Strategy and boundary challenges

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Tom Burton: Welcome to The Mandarin. Today, we’re speaking with Janine O’Flynn, professor of Public Management, and the Director of the Master’s of Public Administration at the Melbourne School of Government at Melbourne University. Welcome, Janine.

Janine O’Flynn: Thank you.

Tom Burton: Janine, the school’s been doing a lot of thinking about the 21st century public servant and its challenges, and in particular, challenges around executive education and leadership. Could you explain to us what you’ve learned out of that, and how that’s been reflected into your program?

Janine O’Flynn: Sure. A group of us here have been trying to define, what will the 21st century public service look like? Working with colleagues at the University of Birmingham and trying to map out — what are the skills needed, what are the capabilities that we need in a workforce to confront the big challenges that we face? Not only for those working in the public service, but for those who are working with government and across those public policy areas, we’re trying to address these big problems that we confront as societies. That’s been inspiring us to look at our programs, both at our Master’s level, but also in our executive programs. What can we do to really make a difference in developing those leaders and managers for the 21st century?

Tom Burton: And you’ve articulated five broad challenges you see for those public servants and people within the government ecosystem — they’re not just bureaucrats, they’re people in the NGO space, people who are working with government in various ways. So if we explore those five challenges — the first challenge is the strategic challenge. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Janine O’Flynn: Sure. For me, the strategic challenge is really… what is it that we want to do? What are the goals that we have, how do we articulate them, and what’s the plan for trying to achieve them? In the government space, it’s a bit different to what happens, of course, in the private sector. We operate in a political market, quite different to an economic market, although obviously there’s overlaps, but how do people who are operating in that zone figure out what it is that the big outcomes are? What are the goals, and how do we try and put together some sort of plans? Whether they’re well thought-out, or on-the-go emergent-style strategies to try and confront those.

And in our world, that opens up a great space to think about, how do we think about strategy, how do we think about planning, what’s the relationship between politics and those actors who are operating in that very complex environment and ecosystem? That tries to address those.

Tom Burton: And obviously, we’ve been talking about strategy for many, many years. It’s not particularly new. So what, if you’re trying to sum a little bit, what do you think the change is in the environment that’s driving this new sort of thinking? How would you put that down?

Janine O’Flynn: The world is different. We don’t just operate within the confines of the public sector when we talk about public administration. Many of us would make the case now that government no longer has a monopoly on that, either in design or delivery, implementation — there’s a very complicated set of boundaries that we have to think about.

Different sectors work together to try and address some of these issues. We have a range of actors involved in public service delivery systems. We work across jurisdictions: in the Australian case, across three levels of government, and often, in some public policy areas, internationally. And then we confront these other types of — boundary challenges, we think about them as — which are around knowledge.

How do we get different parts of that system to work together when we have different understandings of the way the world works? We might have been educated and trained in different ways. Put an economist and a psychologist and an anthropologist together and try to get them to agree on how human behaviour works, for example. How do we understand that complexity? How do we think about the bridges for crossing some of those boundaries, and stitching together these solutions for complex challenges that we face?

And for us, that’s a particular skill that modern managers and leaders need to have. How do they think about those boundaries? Sometimes, you want to try and dissolve them. Sometimes they serve really important purposes. But at some point, you have to span them. There’s this whole sense of developing what we would call boundary spanning skills, and the ability to do that in a way that will help you to reach the strategies and goals that you see—

Tom Burton: The key point, if I’m simplifying it, is that it’s got far more challenging, more complex, and more uncertain, really, than in previous generations — there’s the obvious global piece, the government’s working in a much more cooperative environment. The models of contestability, etc., are forcing them to think about markets. Is that the sort of space we’re talking about?

Janine O’Flynn: Yes. So an easy example to think about is, well, who is it that actually delivers what we call public services, now? Everything from detention centres, through to employment services, child care, education, across the piece in terms of what citizens expect the state to deliver to them, is no longer delivered by the state. In many cases, none of it’s delivered by the state, even if it’s funded and regulated or planned by the state.

