How do public servants deal with the outside world: is there any truth to the stories we tell ourselves?

By Peter Debus

Thursday October 31, 2019

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When it comes to dealing with the world outside the public sector — business, NGOs, universities, and professional services firms — people inside the tent get fed some familiar tales. We’re too inflexible, we are risk-averse, we won’t share responsibility, even that we don’t have any ideas of our own and contract out thinking work to the consultants.

As an innovative, real-time exercise, IPAA Queensland polled over 400 public-purpose workers at their recent annual forum. In a live session choreographed by Ben Schramm from the Cube Group, participants were posed a series of six statements about public-purpose partnerships and asked to decide whether each proposition was a myth or a reality. Some of the answers were surprising.

How did the assembled audience of public-purpose workers across metro and regional Queensland react to a series of questions about partnerships with external stakeholders?

In a blow to professional services firms, most respondents felt that that they were ultimately focused on commercial returns and not on public purpose in their public sector work, with only 23% thinking this statement not true. However, balancing this view, less than half (45%) felt that the public service leans too heavily on consultants to do the core policy and strategy work of government. The idea that most important thought-leadership work is being contracted outside is just not considered true, so that is a confidence fillip for those looking to make a difference from the inside.

Thoughts about effective collaboration with the outside word were gloomy. While the whole sector is being exhorted to work with external partners, almost four out of five polled (79%) felt that regulations, ‘red tape’, and public service rules in general were blockers to outsiders wishing to deal with bureaucracy. Perhaps the most alarming consensus was around the view that even if public servants wished to attempt a shared solution to complex problems requiring working with external stakeholders to get things done, the inevitable risk aversion to bad reactions by media, ministers, and vocal community groups was enough to kill off any bold projects of this nature. A full 85% felt that fear of these powerful stakeholders was a bravery killer in most situations.

The six propositions were the following:

Statement 1

Professional services firms are ultimately about commercial returns. When it comes to it, they put profit before purpose:

Yes 77%; No 23%

Statement 2

The tertiary sector is too theoretical and slow to move. It’s difficult to translate academic research and language into ‘real-world’ policy and practice:

Yes 62%; No 38%

Statement 3

Partnerships are a ‘nice to have’ for the community services sector — a higher priority for NGOs is to unlock funding and generate revenue that secures their financial futures:

Yes 52%; No 48%

Statement 4

We may want long-term, shared solutions to complex problems, but media, community and ministerial scrutiny draws us into our organisations where we are held immediately to account:

Yes 85%; No 15%

Statement 5

It’s great to talk about partnerships and shared outcomes but public service rules, regulations, and ‘red tape’ are blockers. It’s not easy to do business with the bureaucracy:

Yes 79%; No 21%

Statement 6

The public service leans too heavily on professional services to undertake the core policy and strategy work of government:

Yes 45%; No 55%

How does this relate to your public purpose work?  Does ministerial scrutiny interfere with your ability to achieve positive outcomes to complex problems?  Does your organisation lean too heavily on external consulting firms to undertake policy work?  How do these statements connect or indeed disconnect with you?

What does this mean for the future of public purpose partnerships?  The results, the conversation, and potential progress are concepts that IPAA Queensland looks forward to working with the public purpose sector to resolve.

To find out more about IPAA Queensland, and to view the footage from the day, check out their website, and join as an individual member today.

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