Turnbull: 'look to other jurisdictions' and plagiarise the best ideas

By Stephen Easton

April 20, 2016

The Prime Minister wants public servants to swallow their pride and seek best practice wherever it is found … even from Wellington. We must be an ideas ecosystem, added Dr Martin Parkinson.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has urged Canberra’s public servants to keep a closer eye on the successes and failures of other governments in Australia and overseas.

Policymakers in the federal sphere “pay insufficient attention to what is happening in other jurisdictions” and the public policy scene is too “parochial” for the times, Turnbull said this morning, following an address to the Australian public service at Parliament House hosted by IPAA ACT.

Given all developed countries face a lot of the same policy challenges, the PM said he found it surprising how little attention was paid to what had and had not worked elsewhere. A good start for the APS, he suggested, would be to look more closely at the states and territories and New Zealand.

Turnbull encouraged his public servants to shamelessly “plagiarise” good policy ideas, and said he wanted independent bureaucrats who would advise on what is best for the nation, not just what they think ministers or their advisers want to hear.

“Very few propositions are not improved by discussion and debate.”

The head of the service, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson, enthused that since the PM took office, “a rich period of opportunity” had dawned for APS members with the courage to seek out bold ideas and advocate for them.

“He is an open book, he wants our ideas, he will seek our advice … and from what I’ve seen, he won’t be reckless or hasty,” Parkinson said. “This presents us public servants with opportunities like we’ve never had before.”

Turnbull unsurprisingly endorsed former federal mandarin Peter Shergold’s vision of an “adaptive government” that has more room for experimentation, to test imaginative new ideas in the most challenging policy areas at small scale.

The PM said “agility and adaptability” were the “best tools” available to the public service, which finds itself disrupted by “forces it cannot control” in the same way as other long-standing institutions.

He also agreed with Shergold’s argument that government messaging needs to change, when questioned about how ministers should support a much more experimental approach to public policy.

“When we produce a new policy, we’ve got to say that this is the best policy solution that we have available to us today… but [also explain] if it turns out to be deficient in some respects then we will change it, and if it doesn’t work at all then we will dump it,” Turnbull explained.

The political pressure can be reduced by governments that are open about what they are doing. “The alternative,” said the PM, “is that you never take a risk, you never change anything.”

Turnbull said he was a “strong believer” in the traditional Westminster system of cabinet government because “very few propositions are not improved by discussion and debate” while Parkinson spoke of a partnership between public servants and “the political class” with the shared goal of improving the wellbeing of Australians.

The PM praised former Department of Communications secretary Drew Clark for his role in cementing that relationship as his chief of staff, by bringing “a very keen understanding and a strong link to the APS” into the Prime Minister’s Office.

Digital luddites need to ‘swallow their pride’

The digital transformation agenda and the growing promise of data analytics sit at the heart of Turnbull’s vision for a modern APS.

He said a new approach to IT procurement in PM&C and the Department of Social Services which “uses off the shelf products that are configured rather than coded” was a good example.

“The key to success for a 21st Century APS is to embrace innovation and technology.”

For public sector leaders to ignore digital disruption is “simply not acceptable” to the PM and he suggests that baby boomers and gen-xers should “swallow their pride” and rely more on the help of “digital native” millennials. He also spruiked the Digital Transformation Office, suggesting APS leaders could be more receptive.

“I encourage you all to familiarise yourself with their work and engage with them directly,” Turnbull said, recalling the words of his former business partner Sean Howard, who said there was always plenty of technology but it was “technological imagination” that was harder to find.

“Open your minds and be bold,” the PM told the large crowd of APS members.

Mentoring women ‘enormously important’

Turnbull also ticked off the topic of women in leadership, confirming that a new strategy for gender equality in the APS would be released this week by public service minister Michaelia Cash.

Parkinson reported the Secretaries Board resolved to create a new Diversity Council at its last meeting to lead implementation of the strategy.

The new measures should help stamp out “practices that go on, sight unseen, to steer women into certain public service roles and men into others”, Turnbull said, paying tribute to Parkinson’s past approach to women in leadership as head of Treasury.

The PM is very much in favour of introducing targets, as Parkinson did in the central agency, but also said mentoring from successful women was an “enormously important” way to help others climb the ladder.

“I want public servants who are filled with curiosity and a desire to make a difference.”

And he supports the view that flexible working conditions to support a healthy work-life balance are a must for any high performing organisation, leading to better teamwork and higher productivity.

“As a leader, as a manager of a business, of a department or a unit or a section, it is your job far as you can to ensure that the people who work for you are able to get the right balance between home and work,” Turnbull said.

According to the PM, public servants are the bureaucracy’s “greatest asset” thanks to the experience and institutional memory they possess, which is why a focus on nurturing talent and continuous improvement is vital.

To that end, the Secretaries Board has established a new Talent Council, chaired by Department of Social Services secretary Finn Pratt, according to Parkinson.

“I want to see Commonwealth public servants who are filled with curiosity and a desire to make a difference,” said Turnbull, whose address to the APS was hosted by the Institute for Public Administration Australia (ACT Branch).

“The key to success for a 21st Century APS is to embrace innovation and technology, to think big and bold, and to be committed to learning and leadership at every level.”

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