Wanted: brave and independent leaders, must embrace risk

By Stephen Easton

November 6, 2015

After decades of negativity about the role government can play in society and the economy, Australian political leaders have begun encouraging public servants to be bold once again. But being brave and taking a leadership role also means being prepared to take the heat.

Last month, New South Wales premier Mike Baird joined Malcolm Turnbull and many others in urging bureaucrats to be more confident and less risk-averse. The public sector is an undiscovered jewel of the nation, Baird opined, and public servants “just as much the leaders” as politicians. Many heard the call.

“I think it does give people the momentum and confidence to, if not take risks, then at least to endeavour to be innovative, to show leadership, to bring about major social change,” said Roy Green, dean of the University of Technology Sydney Business School. “We hope to see much more that over the next few years.”

Green points out that before the rise of neoliberalism made “constraining the state” a goal of most Western administrations, mandarins were brave when the situation called for it and prepared to take risks for the good of the nation. But as the economic ideology became dominant over the final quarter of last century, government became maligned as “the problem rather than the solution”.

“I think the Premier’s call … to be brave, to have confidence, to take risks out there, was embraced.”

Baird and Green were addressing the recent Institute for Public Administration Australia in Sydney,  which focussed on federation reform. Speaking later, new IPAA national president Penny Armytage agreed there are winds of change.

“I think we are on the way there,” the former Victorian departmental secretary said. “I think that you’ve got people who are actively debating how well we are doing, what else could we do differently. And I think the Premier’s call … to be brave, to have confidence, to take risks out there, was embraced. I think that’s where people are at.”

But you can’t have it both ways. To take more risks, however carefully calculated, means accepting the consequences when things to go wrong. According to Armytage, the bold public service leaders of the past also copped a lot of flak and took the fall when required.

“When … we’ve taken a risk and it’s backfired, we have to stand tall because if we don’t do that we will develop a very risk-averse culture down in the organisations and in those front-line people who you’re trying to empower to work differently,” she said.

“So I think it is a key leadership challenge to make sure you embed that culture in the organisation and we grow leaders who are prepared to stand tall, often when things are going really tough.”

Bureaucrats must convince government that reforming the federation requires more than pruning the public service, according to Green. He suggests an emerging area of responsibility for the federal, state and territory governments to grapple with — facilitating private sector innovation — offers a new chance to address the fundamental issues of a federated system.

This new role for government — demonstrated by the CSIRO’s moves to put commercialisation of research as its top priority — also happens to sit more comfortably with the neoliberal doctrine.

“Most countries have a national innovation system; we don’t really have a system,” said Green.

“We have ad-hoc policies at every level of government and we don’t really reflect on what is the level at which we get the most return on the expenditure of public money, or the attempt to get much better levels of collaboration across the system, in particular between business and universities and public agencies.”

He repeated a point often made by CSIRO’s new start-up focused chief executive and the nation’s chief scientist among many others: Australia has great research, but a very poor track record of turning it into successful products and services.

“And that’s a lot to do with how we spend public money and deliver policy at each level of government,” said Green, adding that a world-wide shift towards highly localised “innovation ecosystems [and] entrepreneurship” was underway.

“Who is responsible for supporting that? Presently, no one at all. It’s happening spontaneously, which is a good thing, but there are many things that a [national] innovation system can do to encourage this type of activity, and getting the federation right is an important part of it.”

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