearly as I can, I base it on evidence, I don't come in with my opinion, I'm not aggressive with it." And so, I guess, in her sense, because that's her persona, she would become a reliable, trusted figure. And I guess that's the kind of soft power you're hoping to exert because as you say, that's when then where your influence comes from.
Peter Woolcott: Yeah, no, that's absolutely right. And often in the end, you'll send up a minister a brief or you'll write a Cabinet submission in a certain way, but that in itself, it doesn't guarantee the outcome. The outcome is more likely to be the way you want it to be if you've done all the work around the Cabinet submission, making sure that other departments and agencies are comfortable with what you're doing, that the Department of Finance is comfortable. And also, your minister is very, very supportive of what the outcome-
Leigh Sales: So that if your minister says, "Well, how am I going to get this past the Home Affairs Minister?", you're able to say, "Well, actually I've spoken to his chief of staff and their position is blah, blah blah."
Peter Woolcott: Probably not spoken to his chief of staff, but you'd leave that to the chief of staff or your minister. But you've certainly spoken to the secretary who's certainly spoken to Mike Pezzullo.
Leigh Sales: As the Prime Minister's chief of staff, let me ask you about times where you might have to deploy soft power where it can start getting a bit tricky. So, as the Prime Minister's chief of staff, you might sometimes have two ministers with competing interests or with different ideas of what they want the Prime Minister to do. You obviously might advise the PM which way you think it should go, but also, you've got to manage those two ministers so they both walk away and feel okay. How did you handle those kind of situations?
Peter Woolcott: Not always easy and they don't often both walk away feeling okay.
Leigh Sales: And you have to be okay with that, probably.
Peter Woolcott: And you have to be okay with that. Yeah, exactly. But that's less, I mean, again, you're trying to use your skills in terms of, and the relationships you have, to manage an issue and to find an outcome which you think is the best for the country. But people have strong views and quite often, and sometimes they're irreconcilable.
Leigh Sales: Did you alter your manner to meet the persons? Say, if they're kind of more aggressive, will you match that or do you maintain your own?
Peter Woolcott: No, I think being aggressive is never an effective negotiating tool. I think if you want staged for the media and it's like Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table in the United Nations, that's fine, but that's media staging. I think if you're in a negotiation, I don't think anger's ever a particularly useful tool.
Leigh Sales: How did you handle somebody if somebody that you were in a meeting with or negotiating with did start getting aggressive or angry?
Peter Woolcott: If you can, you break for a moment and you go out and have a cup of coffee, you look to talk to them quietly on the side and have a cup of coffee with them. Again, it's a matter of understanding where they're coming from and you don't want to be in a negotiation with someone who you don't really, if you can, you don't really have some sort of relationship or understanding with. And so as I say, part of being a sort of diplomat in the multinational setting is you sort of know everyone in your world and you've tended to work with them and you also know that there'll be a time, you might need them on this occasion, but they're going to need you on another occasion. So, there's a fair bit of just that preserving of relationships. And again, you see that in the public service. You want to preserve your relationships; you don't want to blow people up because you might need them later.
Leigh Sales: Well, in terms of that thing of preserving your relationships, preserving your influence, what about delivering bad news? Do you have any particular tips for how you tell somebody, "We're not going to cave on that issue, unfortunately, we're not going to deliver what you're after." How do you do things like that and keep that relationship then open and productive?
Peter Woolcott: Yeah, I think one of the techniques is be fairly transparent, to be open and have no surprises for them. So, you can say, "Look, we can't give you that. We might be able to give you this," but it's a matter of essentially of trust, a sense of trust that you're not going to pull a surprise on them, you're following your instructions or where you can go and making it pretty clear where your lines are to them. So,
everybody wants something out of a negotiation, and they need to understand where you're coming from. I've always thought that transparency was a pretty important tool. If you can control the process, that's great, but then you can control the process if you're chairing a meeting to a certain extent. If you can't control the process, you can at least be fairly transparent about where you're coming from.
Leigh Sales: Let me ask you one of the audience questions that has a few votes. How can the APS be more strategic and cohesive in our approach to soft power as Team Australia?