There’s a whole incredibly complex system of providers and actors who are engaged in that. So, that creates a set of boundary issues, and we’ve started to organize in different ways to try and confront that, or solve it, or tame it.

Organisation, execution and performance challenges

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Tom Burton: This is the organisational challenge. This is one of your key themes, isn’t it?

Janine O’Flynn: Yeah, once we think about strategy — what is it that we’re going to do, and how we’re going to do it — and we recognize these different types of organisational, jurisdictional knowledge boundaries, then how do we think about organising to actually address those challenges? How do we configure ourselves within government, but also with other sectors and other actors, to really deliver public services, or to try and devise new policy, new strategies?

And part of that is, how do you actually get that complex machine to work? And we do that whether we’re trying to collaborate with other government agencies, whether we’re working cross-sectorally to try and stitch together these pretty complex sets of relationships. We’re starting to see, of course, a greater role for individual clients and citizens in designing their own services that they want to achieve. What does that mean for how we think about the role of actors, managers, and leaders in that?

Tom Burton: So, very practical, both design and execution elements in that.

Janine O’Flynn: Yeah, absolutely. So, how do you actually organise to achieve the goals, but how do you develop workforces that can do that? How do you design relationships? How do you develop the skills to manage across pretty complex portfolios of relationships?

We no longer expect of people who are leading and managing in that environment, for them to just be great contract managers, or to just be great at collaboration, or to just be great at community engagement. We expect them at different points in their careers to do all of that, and sometimes to do it simultaneously. And for me, that’s one of the great challenges for people working in that environment now. Understanding it intellectually, but also, how do you manage it practically? And weaving that together, I think, is what makes for a great—

Tom Burton: And again it’s a legacy framework of pretty tight hierarchies, bureaucracies, silos, is it?

Janine O’Flynn: Yeah, one of the things that’s really fascinating when you look at the academic debate that’s happened around public sector reform is a lot of talk of smashing and breaking through bureaucracy, the introduction of markets. But when you dig away in sort of an archaeological way at what we’ve got, we have these layers of different ways of organising that are still there.

And fundamentally, our organising principle is still bureaucratic, and it’s still hierarchical. And we’ve wedded onto that different models of markets, different types of collaborative arrangements, and they’re all operating at once. We did not throw out bureaucracy, and we never threw out hierarchy. And being able to think about what works in what situation… how do you practically deal with the fact that all those models operate at the same time, creating what some of us use, a terrible word at the moment — it’s very popular — in terms of talking about hybridity. These hybrid models that are gelling together all these different parts. How do we manage that environment?

Tom Burton: And I suppose to segue from that into, okay, once you get that going, how do you articulate the performance framework for that, is that another obvious challenge?

Janine O’Flynn: Yeah, it’s one in the sense that it links way back to that start of, what is it that we’re trying to achieve? And once we can settle on that to some extent — and that’s very potentially turbulent and volatile in a political environment — how do we think about measuring whether we actually have done it? What are the different frameworks that we need to use? How do we confront the challenge of measuring outcomes?

That’s one of the big challenges that we’re seeing in practice now. How do we think about the potential disincentives, or perverse incentives, that might come from applying inappropriate performance frameworks for different types of work? How do you try and reward those who are achieving within organisations, and those that you’re working with outside?

But what is it that we’re trying to achieve? What might be the different types of performance regimes, metrics, measures that can help us do that? And we know, in fact, in much of the public policy world, that we design frameworks that aren’t about that. That we collect all the data, we do a lot of performance measurement, but we’re not quite sure what it’s for.

Tom Burton: Yes. So we have this sort of classic input, it took us x times to do this, result, output. Would I be right that there’s a little bit of a linkage here back to your strategic point, because if, from a performance perspective, you’re really managing outcomes, you’ve really got to have a clear view of what that outcome is, thereby the strategic piece becomes really important? It’s not just sort of slice and dicing.

Janine O’Flynn: That’s right. These are really interconnected challenges in a way. So if you have ambiguity around strategy and goals, which is of course common in a political environment for many good reasons — a few politicians don’t want to be pinned down too tightly to exact sorts of strategies, they might have a big grand strategy, but it’s quite often to get operational strategy very clear in that environment — then how do we think about that? What’s the basis upon which we want to design frameworks to do that?

