Six of the best: Martin Hoffman's frank guide to public service improvement

By Julian Bajkowski

August 11, 2017

Dump the jargon, tell the brutal truth and get over change fatigue. Martin Hoffman’s vision of a high performing public service is frank, gutsy and very human.

Public servants need to be far better at selling their societal value to the average Australian, kill obfuscating jargon and mix far more with people outside of the government machine or they will keep copping a populist backlash.

That’s the frank take from secretary of the New South Wales Department of Finance, Services and Innovation, Martin Hoffman, who warned on Thursday that the community is expecting much more from government but trusting it less.

Speaking at the Trans Tasman Business Circle in Sydney on creating a high performing public service in an age of populism, Hoffman volunteered a list of six core internal challenges the public service in NSW needs to fix to keep progressing and improving the state.

The dominant theme of the address, however, was that the NSW public service, which at around 360,000 people is Australia’s largest employer, cannot expect populist sentiment in the community to disappear any time soon but should instead learn to respond in practical and demonstrable terms.

“People are expecting more and more from governments but they are trusting less and less,” Hoffman said.

“There is a strong sense of entitlement and expectation. You can debate whether that is justified … but there is certainly a strong sense of it.”

Despite the amplified tension, Hoffman argued that the NSW public service does “a pretty good job” despite “the complexity and the ambiguity of power and authority across the system.”

A significant part of the “antidote” to an anti-government mob mentality is simply being able to communicate that public administration is a hard challenge and that real work is being done to deliver.

There may be criticisms, but there is delivery and progress at the most basic human level.

“We have one of the great public health services of the world. I speak as the father of a 15 year-old daughter who is in remission from a severe cancer. There is no doubt we have one of the great public health systems of the world,” Hoffman said.

“Everyday, across millions of interactions, we basically get it right.”

Upon reflection

Acknowledgements of competence, commitment and improvement squared away, it was time for the senior executive refugee from media and Prime Minister & Cabinet to unpack and unload on what still needs to change, in six not-so-easy steps.

1. ‘Change fatigue’ is overdone in the public service

“We allow too much of the dialogue of concern about change fatigue. In 23 years in the private sector I never heard that phrase. Yet we debate it constantly in our organisations,” Hoffman said. “When does the change stop?”

Paradoxically, there was a genuine public service drive to make a difference in peoples’ lives, yet an apparent resistance to internal reform.

“Often these are people who work in the public service and are passionate about causing change. Improving customer protection, child protection, workplace safety… They want to create change.”

Hoffman pointed to the NSW public service’s People Matters workforce sentiment stocktake.

“The worst question by a mile is ‘my organisation manages change well’. Only just over a third of public servants agree with that statement. There is a real issue with that,” he said.

2. Self-propagation of lawyers

A puzzlingly recent discovery is the ability of the legal class to add workload and cost to processes otherwise thought to be straightforward is again garnering attention.

“We have a fixation on legal entities within government,” Hoffman offered, singling out data sharing between agencies as a historical weakness.

Not to mention the obsession with scrutinising all that may be discoverable.

“We haven’t learned at all from the corporate approach of separating statutory reporting and management and operational reporting,” Hoffman said. “This greatly weakens our ability to deliver a high performing public service.”

3. Get over FOI: fear of information

Hoffman argued that there is presently a misconception surrounding interpretations around freedom of information and open government that is impeding both performance and delivery.

The misconception was centred around a perceived need to purge any potential for inconsistencies that could expose government to criticism, a fundamentally labour intensive task.

“Most departments waste huge amounts of resources trawling through documents, drafts, emails, caches for the gotcha moment where an internal statement may disagree with a minister’s position,” Hoffman said.

“This leads to all sorts of perverse behaviours, including poorer decision making and poorer consideration of issues.”

Real transparency and open government came from being able to know and measure activities and the effectiveness of outcomes, Hoffman argued, pointing the most recent state budget as a necessary shift to outcomes based reporting.

4. Substance over style

Contemporary presentation and management trends have their limits, especially when they start to favour what Hoffman described as “a tendency to focus on form over substance”.

Again, outcomes needed to be seen as the end point rather than putting an emphasis on the kinds of tools being used, and Hoffman cited project management, risk management and procurement as areas that needed attention.

“We see it in a focus on probity around procurement where we a slow and process heavy as a way of protecting the public purse — which is very important — but without a real focus on outcomes,” Hoffman said.

A real issue was that when processes became too heavy, performance and probity could actually suffer “because the best people try to get around processes to get the job done.”

Adherence to the canon of corporate buzzwords like ‘innovation’ also got a tickle.

“If you haven’t got a funky design lab in your department you really just aren’t on the ball anymore,” Hoffman quipped.

