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Erma Ranieri on changing Sth Australia 90 days at a time

Public service commissions are increasingly not just a steady hand to keep the sector’s workforce running smoothly and oversee enterprise bargaining, but also tasked with devising reforms and culture change. Nowhere has that dual-hat been made more explicit than South Australia, where Erma Ranieri had the enviable opportunity to propose a merger of the state’s existing reform and renewal body and the commissioner’s office, and then be appointed to head it.

Ranieri took over as South Australia’s commissioner for public sector employment in July this year, heading the newly created Office of the Public Sector. It brings together the previously separate bodies responsible for the many human resource areas, workforce analysis, performance management, leadership development, reform and renewal, in addition to the statutory responsibilities of the commissioner in areas such as enterprise bargaining.

Now several months into the role, Ranieri told The Mandarin she has had an opportunity to talk with the sector’s chief executives and already experienced both frustration and relief. “I’m taking the role in a different direction in South Australia,” she said of her change and people-focused leadership style:

“A commissioner’s office in the past has been very much about ‘the act’ and what it is. Most [public service commissioners] are now broadening out their role to include the reform agenda. Ours has been the other way around. I was busy doing that reform in a deputy chief role in an actual government agency. Certainly from experience over 30 years in this kind of change and the hard end of industrial relations, all I know is if you get the proactive stuff right, get the reform right, and you get the hearts and minds of people involved, often your other things start to fall into place.”

Ranieri says executives weren’t thinking about change when she began consultation with them — but there was optimism at what could be accomplished.

“That’s not to say there isn’t frustration from my end, and probably theirs. I will take a collective approach and technical leaders will probably look at this from the perspective of what the agency does and we need to get on and do that. What I’m starting to see an indication of is if we respect each others’ perspectives there’s a sense of some relief that [the Office of the Public Sector] are taking care of some of those people things. We can’t keep duplicating the same sort of programs. We need to find out what’s best in class, not only in Australia but internationally, that make organisations successful.”

Like all public sectors in Australia under pressure to create efficiencies, the SA leadership group is tackling the inevitable build-up of duplication, fostering consistency and identifying economies of scale. It also has another challenge: staying competitive. Ranieri says looking after their workforce and bringing that workforce into the future has been chosen as the leadership group’s top priority.

“In several ways the public sector has fallen a bit behind in being the employer of choice around practices where we were leading when flexitime was introduced. The private sector is chugging along quite strongly in some of this area and I think we kind of need to lift it up because it has huge, dare I say it, productivity gains and we are modernising it.”

Leadership development is one of those key foundations — regaining respect as an employer of choice — Ranieri feels particularly strongly about. Acknowledging that some agencies are doing a better job than others of identifying future leaders and developing their people, her office is working with the leadership group — that collective approach again — to revisit what that development should look like and what future leaders should look like.

Ranieri says she doesn’t believe in a single centralised office, but there are a few areas where a whole-of-sector approach is required, such as the annual State of the Sector report and unifying the research and understanding of the sector. Currently most of the state’s agencies survey their own people in accordance with the state’s high-performance framework, which was awarded a Prime Minister’s commendation. “So we competed with the rest of Australia with what I think is a fantastic tool,” she said. “[Those results] should be a platform of setting a direction, strategic vision and change management.”

[pullquote] “If we do all these things to build the public sector then I think we’ll improve the performance at all levels.” [/pullquote]

What’s already known is that the South Australian workforce is good at running the organisations technically, and people do feel aligned to the strategic direction, or are getting better at it. But when it comes to shifting the focus of an organisation and restructuring, Ranieri says “nobody is scoring fairly well at doing that effectively”.

Indeed, a change agenda is usually one of the lowest priorities for any organisation. The State of the Sector report will be beefed up in future editions, to go beyond just reporting against the act to include more comprehensive surveying of how the sector is moving overall, as well as reforms in planning. Ranieri says it’s currently reactive rather than forward looking.

The systems behind the data that the commission has access to will also need updating to accommodate that shifted focus. Starting with employee wellbeing, and shortly after with statistics, the commissioner’s office is moving towards a platform to enable real-time data, aligned to the payroll system, so the commissioner can see and advise on what’s happening in the workforce. “We need baseline information,” Ranieri said.

“Where are they going? What’s the sick leave? We don’t have that. We’ve got a lot of work to build the system … If we do all these things to build the public sector then I think we’ll improve the performance at all levels.”

