New Public Management: the practical challenges, remedies and alternatives

By Pia Andrews

Thursday November 21, 2019

Getty Images

THE PIA REVIEW: PIA ANDREWS This is the final in the Public Sector Pia Review — a series on better public sectors.

When I started working in the public sector, I found a few strange patterns of operations and behaviour that I struggled to understand. I couldn’t understand how we could get such a gap between implementation and the original intent. Why were people choosing to not share or work together? Why were teams just handing off unfinished projects to each other, or choosing short wins that created predictable (and demonstrable) long losses, thereby adding to the technical, administrative and cultural debt of the agency and the government?

I went looking for answers and, after 10 years of testing different hypotheses, I believe that many of the current challenges in public sectors link back to two causal factors:

  • The impact of increasing reactivism to politics and 24-hour media scrutiny, in public sectors (which varies across jurisdictions); and
  • The unintended consequences of New Public Management and trying to make public sectors act like the private sector.

If you’re interested in some ideas for maintaining a balanced public service rather than perpetual political or other reactivism, you might also be interested in the article about serving three masters. But this article is about New Public Management (NPM).

It is worth briefly mentioning that NPM was introduced in the midst of global uncertainty in an effort to make public sectors more efficient, more responsive to elected governments, and more engaged with other sectors. This article is about some of the practical and unintended consequences of the adoption of the principles of New Public Management by public sectors. It explores what we can do about them to ensure that our programs, services, policies and legislation serve the best public good and are delivered in a way that aligns to the purpose and roles of our public sectors.

Political/electoral cycles are short and the incentives on politicians are to focus on what they see as being urgent, whereas the public service has a duty of care over the long term. There’s a tension in this model which has tended, I think, over the past 20 years or so, to skew towards the public service delivering on the short-term political agenda at the expense of investing in the foundations for its own longevity.

Why is New Public Management more of a problem now than it has been in the past? I’d argue that it’s because we now have several generations of public servants who have come into the public service without the institutional memory of anything before ‘government as a business’.

Many thanks to those who peer reviewed this article: Tim De Sousa, Michelle Edgerley, Mark McKenzie, Lee Dowsett, Nadia Webster, Audrey Lobo-Pulo, Danielle Cole-Wilcox, Allan Barger, Harley Dennett, Keir Winesmith. And a special thanks to the wonderful Malcolm Crompton for the long discussions we’ve had on this topic, and his particular contributions to the article.

The dangers of treating public service like a business

Treating the public service like a business has become the norm, with the structures, language, practices and incentives inherited from private sector managerialism. We know that citizens don’t expect public sectors to act the same way — which is evident in the feedback, discussions, user research and myriad public engagements — yet when we adopt the mindset of a business we create pressure to act more like a business in everything we do. This isn’t entirely terrible — it can encourage efficiency and effectiveness, as well as investment in what will improve the experience of the people that interact with departments and agencies, but it has gone too far in many ways and places. When the functions of government are all referred to as ‘business units’ there is an implicit expectation to drive savings or cost recovery as an end rather than a means, and an implicit zero-sum game competitiveness between functions that really should be working closely together to get holistic outcomes for the community. The separation of policy from operations, and strategy from implementation and maintenance, has been an important contributor to funding being prioritised around delivery of the political agenda (urgency) rather than longevity. This is particularly the case for small agencies, whose incentives will always cause them to prioritise the delivery of wide and ambitious policy agendas over investment in sustainable organisational infrastructure that would keep them functioning properly.

When you compound this with a common lack of differentiation between core and non-core functions in a department, you can see funding start to be heavily prioritised around urgency rather than longevity, or the lack of alignment between personal (senior executive) and system and citizen priorities, or top down imperatives rather than investing in the core foundations that support the needs of the community, or the purpose of a public institution. This purpose is often encoded in the constitutional or legislative basis of the organisation, or sometimes in policy. But if you don’t prioritise funding (and structure, and incentives) around purpose, then it becomes necessary for an organisation to find itself running side hustles to supplement critical systems, functions or staff, which is an inherently unsustainable pattern. Innovation is seen as a nice to have, rather than critical for evolving antiquated systems or processes. Enabling innovation is now everyone’s job.