5. Digital government: a lot more to be done

For all the recent talk of dashboards and data, Hoffman observed that the day-to-day mechanics of government must still evolve substantially towards a digital foundation.

“We literally still move a lot of paper around collecting people’s autographs,” Hoffman said, noting that some documents still do the rounds of buildings rather than being executed on screen.

Despite government having “buildings full of knowledge workers” many were still using basically “the same tools as at the turn of the century” like emails and shared drives.

6. Need for speed… and urgency

One thing government does particularly well, Hoffman noted, was respond “amazingly quickly’ and highly effectively in times of crisis when different parts come together when and as necessary.

On the flipside, routine government business wasn’t always as quick as it could be, creating what was effectively a “two speed government.”

Hoffman called out correspondence as a case in point. “I get very tired of seeing draft letters that begin with “I apologise for the delay in response,” he said, adding that the phrase had almost become part of the standard template.

Part of the challenge for government maintaining high performance was where the pressure came from. Outside of unusual events like crisis or emergency, government was not subjected to the competitive pressures the private sector responded to every day.

Sharpening the pace and exerting a motivational influence was the duty of public service leaders, Hoffman said.

What solutions look like

If Hoffman has list of six core challenges, his remedies can be quickly boiled down into just a few responses, the crux of which is to just get on with the job of delivering without being distracted by the white noise of the crowd.

“At the political and policy level we can bemoan our seeming national inability to make progress on hard discussions. One of the essential contributions of the public service to remedy that is for the public service to consistently deliver results and outcomes that matter,” Hoffman said.

While the focus on results had to be “relentless”, the DFSI chief cautioned they “need to be about people, not things.”

The tradition of announceables using big numbers could be past its use-by date with the public.

“Dollars just blur into numbers of billions anyway,” Hoffman said. “It’s important to communicate to people that what we are trying to do is genuinely hard.”

“We need transparent and disaggregated performance metrics that support those goals and I would argue that they are [made] publicly available,” Hoffman said.

“That’s true freedom of information, transparent government.”

Making performance management perform: the brutal truth

The thorny issue of performance management was not about to be left unturned by Hoffman, who tipped his hat to the Australian Public Service’s acknowledgment that things need to be done better to get the most from staff.

However Hoffman was keen to progress the discussion beyond the stereotype of slackers and sickies.

“I am not talking about punitive performance management but the right to know how you are performing and how you can improve,” he said.

“There is a need for improved recognition that these are great jobs. [Working] in the public service is both a privilege both in terms of the content but also these days remuneration in terms and conditions. Remuneration increases have been consistently higher in the public sector for some years now than in the private sector,” Hoffman said.

He also backed the government’s power to summarily dismiss senior executives “for any or no reason” as necessary to get the right fit in the public service.

A culture of honesty and honest conversations, even if difficult, was also necessary and was one of the main attributes DFSI was trying to instil in staff.

“Respectfully, professionally, not ad hominem … evidence and facts, avoiding stereotypes and casual generalisations, but a genuine willingness to face the brutal truth of the current reality,” Hoffman said.

Staying capable, staying honest

For all the references to the need for the public service to look beyond itself to improve outcomes, Hoffman maintains what he calls a ‘traditional’ view of “the ability to maintain our forward looking policy and research capability” and a role for “a high performing public service as the steward of a pool of intellectual capital.”

Outsourcing capability was not the answer. Citing Nicholas Gruen’s ideas around a function for an ‘evaluator general’ “as much as the auditor general”, Hoffman said he saw merit in the concept.

However he quickly returned to integrity, honesty and better communication as “the antidote to populist fake news.”

“Increasingly I am of the view that that means better writing,” Hoffman said. “Proper writing. Full sentences. Logical structures. Active voice. Simple direct words.

“Telling the truth, or at least a clear view. Stopping the obfuscation and fence sitting that is bureaucratic jargon. That’s anti-populist too.”

Diversity done well

No state secretary’s vision speech is ever complete without a gentle dig at the national capital and the federal government, especially one with inside experience.

Asked what he’s learned between the two jurisdictions, Hoffman joked that when he worked in Canberra he thought the states didn’t matter.

“Now I work in NSW I realise that Canberra doesn’t matter.”

The need for external perspective, fresh thinking and cultural diversity appears to a blessing for NSW.

“I joke, respectfully among my friends in Canberra, that there is a risk of hereditary caste of Commonwealth public servants,” Hoffman said.

“Their grandparents moved to Canberra, they had children that became public servants, they had children that became public servants in the Canberra bubble … it’s a beautiful place.”

“I think some greater churn is important, in NSW you get that,” Hoffman said.

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