How government can work better with the private sector: clarity is key — and work on your own skills

By David Donaldson

Tuesday August 11, 2020


The public and private sectors have different cultures, so staff with experience of both is invaluable. Plus the skills early career public servants should be developing.

Jason Loos
Jason Loos

The better the clarity government can give the private sector when working together, the better the outcomes will be, says Jason Loos, deputy secretary of the commercial division at Victoria’s Department of Treasury and Finance.

“If we’re not clear on what it is we want, we’re not going to get a good answer from the private sector — whether that’s in the health sector, the social housing sector, or the transport sector,” he told a YIPAA masterclass event on Wednesday.

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“The projects that I’ve been involved with in the past that have gone well were where there’s a clear requirement on what we want the private sector to do, the measures of success are clear, and it’s very clear that we can get some value added from the innovations that private sector firms can can give.”

Public servants should avoid the temptation to over-specify “what the infrastructure looks like”, he says, but instead focus on the outcomes sought. Loos pointed to examples such as the Royal Children’s Hospital and the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre.

“We talked about the medical requirements, the lines of sight that doctors and nurses needed, and we allowed the private sector then to come in and actually design the hospital and come up with all the value adds to those two facilities. We’ve tracked that pretty closely and we’ve gone back in and interviewed some of the doctors and nurses working in both facilities, and they’ve really had some positive things to say about the working environment.”

It’s about asking the right question, says Amanda Evans, head of strategy and transactions at EY. Successful projects she’s worked on also tend to have “a good degree of transparency around the creation of those objectives and that brief with the private sector”, Evans argues.

Trust and open communication between the parties mean problems can be addressed, “so that both private and public sector can be aligned on: are we asking the right question are we responding to the right thing, and being agile enough to change that if it’s not?”

But one challenge is mutual understanding. People in the private sector with no experience of government don’t understand how it works, says Evans.

“They don’t appreciate the specific objectives and pressures that government and the public service have in their roles — things like probity and informed decision making, making decisions that are for the benefit of taxpayers, that are robust and justifiable.

“All those sorts of things are easy to say but they’re actually really hard to understand how they translate into day to day actions and organisational culture. And so the things I see that sort of become points of contention are often because of miscommunication and misunderstanding between those two very different cultures.”

Coming to agreed understandings of what is expected under a contract, for example, is one way of overcoming this. But that requires having people who understand both worlds, and that comes through experience.

“The best private sector organisations I’ve seen that work in a public sector market are ones that have people in them that have worked in government or people who have worked alongside government a lot, and vice versa. We avoid those issues when public sector professionals are able to put themselves in the shoes of the private sector and understand each other’s perspectives.”

Working on skills

Talk also turned to the skillsets younger public servants need to prosper. Evans highlighted three areas she would advise those early in their careers to work on.

Amanda Evans
Amanda Evans

First is leadership skills, whether transformative leadership or leading through change.

“Young professionals very early on in their career should be thinking about their leadership skills, even if they feel they don’t hold a leadership position. My view is that we’re all leaders, all the time, and so focusing on those skills is critically important.”

Second is critical thinking.

“There’s quite a lot of focus on the technical skill set … financial analysis for an infrastructure project for instance,” she says.

“Technical skills are really important, but perhaps not as much focus is given to critical thinking and conceptual thinking, and I think that’s so important. Nothing in this world is delivered through a paint-by-numbers approach, so being able to critically consider the problem at hand, the outcomes desired and then map a pathway towards that through strong conceptual thinking is a skill that I’d encourage everyone to develop alongside those core technical skills that are necessary for your professional discipline.”

Third is working on personal characteristics “like how you relate to people and the extent to which you are prepared to be vulnerable and show the true you — both as a leader and as a peer. Vulnerability is a really important part, alongside being agile and building trust in the relationships you have.”

The ability to influence is a core public servant skillset, says Loos, who has spent the past two decades working at DTF.

“You need to influence your peers, you need to influence your manager you need to influence your ministers,” he explains.

“To be able to influence effectively, you need good stakeholder management skills, good policy and analytical skills, you need to be able to communicate clearly, you need to be able to write clearly.

“One of the best things people can do as they’re in the early parts of the career is just get around and build relationships and talk to as many people as you can, because a lot of people have got good experience. … Just by observing people’s behaviours and what they do in certain situations and how they react, you’ll learn some good things and you can also observe probably some things that you probably wouldn’t do if you were in the same situation yourself.”

Being able to distill information is vital.

“I spend a lot of time briefing the treasurer. He hasn’t got time for long, detailed commentary on things. It’s got to be punchy, to the point — what is it I’m raising? Why am I raising it? What’s the outcome? What do I need him to do?

“That’s the one thing I’ve probably learned over the 20 years is if you can’t distill it down into three points that are really clear on what your message is, you’re probably going to not be that effective at communicating or influencing.”

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