And a lack of clarity there often leads to measuring for measurements’ sake. And that drives a whole set of incentives that we know, both in practice and in the empirical work now, can link to poor outcomes — can undermine, in fact, some of the goals that we try to achieve.

Tom Burton: Yeah. But conversely, you get it right then you hit the sweet spot of, this really achieves the result we’re trying to get, there.

Measuring success and reform challenge

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Tom Burton: Historically, the public sector hasn’t been as strong as it should be around that. If you’re thinking about its data sets and how it measures all these, or how it actually gathers the intelligence to be able to make that insight, that says, gee we’re succeeding here, on that proposition?

Janine O’Flynn: I think everything from — there’s a great movement emerging now, coming out of the U.S. catching on around this idea of Moneyball for government, and those who saw the famous film—

Tom Burton: Yep, the Michael Lewis piece?

Janine O’Flynn: That’s right, or think about how we use data to make decisions. There’s a great sort of trend that’s emerged out of the U.S., particularly around that, but spreading, and different countries are adopting it in different ways. But it takes us back to that fundamental question — what are we trying to achieve? What are we measuring, and why are we measuring? What are we going to use that information for?

Without some clarity about that, you tend to generate some cynicism within the system about why the data is needed and what is being used for. When you can make a case that it can help drive performance improvements, that it can lead to better outcomes for citizens and clients, I think you get a much better buy-in in that environment.

Tom Burton: Yeah, and there’s something very powerful about very clear outcomes stated publicly, everyone’s bought in on it, there’s engagement around that, so it brings the pieces together. The piece I’m very interested in as well is, change is with us and change is happening almost sort of permanently. How do you build that, the innovation and reform piece, into this sort of thinking?

Janine O’Flynn: Some would say this is the hardest of all, of course, but part of the reason for that is it captures all the others. So, reform, change, innovation — all of these are about, on the innovation side, sometimes quite radical disruption, some say creative destruction of a system. And there’s big debates about how much appetite we have for that in government, whether government can innovate or not. I think most of those who are in the system would argue that of course they can and do, and part of that comes from working collaboratively, and in different ways with other sectors.

The reform piece is always the toughest, because sometimes that’s driven politically, not by managers and leaders in the system. They might be gifted a reform package to implement, which may or may not help to reach the strategic goals that have been set in another part of that system. But it really asks us to rethink, what are the goals? Do we reorganise to try to meet them? How do we redesign performance regimes, potentially, to help us do that? How do we think about those different types of boundary challenges?

So, for me, that one is in a sense the culmination of the others. Are our organising models working or not? Are the performance regimes helping us to try and really reach those goals and outcomes that we want, and if not, does that trigger reform? One of the big challenges we see in practice, of course, is multiple reform programs simultaneously operating, and sometimes [it’s] very difficult to ever get delivery of great outcomes on one because we’re constantly in reform mode.

Tom Burton: But I suppose you’ve got to stand back from it. That feels like a very dynamic environment, isn’t it? I think you’re really saying that you’re not just dealing with a nice static sort of academic model here. It’s just the real world of it.

Leadership and the Melbourne MPA

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Tom Burton: All obviously sounds like it’s about leadership, I suppose, is the proposition. Can we unpack that proposition of how you think about leadership in this program?

Janine O’Flynn: Yes. For us, it’s in essence… one of the key parts of the program is about training our future leaders, in part, but also offering those who are already in leadership positions a chance to reflect, to come and make sense of their world by talking with others, while also being introduced to new ideas. We have a great collaboration with our colleagues here in the Centre for Workplace Leadership, which is a great team who contribute to our subject on managing effectively. They lead that subject, which is very focused on the development of individual leadership skills, looking at some of the challenges that people will confront in practice, but also a very confronting experience for some people, about taking stock of what they’re doing well, where they might improve in their own personal leadership style.