Public sectors should simply not be driven by a purely financial or efficiency imperative, because it conflicts very quickly with public good outcomes, and inevitably leads to decisions that prioritise money over people. When everyone is under constant pressure, there is precious little time, permission or support for proactive policy or program exploration. This is dangerous in a world that is constantly changing, and is a relatively new issue. For instance, earlier in my career, policy teams used to have some opportunity for self-directed exploration of policy options for the government of the day and, although some teams still have this role, I have seen increasingly fewer policy professionals and teams have this opportunity. This creates an opportunity cost, as policy professionals are sometimes in a good position to see and explore emerging trends across a system or government as they arise, especially when policy teams stay connected to several areas of implementation as they pertain to a policy objective. An overwhelming financial imperative, unbalanced by other pressures, makes it hard in public sectors to justify creating space and time for innovating or addressing long term challenges, even though, ironically, many in the private sector manage to fund innovation just fine.

On the other hand, the service delivery imperatives of the private sector have provided some good lessons and practices for public sectors around prioritising a great “customer experience” (CX) and focusing our efforts around continuously addressing “customer needs”. Of course, many “customers” of public sectors aren’t really customers, in that don’t have an option to get the service elsewhere. However, I have seen firsthand the genuine benefit to program and services development when a CX lens is strategically and widely applied. When functions of government that don’t consider themselves service providers have to consider a CX lens, you can get some great results: regulators considering the CX of regulated entities, legislators considering the CX of anyone (including service delivery departments) using the legislation, or policy teams considering the CX of people who need to apply new policy positions.

So while there are certainly things that public sectors can learn from the private sector, I think we need to reconnect with the basic premise that public sectors are different and should not blindly copy private sector practices, because the roles, responsibilities, incentives and purpose are fundamentally different.

Functional segmentation

There has always been challenges of siloed behaviour in Westminster-based public sectors. But NPM compounded this issue with functional segmentation of specialisations. Indeed, the mantra at the time was “make the managers manage” (thanks Malcolm). In my experience, policy, drafting, implementation, investigations, litigation, etc are all separate “business units” that compete for funding and attention. Each have different KPIs, which can deviate efforts and process from the overarching purpose, and result in cannibalistic functional competition that detracts greatly from the ability to be outcomes-focused across teams, even within the same department! Teams can come together around priorities or emergencies, but are almost the exceptions that prove the rule. I’ve heard stories of pre-NPM times when people who actually worked as a social worker were involved in developing the Social Services Act (NZ), because it used to be normal practice to have what we’d now call cross functional experts be part of the policy development process. Now we have policy professionals who have on the one hand brought greater consistency of methods and professionalism to the practice, but on the other hand have become separated from implementation. Bridging the policy/implementation divide is critical to ensuring outcomes-based efforts, prioritisation and resourcing, so perhaps we need to consider organisational structures that have multi-disciplinary teams wrap around outcomes, rather than be separated into functions? Meanwhile, just seeing people across different functions as necessary to the success of an outcome, allies not distractions or blockers, is a good start.

Roles of the public sector

We have a real issue of constant questioning and revisiting the roles and purpose of public sectors, certainly in Australia and New Zealand. Why? In my experience, it is usually because either people are under budget constraints and so start trying to shed more and more cost, to the point where critical public services become threatened. Or because of a philosophical ideology that thinks the free market can solve all problems and that government should just get out of the way (which emerged with NPM over the past 30 years). In the former case, we need holistic and nuanced decision making across the public sector that balances the proposals by highly pressured individual functions against the needs of the entire public sector and the diverse communities we serve. In the latter case, when the lens of “market failure” is simply applied without thought, we are assuming government is only here to do what the private sector won’t and that public sectors are the problem rather than a means to a solution.