Ranieri’s priorities for the next six months are:

  1. Building a consistent culture of service excellence;
  2. Delivering human resources and industrial relations outcomes that better meet the needs of government agencies and the workforce;
  3. Becoming an employer of choice;
  4. Continuing to work on 90-day projects;
  5. Promoting values and behaviours;
  6. Improving the wellbeing of the public sector workforce; and
  7. Improving workforce planning through better workforce information.

Projects delivered in 90 days

One priority stands out as unusual for a public sector commissioner: 90-day projects. Limited scope, time-constrained reform projects that align to the government’s seven strategic priorities are the central work of [email protected], a body Ranieri established in her previous role as head of the Office of Public Sector Renewal.

“The public sector is so big that nobody believes we can innovate. But, certainly in my experience, you have a lot of very well-meaning public servants who know what the answers are.

“What we did was develop the program, with all the good thinking around what is good management implementing values and behaviours. The only way to demonstrate is to actually do things. I’ve been reading a lot more around innovation that is happening on the edges and in the public sector we’re too frightened to make any decisions, because we’re taking a risk — being dead honest. Ninety-day projects were just perfect because we said we’re going to pilot or trial, we get a bunch of people together to solve a problem and if you can’t solve it in 90 days, get out.”

Ranieri says it came out of being tasked with renewal of the 100,000-strong workforce but not handed resources. How do you do that? “Well, you start with the bunch that actually want to do it.”

Taking on initially just a handful of projects that were important to the seven strategic priorities, the project leads applied a 90-days lens and design thinking: “What’s the problem, how will you go about it, how do you scope it — important for the ministers it had to be something deliverable — and the rest is history.”

It wasn’t just any pet project that would be taken on. “You have to exercise the values: collaboration across a couple of agencies makes a real difference to citizens AKA service outcomes to the people we serve,” she said. One of the earliest projects was antenatal services in children’s centres. Ranieri says they “hit a nerve with me”.

“There’s about 13 points where a pregnant women could get antenatal services, but in the two centres we picked in the trial [there was] a very high indigenous population [and] a lot of migrants, both with lower socio-economic areas. There were some very vulnerable mums that wouldn’t have gone to any of those antenatal services. Aboriginal women, or drug or alcohol abuse, they wouldn’t go because of protection orders and stuff like that. But they were going to the children’s centres to drop off other children. One of our strategic goals was ‘every chance for every child’. If we could have antenatal services at the children’s centre, then that woman, if there’s a relationship developed, could get early help for an unborn child.

“The complications were that it cost a bit for a pilot, as you had to pay for an antenatal mid-wife. They said, ‘yes we’ll do it, but what authority do I have to make that commitment?’. Education and health got together; they decided to split the cost, the antenatal services are now running at two centres, fully looked after at the children’s centre. There were some young pregnant girls at the high school who could get help immediately. That one is dear to my heart.”

Another early project was to allow criteria-led discharge from hospitals that didn’t require asking a doctor to sign out patients if they already met the requirements for discharge. Instead, nurses would take on the duty. Ranieri says safety was the key consideration.

“They’d already developed the framework for nurses to do the discharge when it’s safe. Everyone thought there’d be issues with the doctors, but there weren’t. They went through the 90-day project and nurses are now discharging at most large hospitals and doctors are saving time. In fact, they’re going into surgery and doing other things. There’s a massive productivity gain in that we’re freeing up beds the night before because they’re not waiting for the doctor to arrive the next morning.

“Someone said to me: I don’t know much about 90 day projects, but if we can get the discharge happening, we’ve achieved our aim.”

On a personal level, Ranieri says focusing on innovation and renewal “really sparked an energy in me” after returning to the public sector after having children. Although other leaders were sceptical at first, close to 50 projects have been completed so far and Ranieri says the 90-day concept has become part of the mantra in government if they want to solve a problem. “Let’s make it 90 days, let’s get on with it and do it. Lots of public servants putting their hand up and making changes and it’s all-generational. It’s been terrific,” she said.

“I’ve intervened in the projects that actually require my help at the senior level. I would just impose, develop a relationship and if it didn’t work, I’d deal with the conflict as to why it didn’t work. I refused to accept that a 90-day project couldn’t go ahead if all the parties were willing and able.”

So powerful were the results of these projects, and so different from what has been done before, that Ranieri says it has changed her view of leadership as well. She has brought [email protected] into the Office of Public Sector Employment.

“It was always my desire to align that sort of reform to the hard end of what is the commissioner’s circulars, determinations and the rest of it. It makes sense for that together.”

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.