Geoff Gallop: public sector education and the art of strategy

By Geoff Gallop

September 18, 2014

It’s now over a decade since the push to extend and improve public sector education began in Australia, the creation of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government at the national level and the Graduate School of Government in New South Wales being two case studies. All of this was inevitable and necessary — the philosophy and practice of government was changing and along with it legislation and policy for public servants and the public sector more generally.

It posed some questions. What did it mean to be a good public sector manager in 21st century Australia? What should be taught by our schools of government?

Part of the answer to those questions took us to modern managerialism. Good government required good management and that had to mean education in a wide range of technical capacities and skills, including those we need to inform, consult (and in some cases engage) the public, to utilise new technology and new management systems in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness, and to give policy advice using multiple criteria and the best evidence available.

The second part of the answer takes us to the issue of governance generally and the need for an education in thinking and acting strategically. Geoff Mulgan, who worked in the British Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office between 1997 and 2004, called it “the art of public strategy” or “mobilising power and knowledge for the common good”. Plenty of textbooks followed on strategic planning and implementation, including one by Mulgan himself.

What also followed was a real effort to come to terms with the theory and practice of “joined-up government” and “co-operative governance” and what they meant for politicians, their advisers and the public service.

Entering into the territory that involved relationships within government between elected and non-elected officials and between different agencies with different traditions and organising principles raises the question of power and how it should be managed. The underlying reality here has been the reduced power of the public service vis-à-vis elected politicians and their advisers.

Legislation varies across the nation but it’s pretty clear that governments today can get who they want — and dispose of those who they don’t want — as heads of department. Coupled with that has been the consolidation and extension of the power of a government’s central agencies over its line agencies.

Given these power relationships, what does it mean to be a public sector leader today?

“Thinking and acting strategically, then, isn’t just a matter for government generally but also for public servants in relation to their political masters.”

Three sets of issues are involved: personal (survival), political (influence) and ethical (the public interest). It’s in this territory that we find much of real interest to public servants at the top — or aspiring to get there. They understand their obligations to the government of the day but also to the public interest. Indeed, the latter is a duty — and not an optional extra — as some public servants have found to their detriment when inquiries are undertaken, such as those by a royal commission or a corruption commission. Knowing what such commissions are concluding about what is right and what is wrong has become essential knowledge.

What’s also emerging is a deeper understanding of the important role the public service can play in contributing to good government beyond the expectation we all have that they will faithfully serve those elected to power and deliver their selected programs properly and efficiently. It’s that portion of what we call public value that the public service itself adds to our democracy. However, to service and to be able to exercise influence with the political class without acting outside the public interest requires real political capacities and skills. Courses designed for public servants need to incorporate this if they are to be relevant for the sector. This brings “the person” to the curriculum and the need for self‑awareness (of strengths and weaknesses) as well as a keen awareness of context and circumstances.

Thinking and acting strategically, then, isn’t just a matter for government generally but also for public servants in relation to their political masters. What does it mean to work with a minister? What does it mean to speak truth to power? What does it mean to raise the quality of ministerial decision‑making? How do I exercise influence when there are so many others in the game?

These are the questions I hear from public servants — and for those of us in the business of public sector education, they relate to issues we can’t ignore, if only because the relationships between the elected and administrative arms of government is a key factor in determining whether outcomes for the community will be good or bad.

A good public sector education will involve not only the personal (self-awareness), the technical (management systems) and the ethical (the public interest) but also the political domain where power and influence is won or lost.

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