The 1944 ‘Powers Referendum’, lost by the Curtin government, has been subject to diverse historical interpretations - some emphasising the solid good sense of ‘the people’, others the spoiling of rational debate by fear-mongering tactics of the ‘No’ case. This paper examines some features of H.C. Coombs’ participation in the referendum. As Director of Rationing in 1942, Coombs developed a sense of the popular thirst for egalitarian reform; as Director-General of Postwar Reconstruction, he attempted to ‘channel’ this popular feeling so that it would provide the labor government with a mandate for, among other things, constitutional reform. The paper traces his ideas about the relationship between ‘experts’ and senior government officials on the one hand, and ‘the people’ on the other. His practice as adviser to government and as animator of popular opinion made him an unorthodox public servant. The nature and limits of his ‘public service’ were matters for comment by others and by Coombs himself. A theme of the paper is that both activist bureaucrats and historians have mobilised conceptions of ‘the people’ which repay historical investigation.