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  • Dean Williamson

An open letter to the Parliaments of Australia about culture

There is so much going on in Australia right now about the cultures of our Federal and various State parliaments. For example, Federal, New South Wales, Tasmania, South Australia... The adjectives are common: "Toxic", "corruption", "bullying", "sexual harassment". As practitioners, these are synonymous with the worst organisational cultures that we see.

Unfortunately we're talking about a system that has significant organisational debt, probably spanning centuries. Change in these systems is REALLY hard. Coming into them, they feel directionless, confusing, and conflict and relativism (differing perspectives) are rife. It also takes sustained commitment at the highest level to re-work the systems that are based on bad debt.

Organizational Debt: The interest companies pay when their structure and policies stay fixed and/or accumulate as the world changes.

If you want to improve these, we mostly think about how this is a "top-and-tail" game. The "tail" is taking a "compliance" approach to begin to set expectations and standards (this approach has been integral in saving lives through Safe Work laws). Many of the independent reviews into parliamentary workplaces recommend beginning here, with mechanisms like complaints processes, investigations capacity etc. However, the "top" game is when your various stakeholders "own" and lead where the changes are heading - they help to shift your moving average upwards. This is where positive culture comes from - beyond compliance.

Some "wonderings" about the links between politics and cultures:

So I'm going to put down some of the issues or trends that I think we would have to wrestle with if we were going to do this work. I hope they help to show what some of the directions to move towards a culture of trust, respect and decentralised ethical practice might look like:

  1. As outlined by Kate Jenkins for the Human Rights Commission, it's interesting to think about the Parliament as a culture of its own. I wonder if it helps to look at it more like the construction industry, which is a collection of sub-contractors, each with their own cultures, which you're trying to orient to one meaningful end.

  2. I wonder if many of the mechanisms which make politics tick probably work against moves towards a better culture? For example, one of the behaviours we see decrease as we move towards a better culture is back-channeling. The art of politics is arguably back-channeling and secret deal-making, so trying to remove things like psychologically harmful cliques is likely to be very difficult. Both transparency and healthy conflict resolution processes (not external investigations) are normally moves which help with this, but this is a long journey in systems where healthy conflict has been absent for a long time.

  3. In organisations where you're trying to build trust, there are some people who seem to need to erode interpersonal trust to maintain some sense of social power. I'd definitely characterise party politics as a low-trust environment, and people playing social games and eroding trust to maintain their own power is probably a real norm. This seems like it might be an expectation at the moment, more than an exception, which will be a huge cultural problem.

  4. Another helpful orientation in healthier systems is the idea of "service". I gather the ethically sound MP's already orient to the nuances of navigating the ethics of the roles while serving their communities(?). I also assume there are a lot of MP's so entrenched in existing systems who can't seem to understand what this means, and will erode trust by focusing on their own goals. Again, this will be a difficult thing to change, because it seems that it's probably encouraged from the beginning of a politician's party life. I may be wrong here...

  5. In a system like this, I would usually start trying to benchmark culture - how would you know that it was improving? In organisations with large power differences and potential for misuse of power, we would recommend basing this in anonymous employee experience (probably a platform like Australia's CultureAmp). At least in this context it would serve to hear the experiences of staff regularly, and prioritise their voice, as well as work towards having some principles to work with MP's and their offices.

I'm not sure this helps at all, and it certainly doesn't seem very optimistic. However, any genuine moves towards culture change in politics will have to wrestle with the unique systematic values of the system in which the change is based.

Interested in all of your thoughts...

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