Social change over recent decades has significantly altered the operating environment for public service organisations. Some have work to do just to make sure they’re equipped and organised for the present, let alone the future.
The IPAA ACT Division’s inaugural conference last month provided a forum for federal and ACT public servants to discuss these broad issues, with the banner line “public service in interesting times” referring chiefly to tightening budgets and various aspects of the digital revolution. And with electoral and political volatility another aspect of the “interesting times” in the government sector, the theme chosen months earlier couldn’t have been more appropriate in the week of Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to the prime ministership.
Early in the day, a panel brought together the respective heads of the federal and ACT government bureaucracies, Michael Thawley and Kathy Leigh, alongside former ACT chief minister Kate Carnell, now CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Facilitated by political pundit George Megalogenis, they considered how public services could adapt to the current operating environment and prepare for the years ahead.
When Thawley returned to the Australian Public Service as its most senior officer last year, he was more surprised by how little had changed than how much.
“The environment we work in has changed considerably, especially the media,” he said, adding that politicians approach issues differently as a consequence of the major changes to the media and communications landscape. “But the big thing to my mind is the interconnectedness of most of the issues we’re dealing with and I’m often surprised by the fact that our structures prevent us from seeing the connections. I think we’re all very conscious of that problem but I don’t think we’ve actually found the solution.”
Despite pointing to structural blindspots, the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary does not believe the solution is to be found by spending large amounts of time and money searching for the perfect organisational design. Rather, he said he felt the focus should be on cultural change. While cross-agency teams and other ways to break down structural silos are now commonplace, Thawley says the current operating environment demands a focus on goals with an open mind about how they are achieved.“It’s a state of mind as much as anything else, and it’s letting go …”
“It’s a state of mind as much as anything else, and it’s letting go, it’s owning the result and the outcome rather than wanting to own and control the process,” he said. “And if we can work back from that, I think we’d be much better off. Because obviously the role of the public service hasn’t changed.”
Leigh had a slightly different view. “I think structure does matter because I think we’re all very rational people, and if we put people into organisations which have [a particular] responsibility, they will respond and focus on that responsibility,” she said. “I agree, on the other hand, that we can use an enormous amount of resources up endlessly restructuring.”
In her opening remarks, Leigh said the small size of the ACTPS and its budget had made it easier on occasion to adapt to changing times and get things done. Agility sometimes tempered a lack of resources, she said, and being small meant less barriers to collaboration inside government and with outsiders. The ACT is so small its public sector agencies can’t afford to ignore anyone who could help contribute to their work, she said.
“We’ve done a couple of things in the ACT that have been small, practical things that I think have really helped with that,” Leigh told the local IPAA members. “We’ve actually clustered our directorates into three clusters picking up the social fabric, fiscal fabric [and] governance, so [we’re] encouraging people to see those links.”
She pointed out a particular danger with cross-agency taskforces: their purpose is to combine the skills and experience their members have only gained by working inside their respective agencies, meaning the benefits of each silo-breaking team begins to diminish if it continues for too long.
“So one of the things we’ve done is created co-ordinators general, who are at the deputy level,” Leigh explained. “Everyone stays in their directorates, but [co-ordinators general] have an actual responsibility across directorates for an actual cross-directorate issue.”
Following an initial trial, there are now five co-ordinators general and Leigh says the results have been positive.
Let the information flow
Leigh agreed with Thawley on the importance of culture and said, in that domain, territory bureaucrats had been trying to be more open with information, among themselves at least.
Carnell — who, like Leigh, spoke of the public service pulling back from an increasing range of activities and services that are now performed by the private sector — said public servants still instinctively felt nobody else could be trusted to achieve the desired outcomes. Like Thawley, she advocated an approach focused on outcomes with flexibility about how they would be achieved.
The former Liberal chief minister also questioned the need for so much public service work to be done on the traditional need-to-know basis, comparing the negotiation of free trade agreements in the United States with Australia. She also took aim at the secrecy of the budgetary process, where very few people even inside the government and not even the whole ministry have the full picture until it is released.
“The ACT doesn’t work that way and nothing bad happens, when actually people know what’s in these spaces,” said Carnell. “I’m fascinated why there’s that level of mistrust, both internally and externally. If we were focused on outcomes that wouldn’t be the case.”
The ACCI chief’s view is that dealing with perceived risks related to information by trying to keeping it tightly controlled — as most ministers and public servants do reflexively — will generally prove futile in the end. Her advice to public sector leaders is to support staff in taking calculated, measured risks and, secondly, to accept things will still go wrong on rare occasions.
“Things will go wrong more often if information is kept really tight and people don’t know what’s going on,” she added.
The public service talking to the public
Developments in the media and communications arena and the rise of social media have put more focus on the long unresolved question of what the public service’s role should be in communicating with the public, according to Leigh.
“I think it’s hard for us because it’s very difficult to make sure you’re not crossing the line and engaging in the political role, and that’s probably made us all very risk averse,” she explained.“… it’s very difficult to make sure you’re not crossing the line and engaging in the political role …”
“The problem is we’re there to support the government of the day and to help them develop their policies. Part of that is explaining it to the community. If we don’t engage properly in supporting the government on that … how can the community assess what the government’s actually doing? How can democracy work?
“But we’re all very afraid about crossing that line and ending up being political.”
Clarifying the communications role of the directorates versus ministerial offices was among five priorities set by the board of ACT directors-general in 2014-15. The ACTPS recognised its public communications game as an area of weakness and is using a review process to consider how to improve its capability.
“My experience throughout my public service career is we’ve always been a bit challenged by that, and I don’t think we’ve ever quite gotten a good grip on that role,” said Leigh.
Thawley agreed wholeheartedly. He also advised that while “mountains” of information is available, there are only so many ministers. “That puts a huge obligation on the public service to have got all of the information that it could possibly get, all the angles, and to distil it in a way that’s manageable,” he told delegates, reflecting on the limits on transparency.
“That process has to be protected, because if it’s all out in the open, there’s no question we’ll end up with very bad decisions and very bad government.”
Frank and fearless back in fashion
Thawley is also “very concerned” that in the APS, staff avoid offering views that run counter to the prevailing political winds.
“My response to that is that it is overwhelmingly the case that ministers and governments actually do want to hear what [public servants] think,” he said.
The minister may not like it, Thawley added, and there could be career consequences for piping up with the wrong contribution at the wrong time, as many feared. Although, he observed, as others have before, it is so hard to sack public servants that most need not fear for their jobs.
In any case, part of the job — and part of being an adult — is accepting the responsibility to give actually frank and fearless advice that comes with the territory, the PM&C chief contended.
“And then, you know, the reality is the rest of Australia has to look for jobs every few years,” Thawley continued. “No one apart from the public service that I know of actually has a hold on a job for life, so in the worst case if one is sacked, you’ve just got to go out and find another job and join the rest of Australia.”
He also touched on the common assumption that the APS is biased towards the Labor Party, based on Canberra’s voting patterns. Thawley refuted the idea, perhaps as a personal observation, or an indication that the new prime minister wants to patch up the relationship, which became a little hostile under Abbott.
“My experience is that all public servants that I’ve ever dealt with are always looking for the most sensible, pragmatic solution to the problem,” he said. On the other hand, he does entertain the potential that the APS has come to overestimate its abilities and refuse to accept its limitations.