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Leading in turbulent times: the challenge for bureaucrats

Australian governments are increasingly embroiled in a turbulent electoral cycle, political and parliamentary. How a modern public service leader adapts to changing times and changing ideologies while maintaining their credibility is the question for everyone facing these challenges.

Greece is undergoing its greatest political turnaround since the global financial crisis after the election of a left-radical Syriza government. Syriza’s election led to bond market turbulence and fears of a domino-effect of countries leaving the eurozone, and has since been met with a hardline approach from its creditors.

In western Europe, the political landscape is being fragmented as the ideological centre is hollowed out and smaller parties are being elected in their place, according to Utrecht University School of Governance Professor Paul ‘t Hart, who maintains that despite differences in electoral systems it can happen in Australia. And to a degree it already has.

“Centrist, mainstream, majority parties are becoming an endangered species in European politics, and I don’t see any a priori reason why that should not also occur in Australian politics, regardless of the rules,” said ‘t Hart, who also leads the Australia and New Zealand School of Government Towards Strategic Leadership Program.

In the past three years the Northern Territory has changed leaders three times and talk of a fourth change is in the air, the federal government went from a long-term conservative government under John Howard to a Kevin Rudd-led Labor leadership to a Julia Gillard-led minority government to the Tony Abbott-led conservative regime, which has just survived a leadership spill threat.

Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland have worked through groundswell changes of leadership in their state parliaments and NSW is due for an election on March 28. Minority views and agendas in parliaments are undoubtedly having an impact.

Public servants are being asked to manage through these times, at once educating new officeholders on governance as well as guiding their contractors, suppliers, staff and higher management through changing priorities. ‘t Hart says public servants ascending through the ranks are faced with day-to-day politics but must manage their areas strategically.

“The people who move up and who reach these kinds of positions have to deal with these realities and that interface between the hurry and strife of day-to-day politics and what ideally would be a more strategic process to running a government and addressing complex social problems,” he said, speaking by phone from Utrecht, Netherlands.

“They have to constantly negotiate that interface in a way that on the one hand does justice to the role that professional civil servants have in the democratic process where you’re supposed to be responsive to the needs of the government of the day, and on the other hand the requirements of an organisation of professionals that is the repository of certain values and standards that could go beyond or even be at odds with the political imperatives of the day.

[pullquote] “Public servants are entitled to challenge politicians to make credible public value propositions for the policies they propose …” [/pullquote]

“You need people who are more resourceful than just being professional problem solvers in an area of responsibility.”

Sometimes new governments announce major policy and organisational changes off hand. This creates uncertainty in all directions outside the organisation and within. Public service leaders then need to “manage down, manage up, and manage out” all at the same time, ‘t Hart says. “It requires a lot of versatility, a lot of communication, a lot of listening skills to be that buffer and remain credible,” he said.

The challenge is to be proactive and not just responsive. Modern public servants should embody complexity, assertiveness and challenge old models of the public service, ‘t Hart advises.

“We do encourage people to be a be more assertive, to be looking at themselves not just as technocrats but also as guardians of public sector values that may well transcend the priorities of politicians.”

But in ‘t Hart’s model there is “no rulebook”; it requires debate and balance, and knowing when to stop the debate. At stake is that politicians could attach themselves to a position that they cannot retreat from, such as publicly announcing a project or making changes to departmental structures in order to appear mobile and active.

“Not to play that game is risking irrelevance or invisibility, which is two sides of the same coin in politics,” he said. But at the forefront the “ultimate rationale” for the political system is to produce value for the community.

“Public servants are entitled to challenge politicians to make credible public value propositions for the policies they propose. If there’s not a good public value case to be made then there’s a big question mark over whether one should just buckle up and comply,” he said.

“At the end of the day, if the democratically elected government demands a certain thing to be done it will have to be done, but in the end our challenge is to empower public servants to be proactive, smart and astute in getting a seat at the tables where those discussions are being had before they are cast into stone by ministers and their offices.”

Paul ’t Hart is a professor at Utrecht University and the Netherlands School of Government and an adjunct faculty member of ANZSOG and co-convenor of the ANZSOG Towards Strategic Leadership program with Robbie MacPherson.

Written by: Dan Moss

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The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.