John Lloyd on public sector leadership in the face of constant change


Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd has dispensed some of his thoughts on “guiding principles in service of the public” that can help leaders deal with constant change driven by powerful local and global forces.

Change is constant in the public sector and has been since the 1970s, when Lloyd began his career, and the APS has displayed “a commendable record of adapting to political, economic and community imperatives for change” over the years, according to the commissioner.

Lloyd said he found cause to be “optimistic, but not complacent about the future” when he considered how the APS responded to the World Wars and the Depression in between them, post-WW2 reconstruction, the Cold War, the 1970s global downturn, 1980s micro economic reform, the global financial crisis and the post-2001 growth of terrorism.

“We continue to employ and attract high calibre people,” he said, moving onto his thoughts on the “extensively analysed concept” that is leadership. His top tips for leaders:

  • Be aware of change.
  • Anticipate the impact of change.
  • Pick sensible innovative solutions.
  • Remain true to your values.
  • Surround yourself with good staff and empower them to take risks and responsibility.

“So many of our staff are leaders, said Lloyd in the speech to this week’s Public Sector Forum in Sydney, which is available in full on the APSC website.

“It is not the CEO and top cabal of an agency. It extends well beyond that. It is often the officer working in a regional or remote office. The community has come to expect, as is their right, that staff like these are professional, can be relied on to be of assistance and to act with integrity.”

The commissioner went on to discuss the forces pushing the contemporary APS to change and six key areas of concern for the APSC: the future of work, flexible work, integrity, organisational culture, social media and performance management.

He noted that various powerful currents of global change exert pressure on public sector organisations, while “declining trust in government” is being widely discussed. One trend “the need to break down subject specialisation boundaries and condense management hierarchies” in response to various local and international challenges.

On the jobs of the future, he commented:

“I am sceptical about the often quoted figure of 40% of jobs disappearing in 30 years and some of the dramatic conclusions drawn for this. Some of the commentary assumes that all the employment impacts will be delivered through labour substitution. But history, including recent experience, indicates there will be both labour substitution and labour supplementation effects. Obviously, new types of employment will emerge.

“The challenge for us as leaders is to assess, as best we can, the impact of the changes. We have to be capable of introducing new ways of engaging with the public and adapting our agencies for these purposes. I expect that there will be fewer career public servants in the future.

“At the APS we see a need to gather sound employment data and make better use of workforce metrics in planning workplace strategies. We reassess the questions and issues we probe in our surveys of employees and agencies. We are also working to equip human resource professionals to make better and more strategic use of the data they have at their disposal.

“I also call on agency leaders to raise the focus they give workforce strategies. Effective strategies are crucial to the success of their operations. It has to be an integral part of their corporate planning that receives regular attention from an agency’s leadership group.”

Not long before phone taps revealed more about the charges against Australian Taxation Office deputy secretary Michael Cranston this week, the commissioner commented that integrity “demands constant and vigilant leadership” from senior staff:

“An organisation whose leaders that are not exemplary ethical leaders is an organisation with unacceptable exposure to misconduct or corruption.

“Australian public services are not immune to such problems. They have been encountered in all public sectors. However, I believe that the record of Australian public services is sound when compared to other countries.

“The reasons for this are varied. The vast majority of public servants are ethical people who work responsibly and respect adherence to codes of conduct and legislative obligations. We have transparent systems with extensive reporting and accountability mechanisms. The regulatory and law enforcement agencies pursue alleged wrongdoing with vigour in accordance with their legislative powers. Community attitudes support proper conduct and abhor corruption.

“Another reason is that leaders, certainly in the APS, are more engaged with and aware of the importance of integrity. Leaders encourage a culture that unambiguously supports ethical conduct. They act promptly when evidence of allegations arise. A workplace culture that encourages staff to share concerns about conduct with leaders is important.”

Guidelines for social media use in the public service required “fine balance” between an individual’s right to free expression and the responsibilities of a public official that constrain what they can say. New advice from the APSC will be out soon:

“A judgement has to exercised about what impact a post or comment will have on the reputation of impartiality, agency and the Government.

“We are about to release updated advice. The aim is to tailor, separate but complimentary, advice to employees and employers. The connection with the Code of Conduct will be made more explicit. The example and tone set by leaders in their use of social media is influential.”

And on performance management, the commissioner says “a system that achieves tangible results with limited formality is a crucial factor in creating to a good culture” and the APS will be cutting back on “procedural rules” in changes to make its framework “focussed on regular rather than infrequent performance discussions and feedback”.

But, he added:

“It is also important that poor performance is called out and addressed. If it is passed over by leaders it has a corrosive effect on the workplace culture.

“Staff almost always have a keen understanding of who is not performing. Management inattention undermines respect for workplace leaders. We are working with agencies to equip managers to become more confident in addressing poor performance.”

The commissioner also told the conference about the new APS talent identification process that aims to develop the next crop of “visionary, innovative, collaborative, entrepreneurial and effective” leaders who display courage, resilience and integrity.

“We have many in the APS who measure up to these requirements,” said Lloyd.

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