I’ve heard many people, inside and outside of government, assume that public servants can only “help” by providing resources or ‘getting out of the way’, and don’t see the public sector either as a platform upon which they can build, nor as a potential partner in solving complex problems.

The biggest unintended and unfortunate consequence of the constant question about whether government should be doing something is the existential crisis I see in many public services. Many feel constantly assumed to be “less than” the private sector: not as innovative, not as effective, not as capable. That assumption then leads to a particularly dangerous assumption that if you want something done right, just get the private sector to do it, and yet some of the most innovative, effective, capable and ultimately driven people I’ve ever worked with have been public servants.

But surely government exists to provide stability, predictability, key services, and the broadest social and economic outcomes for the community? I would argue it is necessary that public sectors do certain foundational roles, because they can do so at a scale, and can deal with a high level of system complexity, for increasingly diverse needs, can do so sustainability and are motivated by a public good imperative. Taking a duty of care approach means necessarily taking a systems approach, and long term in public sector terms means decades or centuries and public sectors can provide a platform upon which the whole society and economy can thrive. Of course, when public sectors acted more and more like private sectors, this became difficult to discern.

Of course, the non-profit sector is also an important part of the puzzle that is often overlooked. Many vulnerable people will go to a trusted non-profit well before they choose to deal with government, because we are both the social worker and the cop. So it is critical that we engage with, support and proactively enable non-profits to do their very best work for the people who most need it. Our role in government isn’t just to do, but to support.

The shift to outcomes-driven public services is a useful step, but if we are to get genuinely better public services and a cohesive culture and approach across the public sector, then we need to explore the genuine roles of government in a digital economy, and build part of our strategy and success measures around that.

In the jurisdictions in which I’ve worked, the absolute minimum set of public sector roles are found in foundational articles like the Australian Constitution, constitutional conventions and in legislation. Again, to use Australia as an example, the federal government provides national security, communications and transport infrastructure, an in-perpetuity record of the births, deaths and marriages, national standards, immigration and much more. Here is a handy guide about the federal, state and local government roles and responsibilities for Australia, several of which are defined in our Constitution, with thanks to the Parliament of NSW website.

If we want to design the core roles and responsibilities of governments in a digital economy, we need to start with the basics above, and then look carefully at current and emerging ways that people and organisations want to engage with public sectors, like we did in exploring future modes of service delivery in the New Zealand Service Innovation Lab. People want and assume that we are looking at the ramifications of AI and automation for quality of life and the future of work, but are our policy, service delivery, compliance and myriad other teams empowered to explore new horizons?

What does public infrastructure look like as it extends beyond roads and communications infrastructure to a digital economy? We also need to consider what digital transformation means for the very foundations for public sectors to operate at all, like legislation, administrative orders, budget management systems, policy development, accountability, regulation and what a digital twin of government would look like.

The roles and responsibilities of public sectors today should potentially reflect three key things:

  • The roles and responsibilities outlined in the foundational documents of the society;
  • The needs, values and expectations of the people and communities we serve (again, please see the serving three masters article); and
  • An application of the previous two as they extend to digital foundations for a digitally enabled government, society and economy.

On the third point, we must consider the different incentive systems of different sectors, and ensure we do in the public sector the things that align with public sector purpose and incentive systems for the best public good. For instance, legislation provides myriad rules by which society must depend on, and so the provision of legislation is clearly a public sector role. So as we are looking at digitally consumable rules (like legislation and regulation as code), I would argue we should therefore consider the provision of authoritative digital legislation (like a role of the public sector, rather than just setting principles or outsourcing something so foundational.

