Gary Banks: ANZSOG conference takeaways

By Gary Banks

Friday August 7, 2015

ANZSOG’s annual conference is unashamedly an insiders event. It is the setting for a lively conversation about issues that matter to senior public sector managers. And it is enlivened by both academics and practitioners from what this year’s dinner speaker, Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles, called the “public purpose sector”.

But it is not an exclusive event. The couple of days spent in Melbourne involved nearly 300 people who shared an interest in the conference theme of “Transparency and Engagement in the Information Age“.

Did they get value for money? I guess we will find out as the evaluations roll in. But the only complaint I have heard so far was about the difficulty of mentally processing all the information and ideas that emerged. Fortunately, we had already decided to issue a “proceedings” earlier than usual this year, which hopefully will help.

In the meantime, let me share a few takeaways of my own:

  • Transparency in government, with dealings and data open to public scrutiny, is obviously a good thing. And we could do with more of it. But it needs to be what one speaker called “meaningful” transparency, enabling access to information that is really needed by citizens and to make governments accountable. That is not the same as providing any information that people or the media may want. There are costs and risks in going too far. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. A straw poll of Commonwealth departmental secretaries conducted by former Commonwealth departmental secretary Andrew Metcalfe for our conference revealed that, following recent extensions, FOI legislation was perversely curtailing and distorting information needed for good policy development. Ministers and their advisers were increasingly asking for verbal briefings or side comments. And one secretary revealed that he has been placing any sensitive matter on post-it notes, of which he now has a selection of colours and sizes on his desk.
  • Engagement with the public, if done well, not only ensures better government decision-making and service delivery, with fewer unintended consequences, it can also enhance that depreciated political asset — trust. Professor Allan Lind’s research reveals that trust is closely connected with feeling included. Indeed, brain science tells us that reactions to pain and exclusion occur in the same place. The proposition that people are more likely to accept a government decision if they feel they have been properly listened to along the way accords with the experience with successful structural reforms in both Australia and New Zealand. Process matters.
  • The importance of authenticity to trust was underlined by the opening presentation by NZ government minister Paula Bennett, whose personal embodiment of this no doubt helped in securing important welfare reforms in that country. It has been said that “if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made”, but electorates are becoming increasingly cynical about political messaging and increasingly perceptive in distinguishing spin from substance.
  • The Information Age has heightened public expectations about receiving timely information as well as enhancing the technological ability to acquire it and provide it. But a welter of information and insights from conference speakers, including chief information officers from three national governments, suggest that, while gains are being made, we have a way to go to bridge the two. Indeed, as one put it, if we feel we have arrived we are probably at the wrong destination. It is not enough to have smart technology. It must be fit for purpose. And, as South Australian Department of Premier and Cabinet chief executive Kym Winter-Dewhirst put it, it must be matched with smart content. There is currently still too much “hard copy” thinking in IT-based delivery. However the imperative to make information more user friendly in electronic form is starting to lead to a reassessment of the value of what governments have traditionally made available.
  • Information technology is merely an enabler. However, if done right, it can enable important new things to be achieved in both policies and services. For example, crowd sourcing is in essence as old as democracy itself, but as Tanja Aitamurto from Stanford University showed, based on cases from her home country Finland, technology enables not only a dramatic up-scaling in vertical informational flows from citizens to government, but also horizontally among citizens themselves. This can improve both the basis for decisions and the public’s acceptance of them. The shift can be qualitative as well as quantitative.
  • There is much data latent in the administrative systems of different departments that could become a powerful resource in designing programs that meet the needs of citizens better. New Zealand’s investment approach to welfare delivery, by targeting people early with the right combination of support based on joined up data systems is helping to transform future lives as well as yielding a return to taxpayers. As in other areas, it shows the value of the learnings (in both directions) that can occur across the ditch.

The role of leadership was never far from the surface of discussion in such areas (and I have only touched on a few). Changes are not always incremental or seen as win-win. Indeed when it comes to technology some may necessarily involve discontinuities that are disruptive and that threaten existing interests and comfort zones. Preparedness to take and accept risk — never the strong suit of the public sector — is central. It calls for courage. But it is also assisted by good management.

A repeated theme of the conference was the need for governments to “take the people with them”. Preparation and explanation are obviously keys to this.

The last session of the conference made clear that this is a joint endeavour for politicians and public servants — and that adaptability and collaboration will remain hallmarks of success in the Information Age.

Top photo: Gary Banks, Ben Rimmer, Marie Johnson, Philip Evans. Credit: Miguel Carrasco.

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