How to navigate transformation and disruption in the public sector. Leave an enduring legacy of improvement by knowing your audience

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday August 30, 2019

In a world where governing is becoming increasingly difficult and the pressures on public servants are rising, how can leaders navigate transformation and disruption? Being skilled in communicating with all types of staff and communities and understanding their values and needs can help define progressive outcomes.

What are the opportunities and threats?

“Politicians are under intense scrutiny, and so are you. You know, it all cascades down to the public sector,” former Department of Education and Training secretary Lisa Paul says.

“There can be a sense of change fatigue, even with the excitement of a reformist government which, of course, is here at the moment. And we know there’s a decrease in trust in democracy.

“The threats are there — but I think for the public sector there’s heaps of opportunity for transformation and from disruption. And they include, for example, enabling you to get closer to the citizen, enabling all of us to get closer to the citizen.”

She emphasises that although state governments have a better opportunity to do so, understanding the hopes and aspirations of citizens should be regarded as essential by all levels of government.

“So thinking about an opportunity from the current digital platforms we have, you’ve got a reformist government, you’ve got a beautiful suite of tools that will help you better understand the people that you’re working for,” Paul explained at IPAA Victoria’s Public Sector Week in Melbourne.

“It should be a key focus for all of us.”

“Let’s find out what’s in the hearts of the people we serve. And let’s look after ourselves and each other on the journey.”

She says clever administrative data platforms such as public transport apps and education websites like My School present powerful opportunities and have “allowed conversations never allowed before”.

Another opportunity is working with different sectors, such as the social and private sector, which Paul admits she did not do enough during her time as secretary. They can offer insight and “brainpower” which “you just don’t get internally” without having to pay up.

“One of the areas that we have certainly seen over our 15+ years is the role that philanthropy and not-for-profit can take in taking risk, where, appropriately, governments aren’t able to take risk, especially when there’s something that needs to be delivered at great scale,” adds CEO of Social Ventures Australia, Suzie Riddell.

“And when working in partnership with not-for-profits funded by philanthropy, we’re able to develop experiments and test things on the ground, in real life, in communities … if the outcomes are better than what we would otherwise expect, then there’s work to be done on: How do we scale? How do we use that as a disruption?”

But what if staff are fearful of change?

Back in 2016, Paul told The Mandarin, “everyone is a leader”.

“It’s very important to try to give people as much certainty as possible in an uncertain environment.”

Her view of adaptable leadership and individual value is not dissimilar today. Paul believes that every organisation has employees who fit into different groups based on their perception of change.

At one end of the spectrum, there are the “disruptors” who are constantly seeking change. Next are the “change agents”, who like change at a reasonable level. Then, there are the “pragmatists”, who will accept change if it is logical. The “skeptics” come next, who believe change will always come and go. Finally, there are the “traditionalists”, who dislike change because they are concerned about losing the values, history, and corporate memory of their organisation.

According to Paul, each group will likely “only hear a message comfortably” from another particular type of person. While a traditionalist may be convinced by a skeptic, they probably won’t be persuaded by a change agent, for example.

“A pragmatist might be able to convince the skeptic that it’s worth going with this change. And a change agent will definitely be able to convince a pragmatist. A crazy disruptor, on one hand, would of course be able to excite a change agent, but not necessarily a traditionalist,” Paul argues.

“But if you’re a leader … then you actually need to be able to speak to everyone. So it’s important as a leader to be excited about change, but understand that we mustn’t lose the things in a place [values, history and corporate memory].”

Does the cost of progressive disruption ever outweigh the benefits?

When asked about the “tipping point” of when to say no to progression to avoid “immense financial cost”, Secretary of the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, Kym Peake, flipped the question on its head.

The IPAA Victoria president says the bigger issue is getting the social approval to invest rather than worrying about whether too much is being invested, reflecting on her recent experience with the mental health royal commission.

“I actually think the bigger reason that state governments in particular have turned to royal commissions is because where there is stigma and discrimination, it is very difficult to gain the social licence to invest,” she says.

“And whether we think about family violence or whether we think about mental health, the disruption that comes through the royal commission format is really a conversation with the community which is aimed at shocking — is aimed at shifting — the norms and beliefs and attitudes that drive that stigma and discrimination.

“And so what then flows is the ability to have a conversation about transformation, if we open up a social licence to say, ‘actually, this is an area that is really important to the community. These are the outcomes that we want to achieve for members of our community that have been silenced because of stigma and discrimination’, then the conversation about investment is put into a completely different frame.

“It’s obviously really important that we give great advice about what are going to be the practical actions that can be done in a cost effective way to shift outcomes … but I do think there is a responsibility for us to use data and evidence really well to target available resources effectively.”

Peake argues that the most important thing is delivering the best outcomes for those in need.

“Change is not for change sake, change is about making sure that you really are leaving an enduring legacy of improvement in the services and functions that we perform,” she says.

“We are here for a short time, and we want to make the most impact in improving outcomes for people. And in doing so we want to make our work as rewarding and safe and supported for the people who work in the public sector as we can so that they can be at their very best every day.”

How can lasting change break through the silos?

“I love silos,” Paul says. “Silos are incredibly efficient, they’re entirely clear, they’re incredibly accountable, and it’s going to be impossible to move away from them.”

“However, if you can overlay your silos with two things you can create magic.”

The first, Paul says, is being “really laser focused” on what outcomes are needed “for the people that we’re actually working for”, which will promote collaboration across portfolios.

And the second?

“I also would advocate looking really carefully at your reward systems.”

Paul emphasises that rewarding employees for their actions is important, because it reinforces that such efforts are valued.

“So those two things can really help work across silos to get better outcomes while still keeping the accountability that you get through a clear hierarchy,” Paul added.

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