There is a very mixed public narrative about the roles of public sectors in modern society. It would be beneficial to take this moment in time to engage widely, across sectors and communities, to co-create a clear consensus on the minimum agreed roles and responsibilities of public sectors. This would better allow the ideological arguments to be constrained to the areas of disagreement without the widespread erosion of public sector existential confidence, something that is currently consistently hammered by a widely held assumption that absolutely everything is contestable.

Public sector versus private sectors — a lesson in finding balance

The lack of general consensus on the roles of public sector today creates a variety of survival behaviours that are counterproductive. We need to get back to a broad consensus of a few key ideas:

  • That public sectors are a necessary and positive foundation for society (and democracy). Many people coming into the public sector seem to start with the notion that the best type of government is small and invisible, which doesn’t really align with the diversity of actual functions of our public sectors nor the diversity of needs of the people. Sadly, the same perspective is usually backed with the argument “well that’s what I’d want”, which is, to my mind, the very worst rationale because it assumes one person’s (usually very privileged) experience reflects everyone else’s, which is debunked with even the merest of research or service design.
  • There are some things that only the public sector should do. This shouldn’t have to be said, but when everyone is under serious (and somewhat artificial) budgetary and staffing constraints all the time, it can lead to function-based decisions at the cost of the system and community at large. For instance, you can see a branch or team deciding to change, outsource or close something down because they need to reduce immediate costs, with implications for others that rely on that thing. I’ve seen people suggest outsourcing key functions of government just to meet an efficiency dividend, without consideration of the effect of different incentive systems on that function. So we need to collectively differentiate between:

1. What only the public sector should do;

2. What the public sector should definitely not do; and

3. Where there is debate and disagreement in between.

Even the staunchest of ideologues would not propose that everything should be done or not done by the public sector, and yet the prevailing cultural assumption in public sectors is that anything is up for discussion, which leaves an existential axe hanging over the public sector at all times.

“The lesson: trying to turn non-market parts of society into markets, while blithely ignoring all the obvious reason such “markets” would fail, is a fool’s errand.” Ross Gittens, Confessions of a pet shop galah: a lot of reform backfired (Nov 2019)

Whilst I think the Constitution provides a good starting point for defining what public sectors should be responsible for, it was clearly written well before the digital age and so a rethink is needed. Below is my very simplified thinking on the matter.

Whilst the public service needs to also deliver on the policy agenda of the government of the day, the general public and industry also expect that public sectors are keeping an eye on emerging trends and formulating policy positions and proposals to protect and support the wellbeing of the community. Sadly, today, many public servants believe that it isn’t their role to (as the public service) to raise new policy ideas, or they don’t have capacity outside of day to day operational work, or that they have no permission to pursue proactive policy ideas. Policy teams used to explicitly have time for practice work, but this is not common now and needs to be reprioritised in policy functions.

If this proactive policy futures work is outsourced, or delivered primarily through consultants, then we lose the public sector voice of sustainable public good, and we lose the possibility of ensuring policy positions that are co-developed with citizens. Public sectors must keep a hand on the wheel whilst also seeking knowledge and expertise from across sectors and communities, and I would suggest the role of being an expert facilitator of creating balanced, evidence-based and public good policy positions is a critical one of modern, effective and values driven public sectors.

The impact on regulation

In a business sense, the philosophy underpinning regulatory reform has largely shifted to a principles-based approach as a means of reducing cost and providing flexibility for implementation in businesses. And yet, more interpretation requires more effort and creates less consistency of application, so the cost and complexity are simply shifted from policy teams into the consumers of regulation making it much more costly for the regulated sector, particularly small and medium enterprises. The gap between policy and implementation also can make it much harder to realise the original policy intent. Pressures to reduce costs at a business unit level can also become an impediment to collaboration across teams in the public sector, and certainly gets in the way of actually solving the problem.

Bringing a business perspective to the table is critical for regulation to work well (see our article on creating better rules and rules as code) but treating the act of regulation itself as a business becomes tricky because there are many imperatives for regulation, not just economic ones. If you measure success in regulation as how many compliance breaches you’ve identified, you can find the organisation becomes perversely incentivised to not strengthen the systems and reduce non-compliance.

