THE PIA REVIEW: PIA ANDREWS This is a Public Sector Pia Review — a series on better public sectors.
Change: the very word inspires quite different responses in different people, from excitement to dread. I see change as twofold: a tool for getting us somewhere new, and a changing force we must respond to. Change for change’s sake is both a waste of time and a distraction from real problems and opportunities.
A pattern of behaviour I repeatedly see in private and public sectors is reactive change programs that try to prioritise and fix individual problems (a deficit view) rather than recognise and fix the causal factors that created the problems in the first place. Such a pattern of change creates a lot of set-and-forget programs of reactive symptomatic relief and iterative improvements without direction.
So, how can we design proactive, effective and adaptive change efforts that both respond to what is happening around us and that take us where we need to go? I believe useful change efforts require two things: direction and responsiveness.
If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you’ve got there? To take the saying a little further: if you don’t know where you are going, how will you ensure every action and decision you make is contributing to getting there?
I see a common pattern of change without direction, which usually creates a systemic divergence and duplication of efforts that sees teams and individuals all just trying to achieve their own goals independently of each other. If you have a clear purpose, direction and vision for any collection of people, then the individuals therein tend to naturally align their efforts accordingly, which creates convergence and effectiveness of effort. If a person can’t trace what they are doing for the overall goal, then there is a problem.
As an aside, of course there is some necessary busy work in running any organisation; but, it should be a matter of proportionality. Ideally, all people and teams should be spending 80-90% of their effort on activities that contribute to the direction and organisational goals. When you see people spending less than 50% of their time or less on the actual work that needs to be done or on symptomatic relief, then there is a problem. I tend to automate, streamline or simply stop any busy work that I can and encourage my teams to do the same, but of course not all people feel empowered or supported to do this, especially if the busy work comes from up the hierarchy. But I encourage everyone to at least be proactive and cognisant in trying to ensure a reasonable proportion of your day-to-day effort is making your intended impact.
So how do you determine direction? The public sector has some hard-coded purposes embedded in the Constitution and foundational legislation that should provide some consistency and convergence, but the differing responsibilities across different portfolio legislation and the differing top down directions from different ministers makes it harder for the public sector to sustain convergence of efforts around common direction. Some public sectors have strong senior leadership with clear purpose and direction that in turn drives sustained and effective change across organisations. But some are so reactive they are unable to maintain momentum of any change program. Public sectors need to be continually progressing their own evolution while being responsive and supportive of the policy agenda of the government of the day. To do either without the other puts that public sector out of balance.
Successful organisations know how to establish clear direction, but how about successful societies? How would we see natural convergence of efforts across sectors for the benefit of everyone? Personally, I would love to see an overarching and collectively developed vision for Australia around which we could all converge across sectors and across ideological aisles.
In the absence of one, you need to ensure you know or create sufficient direction for all efforts in your team, your organisation and ideally across your sector to cohesively drive toward.
Ironically, many change programs are also designed at a point of time with ongoing delivery then oblivious to ongoing extrinsic changes happening every day.
In short, there are many change programs that don’t change.
If you don’t keep an eye out along the way, how do you know if you are even going in the right direction? Every journey needs both a destination and a willingness to respond to what happens along the way, whether it is traffic, a storm or running out of fuel. You wouldn’t get in your car, start it up and start driving without a destination or purpose in mind. And you wouldn’t set and forget the journey, as you need to respond to traffic, lights, someone crossing the road, etc. Even smart cars maintain both a direction and responsiveness to changing conditions.
So how do you build responsiveness into a work program? And what inputs do you need to understand and respond to change?
There are many ways to build responsive teams, and I discuss how to establish an empowered and safe team culture in Enabling Collaboration Across the Public Sector. For the purpose of this article, I’ll talk more about how to structure the work itself. I would also suggest the most powerful inputs at your disposal are continuous public engagement and monitoring of trends. Below are some practical strategies that may help:
- First, you need to actively design your work program around continual change. This means adopting methods that are constantly reviewing, optimisting and, where necessary, pivoting to maintain course — the same as you would in your car :) I would suggest adopting agile work methods with regular retrospectives, an agile budgeting approach that doesn’t lock the full work program in at a fixed point, and constant engagement with key stakeholders to show delivery and manage expectations.
- I talk about this a lot, but if possible, work in the open, both internally and externally, as this will help build trust and confidence in your team. Trust is especially important when you identify something that needs to be responded to, such as a pivot or change in approach. If you don’t have trust and delegation of sufficient decision-making, then responsiveness can become limited by top-down controls. The ability of a team to respond requires leadership that supports and encourages them to be responsive.
- Public engagement:
- If you ensure regular proactive engagement with representative user groups of your service, policy, regulation, etc, then you can keep your finger on the pulse of changing needs and trends. This means you need to ensure you seek their thoughts and ideas, not just seek validation of your direction.
- You could establish an independent advisory group of people who are aligned with the purpose, which I find often helps to both inform the work program and help mitigate the dangers of siloed teams or assumptions. If you do this, I do recommend you make it as open as possible so it doesn’t become exclusionary. It can also be a great means of support when things need pivoting.
- You also need to ensure there are effective, accessible and ongoing public feedback mechanisms for people to provide their experience to you. If you suddenly see a spike of feedback on a service, negative or positive, there is a reason to investigate and optimise.
- Monitoring of trends:
- Ensure you know the policy intent(s) you are working within, and design from the start, a way to measure/monitor relevant trends so that when you implement any form of change you can see if there is any corresponding impact.
- When you develop your trend monitoring approach, also design and create key triggers for notification, and ensure your team actively monitor for unexpected changes that you need to respond to or notify.
The inevitability of Machinery of Government change
All public servants experience the unique and regular disruption from Machinery of Government (MoG) changes. From a change in portfolios to a change in government, the impact on departments is enormous. For large changes, it can take a year or two to finalise a series of MoG changes, giving perhaps a year of full productivity in the election cycle, only to then start again. Whenever you have major top-down change like a MoG happening, you also have a negative impact on culture, as people feel uncertain, unsafe and disempowered. If we want to see more effective, productive and efficient public sectors, I truly believe this is an area that needs some focused effort and investment. This is hard in an environment that primarily values the immediacy of service-delivery improvements, and yet is critical for maintaining the capacity, culture and productivity needed for great service delivery.
MoGs are not going away, so ideally we would see some investment in modernising the administrative structures of government, like described by Allan Barger in his exceptional Government Digital Twin article, which talks about how much easier it would be to manage MoG changes if our foundations were digital. For instance, if the organisational structure of the public service was a data set that linked to the Administrative Arrangement Orders (AAOs) of the day, then when you changed the AAOs, you could have core digital infrastructure for government administration and service delivery. You could potentially automate many of the painful and manual aspects of a MoG change, including system and personnel access changes, payroll and HR systems, stationery and email signature blocks, legislative line of responsibilities, etc. Basically, if we want to see true digital government, we need to invest in the modernisation of government itself, not just the services provided to the public. This isn’t a “nice to have”, but rather a critical foundation for evolving to be a 21st century public sector that can respond to the changing needs of a 21st century society and democracy.
Until then, public servants can only do our work the best we can. But I do encourage everyone to try to automate and minimise the negative impacts of MoGs on the day-to day work of the public sector, which means protecting capacity, buffering core service and policy delivery, and ensuring you keep the impact of such change in proportion, as it can otherwise simply swallow up all available time and effort, which in turn undermines the very purpose of having a public sector.