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Queensland’s new phase of service reform: empowering leaders

Andrew Chesterman
Andrew Chesterman

Some 90,159 Queensland public servants from 53 agencies responded to more than 100 questions in a recent employee survey. That level of engagement — a 42% response rate; up 4% on last year — was pleasing enough for Andrew Chesterman, who just clocked 12 months in the job as the state’s public service commissioner.

But the results were even better news. On all measures, sentiment is up. Which, given the tumultuous few years under the sharp axe of Premier Campbell Newman’s government, is an achievement Chesterman is proud of.

Chesterman stepped into the role last September, after a stint as director-general of the Department of Environment and Heritage and before that on Team Newman at the Brisbane City Council. With the “fiscal repair reductions” completed, the task of “building the culture and the values across the public sector” could begin.

Of the loss of staff across the ranks of government — an unprecedented cull of 14,000 workers after Newman won government in 2012 — Chesterman admits it’s been “heartfelt”. But he told The Mandarin from his Albert Street office in Brisbane things are on the up (he was worried his “excitement” might not translate over the phone). “I really do think that we are on the cusp to something new and quite different,” he said.

The response rate to the survey — released publicly today — is a “fabulous little indicator around people’s willingness to have their views heard”. And the results? “They’re not all results that you go to bed at night and say ‘that’s a job done’. But the fact that everything went up was really, really pleasing,” he said.

Job engagement is at 79% positive (+2% on last year); job empowerment at 70% (+3%); role clarity and goal alignment is at 89% (+1%); collaboration at 78% (+1%). And there were big gains in the areas most need of improvement: organisational leadership (+6%), learning and development (+5%), organisational trust (+5%), decision-making (+5%), workplace change (+7%) and agency engagement (+6%).

www.psc.qld.gov.au publications workforce-statistics assets 2014_WFQ_reports Highlight_Report_on_QPS_results_from_2014_Working_for_Queensland_survey.PDF

“It shows that people feel more engaged and satisfied with their jobs and I guess that means that they’re probably willing to go the extra mile to get the job done,” Chesterman said. But he admitted key numbers are still too low:

“I guess what they’re saying, what we can do better, is we can communicate change better. We can do it in a more timely fashion and face-to-face. I think one of the frameworks the Public Service Commission is trying to focus on … is improving strategic leadership capabilities and getting leaders to manage change more authentically and communicate in a … more timely, face-to-face manner.”

Leadership development is Chesterman’s critical goal over the next 12 months. One investment now paying dividends has been in New Zealand-developed software system ECAD (Executive Capability Assessment and Development), which has also been used in the Victorian service. Some 450 executives have now gone through the program (another 150 are lined up this year) and the data is being used to “help us understand what our individual executives need and then what our team might need in terms of leadership development going forward”.

“We use that data to then work up capabilities, a capability matrix if you like, for a particular time. You can then target your development opportunities quite specifically, right down to the type of masterclasses and seminars and roundtables and programs that we might run.”

There will also be work on succession planning, sponsoring “high potential and high performing executives” and a particular focus on women at the top. Chesterman says it’s a “personal commitment” to build awareness around gender diversity across the public sector.

Strategic priorities for a better service

Chesterman has a list of five strategic priorities. “This might be a two-year game or a three-year game,” he said.

  1. Improved strategic human resource capability: “not a transactional role but a strategic role”;
  2. A sector-wide approach to talent management: “having good talent leadership pipelines, having executives at varying stages of development and readiness for advancement”;
  3. Improving regulations, directives and instruments: to “embed the values and promote the management of high-performing, impartial, accountable public servants”;
  4. Developing a high-performing and productive workforce: “having departments and agencies positioned with the right workforce information, the right skills to drive high performance”; and
  5. Making the Public Service Commission a “human resource centre of excellence”: “where people can bounce ideas off, where we can be the people that help share and replicate the good ideas that are happening across the state”.

On HR, Chesterman wants human resource officers with visibility at the executive level.

“By that I mean departments and agencies need to understand the importance of having their strategic HR people at the heart of their own organisational strategy. I’ve spoken to companies outside of the public service — private sector companies in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Each of those companies described to me how people are at the centre of their organisational strategy. I firmly believe that’s the case. We’ve got to do more in that space …

“At the moment, I don’t think we’ve got a good handle on what does the workforce of the future look like. I think that’s part of our task. Part of the reason we don’t have that, if you take that right back to individual agencies: they have to have strategic HR capabilities at the executive level actively working on workforce strategy, culture, productivity and renewal.”

The workforce Queensland needs, Chesterman says, is different to the one it had and perhaps still has. He highlights the need for more skills around commissioning and contestability.

“I think as we move down this renewal journey, there are skills that we probably need to bolster across the service. I think there’s also a challenge as to … the dilution of some of those skills that are in demand and looking to models of how you work collaboratively across departments, maybe in clusters, natural-forming clusters, to try and capitalise on skills that you can’t have …

“I would love to see more collaborations with industry, staff exchanges, interchanges with industry, opportunities to collaborate with academia … I’d love to see more opportunities for people to move in and out. I think we’ve got a challenge ahead of us to build the structures that easily allow people to move into the public service from industry, and then, if they wish, to move back to industry from the public service, and then maybe come back again.

“I’ve done that myself in my career and I think bringing people from outside and making sure that we’ve got the framework to allow them to do that easily is something that I think we’ve got to do more work on right across the public sector and nationwide.”

From a cultural perspective, Chesterman wants to build a service that feels empowered to raise ideas. “If I could say one thing about the past is that people were so risk averse that when you talk about empowerment they worry about risk,” he said.

“I genuinely feel excited about the level of motivation amongst employees, particularly on the front line. When I get out and about, which I really enjoy doing, and I talk to people — whether they be payroll staff or fire security staff or environment staff or teachers — there is a real excitement about the future.

“People talk about this whole renewal journey being a once in a generation. I don’t subscribe to that. I think you probably get about four goes in your working career of true change in whatever work you’re in, where you really get an opportunity to do something different. This is probably my third grab in my 25-year, mainly public sector life. I’ll probably get another couple before I retire.”

More at The Mandarin: Queensland’s education revolution: letting principals run the show

Author Bio

Jason Whittaker

Jason Whittaker is managing editor of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has written for and edited political, business and culture publications for a decade. He spent two years as editor of sister Private Media publication Crikey.