Middle managers: the ‘engine room’ of the public service must be well-oiled

Are middle managers the glue that holds the public service together, or the glue that gums up the translation of strategy into action? Much more the former, says a public sector workforce expert, but leaders need to invest in their capability.

Middle managers are supposed to play a range of crucial roles in the public service, sitting between those who mainly do what they’re told and those who decide what is to be done, but senior executives do too much of their work out of fear of losing control.

This point was made by recently retired federal secretary Gordon de Brouwer in his valedictory speech earlier this month, and by public servant turned consultant David Schmidtchen, at the recent Power to Persuade symposium.

The people in the middle are “actually the engine room of change and reform within the public service” according to Schmidtchen, who managed the Australian Public Service Commission’s research and evaluation group for five years before moving to Ernst and Young in 2015.

“These are the people who do stuff,” he said, and they don’t deserve to be collectively maligned as an organisational barrier to innovation – the “permafrost” or the “iron colonels” who put the brakes on positive change. This, he said based on his various experiences of working within government agencies as well as surveying them, is neither fair nor accurate.

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