Commsification — the issues around marketspeak

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘public sector’? A lot of people don’t distinguish between ‘government’ and ‘public sector’, and the general public narrative at the moment is one that assumes that private sectors are inherently better than public sectors, and assumes public servants to be barriers: ignorant bureaucrats that couldn’t deliver value to save themselves. This whole narrative is both insulting and untrue for the vast majority of public servants I have worked with, but there is generally no contrary view in the public domain.

The voice of the public sector has been stifled, misrepresented and glossed over by deep and broad ‘commsification’. Don’t get me wrong, great professional communications teams are excellent at shaping a narrative and getting a message out there. But there are three unintended consequences of trying to apply professional comms across the entire public sectors:

  • Marketing doublespeak has seeped into all forms of communications to the detriment of clear, meaningful language. You could almost pick up the executive summary from any two departments and you’d get the same reference to ‘synergy’, ‘efficiency’, ‘streamlining’ and a focus on customer experience. This is often not the communications teams pushing the language, but senior executives who want to sound more business-like. This problem is best articulated by the great Don Watson in his book, Death Sentence, which should be mandatory reading for all public servants.
  • The notable absence of facts in the public sphere. Public sectors have a lot of information, data and facts at our disposal, including high value publicly funded research, and things for which public sectors are uniquely authoritative on (statistics, economy measures, etc). It is critical that the public service publishes facts in a way that isn’t about a good news story, or trying to reflect the policy of the government of the day. Of course people will debate about whether all things are facts, but as a basic principle, if public sectors don’t publish facts for which we are uniquely responsible, then who will? To not do so doesn’t just erode public trust in public institutions, but contributes to many other negative impacts like declining business confidence and international relations. We have all seen facts interpreted as ‘bad news’, and then dressed up, obfuscated or spun by comms strategies.
  • The silencing of public servant professionals. Public servants are an extremely diverse group that make up almost 2 million people across federal, state and local jurisdictions. We include designers, technologists, operations, front-line staff, economists, scientists, educators, infrastructure expertise, intelligence specialists, lawyers, regulators, managers and many many more. When public service professionals can participate in the public domain in the context of their professional expertise, it contributes great value to the public sphere, as well as improved trust between those who serve and those who are served. It also creates an opportunity for greater public participation in policy and design of public programs and peer review from different experts across society. Obviously, this doesn’t mean sharing secrets, or classified information, but there is a great scope for professional discussions between public servants and other sectors. Unfortunately, many departments believe anything ‘public’ should be done through a communications team, which becomes both a bottleneck as well as a shift away from many genuine voices towards a single official corporate voice. Often enough, this official voice then also becomes a voice for the political priorities of the day, which blurs the lines between political and public sector messages.

My recommendations for this are simple:

  • Use clear, meaningful language at all times, whether in a business case, media release, strategy document or report.
  • Be an authoritative source of facts for things you are uniquely authoritative on, regardless of the policies of the day.
  • Purposefully recognise and support both the official and unofficial voices of public sectors. Professional comms teams should certainly be responsible for the official voice of an organisation, but all public servants should be encouraged and supported to engage outside their organisations and online in professional discussions with others, with only the sorts of reasonable limitations that you would expect under any organisation. It certainly does get much trickier with regards to how a public servant should engage in political debate, but for the purpose of this article, I’m specifically talking about encouraging and supporting public servants to engage respectfully in the public sphere as professionals with their own voice, not through the lens of official comms. Blogs, social media, speeches at public events, are all great ways to share, test and improve the work of our public sectors more broadly.
  • Finally, empower your communications teams to do what they do well without trying to do it all. A lot of policy and program people paint their communications teams as “bottlenecks” but perhaps they are more like a traffic cop, balancing the priorities of stakeholders who were deeply interested in the work of their internal clients (but deemed irrelevant by those clients), as well as the needs of journalists, bloggers, political parties, other program areas and internal-to-government stakeholders. It’s also important to distinguish between marketing and strategy. Marketing is about the good news story. Strategy is about making important links and tying a project’s messaging to the overall agenda. I think a lot of comms teams are pushed into pure marketing activities when they can be so much more helpful as a highly skilled capability.