So we look at it from that individual leadership development perspective, but also more broadly in how you lead across boundaries — how do you lead reform programs, how do you design and change and innovate — and all of that is part and parcel of leadership roles as we know in this public sphere environment. How do you lead for reform, but how do you lobby for reform as well? These are different sets of skills that we see, and in the work that the school’s been doing — looking at the 21st century public servant and the workforce, which spans outside the sector now — we see this as the key parts of the skills and capabilities of being able to develop that workforce.

Tom Burton: Just to come back then, what I’m interested in is, you’ve thought through these challenges — how do you articulate those into a program, then? You’ve got a lot of executive programs and thinking, and a lot of good programs there, but how have you tried to really take those challenges and give them an essence within the program you’ve developed here?

Janine O’Flynn: We’ve just started our Master’s of Public Administration in 2014. In many ways, it was a return to roots at Melbourne. With one of my other hats on, I’m one of the editors of the Australian Journal of Public Administration, and in going back through the archives of that, as all great editors try to do, we’ve discovered that in the 1930s the University of Melbourne had its first Diploma of Public Administration. Sydney was first, and there was a great battle between some of the great figures of public administration in Australia for who went first in that. We were second.

But what we did in thinking about the MPA was really work together in a cross-faculty way at Melbourne, which in and of itself is a rare opportunity in the education space. And say, what are these big challenges? What are the things that leaders in that environment need to know about, and how do we reflect what’s going on in their professional world? So the first subject that we designed for the MPA, called The World of Public Administration, has a day-by-day analysis of those challenges. We work through them with the participants in the program, bringing in a range of experts to work with them on what I’d call public administration bootcamp, five days before the first semester, all in for that. That allows them to really get to know each other very well, to have a space where they can share those professional experiences, and that set of challenges really lays out the foundation for their program. They then go on to look at various areas of what we call essential disciplinary expertise, from public finance through to the rule of law and the nature of governing. So we cover off politics, economics, and political science. And then into more, what we call sort of professionally oriented subjects around ethical dilemmas, how do we understand the news evidence, and how do we manage effectively?

And so, these five challenges provide the springboard into those areas, and they capture the essence of what’s going on. Not just today in public administration, but, if I went back to those pieces in the 1930s, I’d say that we all had similar views about what those challenges were, we just looked at them in a really different way in those days.

Career agility

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Tom Burton: The very model assumes a dynamic arrangement between the sectors; government, community, commercial — are you seeing that in the types of students that are coming to you?

Janine O’Flynn: Absolutely. Our first cohort has students from three sectors. We have students now joining us as the program develops from across the world. In fact, I’ve been sitting in admissions today, signing off on offers for students from around the world. One of the things that is great about that program is that it speaks to a global set of challenges for those who are working in that environment, whether they are in Mongolia, whether they’re in Pakistan, whether they’re in Australia or in Indonesia, those challenges confront them all. They play out in extraordinarily different ways, but something that our participants in that program are getting is an incredible perspective about what that means for them.

So, I’ve had students already in our program from the three levels of government in Australia, big international NGOs, and from the private sector. That mix highlights everything we want them to see about that world. And talk about boundary challenges — when you’re around the table with a group of your colleagues who are reflecting each part of that complex.

Tom Burton: Yep. And we know this to be true, don’t we, that these days a lot of people will move between those different sectors. There are not that many people who are bureaucrats for life, for an NGO or commercial. Am I correct about that?

Janine O’Flynn: Yeah, we see that now. Our students are great reflections of that. Those already in a classroom have done that, some of them are planning on doing that. And so for us, it’s a sense of working with them to develop their skills and capabilities to really allow them to do that, perhaps more seamlessly, but also to have a chance to stop — some of them are already on that journey — to stop and reflect about what it is that they’ve learnt through that process already, and really give themselves up for what it is that they’re going to do next. Others are already in this sort of, I’m-going-to-switch mode, and how do I get ready to do that? And being in a room with people who are working already in other sectors or already internationally, domestically, and understanding that, is something that you can’t learn from reading a book. You sit around the table with people and do that.

Tom Burton: A personal observation is that, for someone thinking about working in the public sphere — let’s talk about that at it’s widest — that’s a much more exciting, interesting proposition then, perhaps, the thirties, where you probably were sent off to the Department of Treasury for life. These days, that’s not the case. Are you feeling that as well? There’s almost a sense of excitement that’s, gee, this is a very nice place to work.