Peter Woolcott: Yeah, sorry, there's a big issue around management of stakeholders. Because stakeholders, as I mentioned earlier, are becoming more and more important in the system. And that's partly a result of a changing nature of power. The way that power is moving to social groups and organisations and their ability to mobilise its speed and with mass. And we need to be better as a public service in dealing with our stakeholders.
You see that very much, for example, with First Nations people. We're talking now about genuine partnership in terms of co-design and delivery of services and how do we understand how they negotiate. Again, it's a matter of building their trust, their comms. It takes quite a lot of time. It's not a matter of just flying in and flying out. It's a matter of actually getting them in their rhythm and in their negotiating style to work with you as a genuine partner.
These require different techniques and skills. It's the same in terms of you can get a little bit insular in Canberra and not understand your stakeholders out there.
Your stakeholders are now going to be very influential, whether it be in health or whether it be in economic advice or even foreign policy. And we just need to, I think, think about stakeholder management as a craft. It's one of the things we're sort of trying to do through the APS Academy is focus on how do you teach and engender those sort of skills in stakeholder management.
Leigh Sales: It's interesting because it all really comes back to what you were saying about preparation. It's all still part of preparation, isn't it?
Peter Woolcott: Yep, very much so. I remember when I was chair of the final conference of the arms trade treaty, and the previous conferences had collapsed. This was one final attempt at it, and we got there in the end, but the preparation, I have to say, was really terrific team working with me. But visiting all the major players, whether the major arms exporters, major arms importers, sort of the big players in the scene, you control the process, you understand the dynamics and you say, "This is the way we're going to do it. We're not going to have a rolling text, I'm going to produce three draughts, final one, the last one being final, take it or leave it." And we had drafted those draughts long before the meeting started. The meeting was in a compressed period of time. And so again, it just comes down to really hard work and preparation and understanding where all the lines are, where you think you can hit the sweet spot, and a lot of it's just hard work.
Leigh Sales: Another popular audience question relates to a poll that we just did before, which is polls about barriers to improvements and so on and culture and capability were
the main responses that people feel like need addressing. What is APSC doing in regards to improving both? Culture and capability of the public service?
Peter Woolcott: Yeah, culture, we've done. Secretaries Board has done a really interesting piece of work, which is a chart of leadership behaviours, which was driven by David Fredericks and Simon Atkinson, and it came out of a recommendation from the Hierarchy and Classification Review and was accepted by and adopted by Secretaries Board as something as behaviour we're going to model in terms of culture and leadership in the public service. Essentially, it's a combination of systems leadership, understanding the system and how you fit in it. And that's of course, a big part of influence and it's also very much about adaptive leadership as well. And again, that's an attempt by secretaries to model a culture that they want to inculcate through the system. A big push on a concept of stewardship as well and the idea that we are all stewards of the system, and we want to leave the system better than when we first came into the job. But culture's hard. As I say, culture will eat strategy for breakfast is the common analogy and it's very true.
Leigh Sales: If public servants want to use soft power more in pursuit of policy goals, what kind of capabilities do they need to develop?
Peter Woolcott: I think one of the chief capabilities they need to develop is the ability, as you say, to listen. A little bit of humility to understand that we as public service don't hold all the answers, that we need to be better at engaging with stakeholders. There's risk with that because stakeholders can be difficult, can go to the media, but I think it's crucially important that we get better.
If you talk about a capability uplift, I see the big capability uplift being around, one of the big capability uplifts being around the ability to engage and have more confidence in dealing with stakeholders. You need a certain licence from government or from the political class for that. But I think in terms of really good sound advice to government, you need to have that understanding of stakeholders, you need to engage with stakeholders. They'll be pushing their views to ministers; you need to understand where they're coming from and where you can accommodate them and what makes sense and what doesn't. And you see it, that so to say, with First Nations, but it's also right across the board in terms of co-design and thinking about how we engage with the public and with stakeholders.
Leigh Sales: Another popular audience question is how can Australia increase its soft power presence in the Pacific, including through our public sector networks and programmes?