Are there alternatives?

The first alternative I want to talk about is Government as a Platform (GaaP), which is often seen as a technical framework, but is an excellent strategic framework. Without going into detail (read the article for that), GaaP provides a way of organising our public sectors so that we can deliver everything we are uniquely responsible for, as well as enable others outside our teams, organisations, jurisdictions and sectors to ‘mash up’ the data, rules, content and transactions we provide into new value for the community.

A more holistic alternative framework, developed in 1995, is Public Values Management (PVM). When I first heard of this idea it made complete sense, but I’ve found people have taken it to mean many different things. I believe actively shifting to a PVM approach creates a way for departments and governments to be better public institutions for sustainable and systemically motivated public good. But rather than talking about what it could or should be, I discovered an exceptional application of the theory in a fascinating, detailed and pragmatic 2017 paper called “Public Value Management Theory” (DOC) by the Chartered Institute of Purchase and Supply. This paper talks about the key elements of PVM as they apply to the public sector (in particular to procurement), and I think these concepts apply across the board:

  1. 3 elements of the Strategic Triangle are in place. These are: strategic goals and values; the authorising environment (eg gaining legitimacy to undertake specific projects); and operational capability (eg resources and skills etc.)
  2. The emphasis on societal rather than individual needs with two dimensions of public value being “What do the public most value?” and “What adds value to the public sphere?” (Benington, 2011). This means that public bodies in addition to providing good quality services to individuals, have a duty to provide broader benefits to the local community as a whole, with such benefits being measurable.
  3. The role of public managers as “explorers” and creators of public value by looking outward, upward, downward and inward, as co-ordinators of the three elements of the strategic triangle and with an emphasis on political management skills.
  4. The emphasis on networked governance with public bodies working and leading across organisational boundaries including within a “mixed economy” network of public, private and third sector providers.
  5. Co-production is core to the creation of public value with public organisations and their providers working with the public and clients in both designing and delivering services.” Public Value Management Theory 2017, Alan Turrell (CIPS).

I refer you to this paper as a repeatable blueprint for applying PVM to your area of public service. I was also fascinated to see public values defined in it as economic, social/cultural, political and ecological.

Meanwhile, I have also seen PVM interpreted substantially more narrowly, where ‘value’ is simply used a euphemism for business benefits, and not reflective either of broader societal value, nor reflective of the values of the people served. This seems like a lost opportunity, as it would simply repeat the challenges of New Public Management with shiny new language. So I encourage you to consider the core difference between NPM and PVM to be shifting to a more holistic and sustainable approach in delivering value for and with society.

I think that whilever we measure success in purely economic (efficiencies, savings, economic outcomes, etc) or delivery (launched, ‘customer’ metrics, completion rates, etc) terms, then the incentive systems will continue to be NPM at their heart. Prioritisation of funding will continue to be driven by economic imperatives, and ‘value’ to the public will be limited to economic or individual benefits at best. But public sectors also need to provide other forms of value. Social cohesion, national security, stability and predictability, standards, a social safety net, etc. When measured purely economically or on delivery measures, we miss the forest (society) for the trees (individuals and budgets).

When he was Privacy Commissioner, Malcolm Crompton delivered a report Light Touch’ or ‘Soft Touch’ — Reflections of a Regulator Implementing a New Privacy Regime” (2003) on his thoughts on possible KPIs for a regulator.  He set out these thoughts in three areas: Economic impact; Social outcomes; Public accountability for resources.

