Innovative, adaptive: words to live by, says Peter Shergold

By Stephen Easton

Friday February 5, 2016

“Adaptive government” needs to become a new mantra for public servants and ministers who want to maximise the real impact of programs, according to academic and former top mandarin Peter Shergold.

That means new ideas must be validated through genuine experimental trials, with what works being scaled up and what doesn’t left behind. But while pilots and trials are quite common in the public sector, Shergold says most are just proposals that failed to win enough funding for full-scale roll-out, not real attempts to test new approaches.

In the same way, the regular exhortations for public sector organisations to be less risk-averse and more innovative, collaborative and agile have resulted mainly in these words being applied to the same old ways of working.

“I think [there is] a lack of a culture which identifies the purposes that government has in mind.”

“I think there is always the difficulty of [government] seizing the rhetoric of being adaptive and innovative for things that are actually quite traditional — perhaps significant improvements, but in a very traditional way,” the University of Western Sydney chancellor and former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary told The Mandarin.

Shergold (pictured) points to new ways of achieving policy goals that are being tested out and slowly expanded based on the results — consumer-directed funding for disability services and aged care, or social impact bonds in New South Wales — but laments that this type of thinking has so far made little inroads to the “core” or “mainstream” of public sector work.

“What I think is interesting are the things that break away from that traditional approach, that really ask the hard questions, that say: ‘what is the purpose of this program?’,” he said.

“It’s not just ‘how efficiently and effectively are we delivering this program?’ but ‘is it giving us a good return on our investment in the public sector?’. That’s where I think there is a lack of innovation.”

Shergold advocates for a major cultural shift in all public sector organisations, to put one question front and centre: what does the government want to achieve?

“I think [there is] a lack of a culture which identifies the purposes that government has in mind,” he explained. “What risks is it willing to undertake? How do we trial better ways of doing it, because we usually don’t know, until we try, how citizens are going to respond.

“And, what is the proposal over the next three to five years to be able to roll that out?

“In other words, I would have much more faith in a range of pilots, or demonstration projects, if you knew it was part of a three-to-five year funding, where what is successful will be rolled out, as that is identified.”

Pressure from ministers to succeed

Shergold agrees that as well as a lack of the competition that spurs companies on to new and more productive ways of working, there is strong pressure from ministers to present pilot programs as successes, and avoid bringing failures to public attention.

“I think the whole processes of public accountability and the role of auditors are extraordinarily important; the challenge I have is that very rarely do those audits of government programs go to the purpose for which they are created, and whether they are the best means of meeting that purpose,” he explained.

“… having a prime minister or a premier who actually understands the role that public servants can play.”

“They tend to focus on compliance, and whether money has been appropriately spent, rather than if you look at that money, did it achieve the outcomes which were meant to underpin the program that’s being investigated?”

He praised NSW Premier Mike Baird’s straightforward and relatively honest approach to explaining the trials of social impact bonds, saying such ministerial support was vital — but public servants should also try to “persuade” ministers to give it to them.

“I think it is partly the skills of the political narrative, having a prime minister or a premier who actually understands the role that public servants can play.

“And I have to say, just look at the appointments of Malcolm Turnbull. You would think that he sees the skills and experience there that he can harness. And of course, he comes from a background where there’s talk of adaptation and agility; it’s part of his language.”

Shergold says the “adaptive government” approach — which he details in a report titled Learning From Failure, soon to released by the federal government — could guide senior bureaucrats in how to embed the buzzwords throughout the governments they work for, with the right support from confident, forward-thinking ministers.

‘Tight-loose management’

“This ethos, it seems to me, can underpin public services that bear testimony to the virtues of tight-loose management,” said Shergold, speaking this morning at the launch of a new consulting firm, Silverstone Edge, in Canberra.

“Tight in terms of meeting high standards of public accountability. Tight in terms of promoting value for money [and] measuring returns on public investment. But loose in allowing and encouraging the promotion of new approaches to deliver the ambitions of elected government,” he said.

“Adaptive government sometimes means starting small. The best way to discover the value of adaptive government is to do it. Pay on outcomes. Embrace experimentation.

“Start early, and if things go wrong, fail quickly. Collaborate widely, and learn as you go, including from the experience of outsiders.

“Adaptive government can take many shapes. There are innumerable ways in which the public service can become more agile. But as with any new approach, change is going to be required to turn an adaptive ethos into action.”

As many others have before him, Shergold said a major “shift in entrenched practices and attitudes and behaviours” in the public sector was essential to improving public administration and modernising the way government agencies aim to achieve policy goals in collaboration with other organisations.

“Administrative structures, workplace systems at present, often hinder the capability of public service agencies, but the real barrier … is cultural inertia,” said the former top mandarin.

“So it’s public servants [who must act] — public servants driven by an impulse to deliver greater public value, rather than by the necessity to maintain or increase market share.

“They need to be able to change the way they do things. It’s public servants themselves … who are going to have to persuade the governments that they serve to provide the authorising environment to allow them to do what I know that they can.”

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