Janine O’Flynn: It’s just great, and we see that there’s a desire amongst the students that we’re attracting to either do that later — so, as I said, they’re training for that flexibility, in a sense of an agile, much more agile career, where they might be interested in a particular topic, but they might move around the various parts of that in their career. And we have students who, already in their own life to date, have worked in being international institutions, as political advisors, and [are] now working in big international NGOs again.

So we’re seeing people move around. It might be that they’re interested in issues around development, but they’re going to do that from very different perspectives over their lives. So they’re going to dip back in and out of education, and they’re going to want to be able to sit around the table with people who understand that, but also with people they can learn from. And that’s a big part of developing a cohort of people like that.

Your fellow students and course flexibility

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Tom Burton: Who would be the typical sort of person who would be attracted to this program? Where do you think your sweet spot is in terms of the sort of candidates who should be thinking about this type of arrangement?

Janine O’Flynn: One of the things to say from the start is that none of them are typical; they come from an incredibly diverse set of backgrounds. But there’s two things that we see in our classroom, but also that we’re looking for in people to join the program.

So we think about a group of our participants in that program as being career switchers. They’ve already developed expertise, they’re well-advanced in their careers, but they’re looking to make a change. Perhaps they’re moving into leadership roles, they’re experts in their jobs already, but they’re stepping up. And others are switching modes in a different way, so they might be moving between the public and non-profit sector, perhaps they’ve been working in the private and they’re coming into public. And this reflects this much more agile career that people will have. But for us, they’re the ones that are attracted, and they’re the ones that we’re seeing in the classroom. And part of that is essentially saying, well, what can you give me in an MPA that I can’t get in, say, an MBA?

For us, it’s all about context, so if we go back to the discussion we had before about strategy… well, strategy in itself is a complex sort of beast, but it looks different in all those sectors, and we teach strategy in a way that gives them an appreciation of all of those. So, organising, understanding the political environment gives you a very different flavour, and that’s what I think we’re giving to those people.

Tom Burton: So it’s about effective leadership within that context of the public sphere, and the type of people coming to you are people that have got an urge to grab that piece and run with it, and instinctively appreciate some of this complexity and uncertainty, and want to be able to frame themselves, skill themselves in that space.

Janine O’Flynn: Absolutely, and the thing is that these are people who already have great careers. They’ve already got plenty of experience. And part of what they want to do in that program is make sense of that, wrap some understanding around it. They appreciate the complexity, they deal with it all of the time. They understand all of those challenges. They might not have the language that we have in the university, but between us, we’re in this very collaborative learning space.

The other thing is, I get to learn a lot about what’s going on, and as a person who studies public management up close and personal, there’s nothing like sitting around the table with a group of people who are doing it. Whether they’re sitting in the private sector as providers, whether they’re sitting in the non-profit sector trying to influence what it is that government does. When you’ve got a group of people like that around the table, I tell you, it’s a great way to teach.

Tom Burton: So, many of these people are very busy. Do they know to quit their job, or is it something they can engage with in a much more flexible way?

Janine O’Flynn: For us, there’s lots of different ways to combine work, life, and also study. And one of the things we did in designing this was really look at, well, who are the participants that are going to come to us, and how can we rethink the way that we even deliver in programs like this? So, I don’t know if I can claim that we’re the most flexible, but I’d say we’re pretty close to that in MPAs around the world.

Tom Burton: And in practice, what does that look like?

Janine O’Flynn: We deliver most of our subjects in intensive mode. That means coming in for a three-day intensive with some of our colleagues to do ethics, three days sitting in the classroom with a bunch of experts talking about how do we understand evidence. We can do a five-day boot camp with me, and we offer our students great combinations of being able to combine full-time work and full-time study. That requires stamina, but I can tell you that some of our students are doing that and excelling, and they’re managing to combine the demands of full-time work as well as full-time study. And others are moving in and out. We can adapt to the program as their work and life changes. So we’ve had some of our participants already switching jobs and careers, but we’ve been able to reconfigure our program around them.