So, as well as adopting Public Values Management theory, I think we need to explicitly adopt consistent measurement frameworks across public sectors, from policy through to implementation, that take into account quality of life and other societal measures that reflect the values of the communities we each serve, to ensure our investment and resourcing prioritisation aligns accordingly. The two examples I am most familiar with are the Living Standards Framework in New Zealand, or the NSW government Human Services Outcomes Framework.

Connecting to Country

The final challenge I want to briefly explore, is the institutionalised cultural homogeneity of NPM. I should say this isn’t unique to NPM, but whether it is a business imperative, or something else, there are a lot of deeply embedded assumptions and ways of working that are seen as normal in public sectors that have the effect of quelling diversity of practices and culturally diverse knowledge systems. A “business process” is assumed to be valid if it delivers to the business purpose, and there is then pressure to do something as quickly and efficiently as possible. Exploring different methods and knowledge systems is seen as a nice to have, rather than a crucial way of including different ways of working in the process. Designing inclusively is starting to become more understood as having value, but again through the lens of more efficient service delivery to more people, rather than the lens of developing services that are more aligned with the values of the community, and the notion that public sectors should be enablers for human dignity, which includes cultural dignity.

So, as the very last thing I wanted to write about in this series, I wanted to briefly share the most profound but recent part of my journey in better public sectors. When I worked in the New Zealand government, the widespread assumption and practice of engaging with Māoridom, not just as “clients” of government services, but as a knowledge system that brings new and unique insights to what we are doing, and why. Obviously nowhere is perfect, but it showed me some different and better ways than I’d experienced to date in Australia. So upon returning to Australia, I made it a part of our work program to seek and engage with different knowledge systems, and to learn how we could connect to country in our work in the public sector, and as individuals for a more genuine, respectful and partnership oriented approach to engaging with communities across Australia.

In my own branch, we started looking at how to engage differently. I hired a wonderful lady, Belinda Trikilis, to be our cultural advisor across all our work (digital government, policy, data, innovation, standards, etc) and she immediately found a lot of the staff hungry for help. We also looked at extending the usual cultural training to include more personal content, like getting staff to think about where they are from, where they live, the stories and history of those places, and their own relationship to place. All in an effort to improve the individual connection to Country as a foundation for better engagement and understanding.

In the New Zealand Service Innovation Lab, I was lucky to work with Tiopira Piriti, and we actively looked at a Māori lens for the life journey work we were doing around “moving house”, please see the results here, which were surprising and enormously helpful for the government agency we were working with. In the NSW government, we had the privilege and delight to learn from Dave Goddard and Arama Maitara from Walk Together Design, and Dave shared with my NSW Digital Government team his insights in culturally inclusive service design. We also engaged Old Ways, New, an Aboriginal owned and led strategic design company, in our Life Journeys program, which brought different methods and knowledge systems to the important work of understanding end of life (“sorry business”). Their report, Life Journeys: Death and Sorry Business, created significant opportunities for service improvements, but also ways to identify and address community concerns, ways that could build trust and relationships between community and public sector.

I’ll be continuing this work with Angie Abdilla and others moving forward, as we explore what “good public sectors” could look like from a Country-centred perspective. We’ll share more on that journey outside of the context of this Pia Review series, because it is a much bigger topic :)

Final word

Public sectors need to own our story better and be proud of the purpose and role we play in society. A lot of people come into the public sector with the assumption that the private sector does everything better, and are shocked (and sometimes delighted) to find that public servants are more capable, innovative and effective that they ever thought possible. This is not the exception that proves the rule, it is proof that the public narrative on public sectors is not reflecting reality.

Working in the public sector is complex, difficult and has wide ranging impacts on society in everything we do. We have a public good imperative that doesn’t always align with a business imperative, and myriad (appropriate) accountability measures that try to safeguard the rights, dignity and safety of the people and communities we serve. We are different to businesses — and we should be proud of it.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
The Mandarin Premium

Insights & analysis that matter to you

Subscribe for only $5 a week


Get Premium Today