Beyond individual merit: reimagining the mandarins of the future

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday November 30, 2016


Who will be the next generation of public sector leaders, what personal attributes and skills will they need, and how will they acquire them?

Future capability requirements is a topic that occupies a surprising amount of time for current public service head honchos, through bodies like the New South Wales government’s Leadership Academy and the Australian Public Service Talent Council.

Along with more traditional skills and newer additions around cross-agency collaboration, agility and support for innovation, there is widespread agreement that there should be far more diversity in the executive levels.

“Now, there’s lots of reasons you care about diversity,” said NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Blair Comley (pictured), in a discussion about future leadership capability at the recent IPAA ACT conference.

“Very few people make it to the senior executive in the APS unless they are analytic-based … by the way, 60% of the population are beliefs-based.”

“Some of it might be, it’s just the right, fair and equitable thing to do — that everyone has access to positions, and their background and characteristics don’t matter, but the particular part of diversity we’ve become quite interested in is, what does diversity do for making better decisions?”

The NSW public service, he said, is looking mainly through the “lens” of how various types of diversity can improve leadership performance, from gender targets that get more women into the upper echelon, to ways of recruiting different types of thinkers.

In his previous role in Canberra as head of the former Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Comley said the entire senior executive took a personality survey and all came out as “analytical” thinkers.

“Now interestingly enough,” he went on, “the facilitator at the time said this is actually not that unusual. Very few people make it to the senior executive in the APS unless they are analytic, so this would be broadly replicated if you went elsewhere.”

In contrast, one estimate is that somewhere around 60% of the population are “beliefs based” on the same index, meaning they are more concerned with how trustworthy a source of information appears than with arguments based on statistics, facts and figures. For the middle managers in the EL ranks, there was a roughly 50-50 split in the now-defunct department.

Comley said having the top levels dominated by one kind of thinker clearly leads to “significant risk” — both in internal communications to support change management and in the way advice is communicated externally.

Another point he picked up from Megan Clark, the former chief executive of the CSIRO, who was not so concerned about diversity among individuals but with “the diversity of their networks” — the people and organisations they can “tap into” when required.

Comley presented this network diversity as a third kind, alongside that which relates to personal identity — gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background — and diversity of life and work experience.

In DPC, 56% of the senior leaders are women but the figure is only 36% for the whole public service. Meeting the premier’s target of 50% overall by 2025 is “actually quite challenging” in Comley’s view.

“It’s challenging because in some areas we’ve got very good senior representation with women, [but] if you go onto some areas like our Transport Department, you come down to about 20% and there’s large numbers [of staff] there, so it’s a big challenge [to raise the overall average].”

Challenging merit

Comley told the conference what he saw as some other key challenges in terms of diversity and talent identification, starting with the merit principle being applied on an individual basis.

Public servants are typically “very precious” about making sure each individual recruitment or promotion decision appears to be fair, but pay little attention to the characteristics of teams overall, he said.

“We typically look at individual merit and be very precious about that, rather than thinking what are the characteristics of my whole team, because I want make each individual decision fair.”

In the senior ranks of both the APS and the NSWPS, Comley said there was always a “faction who gets really nervous, really quickly about how we are anointing people” whenever the idea of identifying future leaders comes up.

The idea of telling certain employees they are “on a trajectory of advancement” simply doesn’t fit with the idea that public servants should have to “prove themselves” in an open, merit-based selection process at each stage of advancement.

Illustrating this nervousness about “breaking away” from the principle of individual merit, Comley said two people sharing the same job recently asked if they could apply for a promotion together “like a gestalt entity” — the answer was that there might be a way to work it out, but the legislation governing public service employment was only drafted with individual applicants in mind. And besides, what if one of the pair decides to leave, and the remaining half of the package deal is no longer attractive.

Comley also touched on unconscious bias in selection, saying that a lot of managers are concerned about the growing push to “depersonalise” the process, as they would like to have more control and “pick their own staff”.

“Finally, I think a big challenge for the public services [is] where you get the interface between ministers, political selections and the public service, because almost by definition if you have one party in power, whoever it is, there’s a lack of diversity there, because of a particular orientation,” he added.

That leads to a strong “affiliation bias” which works against diversity, ” and we need to counteract that in some way” according to Comley.

Attributes of future leaders

ACT Public Service chief Kathy Leigh told the conference what she saw as the key attributes for future leaders, and Department of Social Services secretary Finn Pratt revealed the APS Talent Council’s latest thoughts on the same question.

Kathy Leigh
Kathy Leigh. All images: RLDI

Alongside traditional attributes — “a strong understanding of government, good strategic skills, good evidence gathering, good analytical skills” — Leigh said “agility, innovation, collaboration and a general attitude of being up for it” had become desirable.

“And in the ACT we’ve focused on these attributes and we’ve seen a real benefit in terms of improvements in our policy and our service delivery,” she added. “The second point I want to make is, that the more that we focus on agility, innovation, collaboration and being up for it, the more strong governance is really important.”

According to Leigh, governance won’t take a back seat as the ACTPS works on “getting rid of” silos, encouraging internal mobility and recruiting people from outside the public sector at all levels, like other jurisdictions.

“The more that we do these things, the more deliberate we have to be in providing clear frameworks for decision-making, backed by training in good public administration.

“When organisations are more rigid, staff might learn almost by osmosis, by looking at how things are done by the people around them. It was never really a good way to do things, but in our agile organisations, it’s completely inadequate. Today, we understand the value of actually working with the private sector, working with the community sector, to actually overcome problems and identify solutions together.”

Communication, in Leigh’s opinion, is the “greatest capability gap” for public service bosses, who rely to much on the mainstream news to assess “what matters to the community” and often struggle to explain the case for reform.

“We all know how easy it is to have our resources diverted off to fighting fires instead of pursuing the main game,” Leigh said.

“If we are really going to communicate with the community, we can’t communication as an add-on that we do at the end of reform development.

Finn Pratt
Finn Pratt

“We need to build communications into our reform development from the beginning, and as I said, I think this capability is actually one of our weakest, and perhaps it’s because it inevitably raises some difficult issues about when we cross that line to become political.”

Pratt said the APS mandarins feel “management skills, technical competency and subject matter expertise” will continue to be important but are not enough.

“We also need our leaders to be visionary, influential, collaborative, enabling and entrepreneurial,” he said, explaining those were the “crucial” new capabilities, but leaders who are “self-aware, courageous and resilient” would also have an edge over their colleagues.

“Now, having said all that, can I assure you that we don’t expect leaders in the future to be superhuman; we don’t think that everyone will be universally strong, against all of those capabilities, and we do actually see that there will always be room amongst our leaders for people which have specialist strengths.”

A new APS talent management framework has been developed by the Secretaries Board, based on looking at practices in large and successful private sector exemplars. The hope is that “a very diverse pipeline of future leaders” will come through, Pratt said.

“It’s our intention to pilot this framework with a very small group of very senior SES over the next six months,” he told the conference.

“We’ll then refine the framework based our experience and extend it to broader senior management and feeder groups. I don’t know how far we might go over time, but I would note that in a number of our exemplar contributors, they assess leadership potential at all levels, including entry level positions to their organisations.”

Full video and transcripts of all the 2016 IPAA ACT conference sessions are available online.

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