Peter Woolcott: Yeah. I mean, a good question and a real priority for the government. If you're competing around infrastructure, that can get very expensive. Where we have a comparative advantage in the South Pacific, I think, is through language, obviously English. Common institutions, often there's a strong religious connection. There's sport and there's history too, which colours things. And so, if you think about it, our comparative advantage really rests there, not around building infrastructure, which is also important.
And so how do you use that? How do you mobilise and develop those networks? It's all about, say, influence over time. And that's something, if you think of, say, the... It's not the South Pacific, but it's close. If you think about East Timor, for example, and INTERFET in 1999, our intervention there. That was a combination of hard power, we sent forces in there, but there's also a combination of soft power. There was legitimacy about that. And legitimacy is a very important concept too in terms of the use of soft power. I think that applies in the South Pacific as well. You look at the RAMSI Operation in the Solomon Islands back in 2002, I think it was, '03.
So, I think we have enormous advantages in terms of the South Pacific. We just need to be thinking about how we can effectively use them. And legitimacy, I think, is crucially important in that.
Leigh Sales: If you look at China, and including the Pacific, China's been using soft power in the form of development aid and investment around the world for quite a long time now in South America and Africa and various places as well as the Pacific. If you're going to attempt to use soft power as a tool, how do you stop yourself as a state or as a department or even as an individual from being taken advantage of? For example, if you're dealing with somebody who knows there's a pot of money, how do you stop them from kind of fleecing you because they know that you're trying to deploy soft power and that they might think, "Oh, well, here's a chance to fleece them for some more money. The Chinese are giving us some money. So, the Australians want some influence. Well, now they've got to cough up some money too."
Peter Woolcott: Yeah, I mean, obviously, that's not the way we do business, so we just have to stick to what you do well, and I mean that's obviously, I guess it's a consideration out there, but the way we have to play it is around legitimacy, as I say, and influence. It's developing those networks which take time, take effort, and you've just got to continue to plug away at it. I mean, the same with our companies, they've got to operate in an environment where they're not bribing, they're not bribing officials for business. They may be upset by some of the actions of other foreign companies, but it's our laws, it's the way we conduct ourselves, and it complicates things, but it's just the way we have to do business.
Leigh Sales: Are we going to end up with a kind of arms race, but in a soft power sense?
Peter Woolcott: I think that's afoot at the moment, quite frankly. I think there is real soft power competition between a view of the world which is from China, and a view of the world which is from ourselves, the West and the US. There's no doubt that in terms of the multinational system, for example, it was set up essentially by the West post-Second World War, and it's changed dramatically. We don't have the same sort of power and influence in the West that we used to over the system. There is a very competing views. There's a lot of ideological fluidity. China will argue its version of democracy is better than the US version of democracy. It's more stable, looks after its people better, and they'll still use the language of democracy and the language of human rights. But they have a very different concept of how it works in their societies and how they would apply it overseas.
And so, there is as a lot of competition for influence at the moment and that's going to get more and more and more sort of tangible, I think, as we go forward.
Leigh Sales: Another audience question, how can the APS leverage soft power to increase public trust in government?
Peter Woolcott: Yeah. Well, one is through the way we deliver... Well, this is less about soft power, but we've got to deliver our services in a way which... And that's how most Australians get their view of the public service is their experience in how they receive services. And so that's a critical part of what we do. But in terms of soft power, there are techniques that we should use. One is around being much more transparent in how we deal with the public. One is around things like co-design, understanding how they are engaging and using, as I say, that as a tool of influence. So, there's a combination of techniques you would use. There's going to be hard power in terms of regulators enforcing certain rules or people from Border Force stamping visas at the airport. But again, it's the use of that at the same time as using your other techniques of influence.
Leigh Sales: Last question. Would you say Ukraine's performance at Eurovision is an example of soft power to influence the world to see them a certain way? Of course, it is.
Like Russia and the Bolshoi ballet, as you were saying?
Peter Woolcott: Well, I always like example of Australian soft power, AC/DC playing for 1.6 million Russians in Moscow in 1991. I'm not sure how effective that was in terms of, but the Russians had a good time.
Leigh Sales: Peter, thank you very much for your time. Please thank Peter Woolcott.