Learning in the West: commissioner on a culture of excellence

By Jason Whittaker

November 17, 2014

The Western Australian government is in the process of cutting another 1500 workers from its ranks to plug a budget hole leaking minerals receipts. But the state’s public service chief is still talking about investing in the workforce — at least in a smarter way.

After a long career in the senior ranks of the public sector (in both Treasury and the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, where he was director-general), Mal Wauchope became public sector commissioner in 2008. The Barnett government gave him an independent statutory office in 2010.

That status has allowed Wauchope (pictured) to drive significant reform. But speaking to the Institute of Public Administration Australia national conference in Perth last month, he called for a more strategic approach. Training and staff development has been “ad hoc”, he told delegates, without enough thought on future needs. Sitting down with The Mandarin later for an interview, Wauchope said:

“The sector as a whole just needs to be more strategic around where do we think the sector’s going to have to be in five, 10, 15 years. I’ve been part of a stewardship role for the public sector. We have a responsibility to hand it on, shove to the next generation in the shape that it needs to be.”

Wauchope subscribes to the 70:20:10 philosophy of blended learning workforce development: 70% should come from challenging on-the-job experiences, 20% from colleagues and mentoring, and 10% from formal training. It’s the basis of the state’s Centre for Public Sector Excellence, designed to capture the best learnings to drive innovation across agencies.

Objectives of the Centre for Public Sector Excellence
Objectives of the Centre for Public Sector Excellence

“There’s been a lot of money sending people through programs and courses, etc … We probably haven’t consciously acknowledged that a lot of the development was actually based on the job and how you actually relate to others, learning through others in the sector.

“It’s probably been occurring but it hasn’t been structured and it hasn’t been exclusive … There needs to be a strategic approach to development through those three streams. In the past, we’ve captured the 10%. We should possibly catch more than 10% because all the other stuff hasn’t been recognised. This actually puts a structure, a process and a philosophical concept around development in the new public sector.”

The excellence unit is an attempt to connect nodes across agencies and beyond. A “very good” advisory board — reaching into local government and the private sector — is in place to set the agenda. “So what I want that to do is to be the connector of the public sector to itself at the moment,” Wauchope said.

“A very good example is when we did the machinery of government changes last year [a dozen MOG changes were declared by cabinet] — we did it differently. I think we probably did it the best. I think we probably handled machinery of government changes in probably the most functional way in my time. But I was concerned that we actually captured the learnings from that particular exercise.

“The people involved, the agencies who were involved in the machiney of government and the people in the Public Sector Commission who were involved and were embedded in those organisations; let’s get this learning out into the public sector, which is really around change management. So, what did we learn? What went well? What didn’t go well? Now, that is only something you could uniquely capture from within the public sector. You could really not have an academic commentary about that because you need to have done it, to experience it …”

A ‘world class’ public sector

Wauchope calls the state’s public sector “first class … and probably world class” — he cites development in medical technology and dry land agriculture as two examples of the state leading work in research and delivery, along with the rollout of independently run public schools which other states like Victoria are adopting. And the workforce metrics are positive: “We stack up pretty well on most of the key indicators in terms of ethics, in terms of employee engagement and productivity.”

But WA faces unique challenges in terms of staff attraction within the national bureaucracy. “It is always more difficult, I think, for Western Australia to attract people over here when it’s a three- or four-hour flight,” he said. Difficult, too, to attract leaders to the regions — 20% of the public sector workforce is based outside of Perth.

“One of our bigger issues, I think, is regional leadership and getting people wanting to go and stay and work and live in the regions. When you go out there, there are some really good people in the regions, but what we obviously need to build is a leadership pool into the future. So where do they come from? What attracts them into the region? The same issue of what attracts people to Perth; it could be lifestyle, but at the end of the day if their family is in a different state and the interest is in a different state, it’s much more difficult to recruit.”

There is upside, at least, to the economy “coming off the boil”:

“There’s an opportunity to recruit people that may not previously have seen the public sector as the first choice. If we get them now and we develop them and manage them properly, then we will probably retain them when the environment becomes more competitive.”

The average age of the SES level in WA is 53. Wauchope would like to see that lower — he speaks of the importance of diversity in all categories — and is encouraged by the youngsters he’s seeing. “Some of our best ideas, quite frankly, are coming through our graduates and the graduate programs,” he said. He wants to encourage a “culture of curiosity”.

“Being supportive of people asking the question ‘why?’. That’s what I think is residual for the public sector … Why are we doing this? Why are we doing it this way now? Often people would get into systems and get into a way of operating that no one’s questioned over a period of time. There’s a problem.”

So how will he manage more layoffs? Communication — from the commission and agency heads — will be key. “Having the sector understand what the realities are,” he said.

“This is where we started from five years ago, this is now where we’ll be going. This is where we are going to have to go, this is what it means. You guys will be involved in that process but it will involve different roles, different ways of operating.”

There’s confidence in the Public Sector Commission, Wauchope asserts. “I think we’ve done a lot around public sector reform in the last four or five years both in the legislation and the associated way of operating,” he said. “The challenge is for central agencies to operate differently. Not just ours.”

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