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

By Stephen Easton

September 18, 2017

Small business meeting with a local flavour of ethnically diverse people.

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.

He also noted other facts about middle managers: they’re usually first to go in periods of downsizing and ASPC surveys consistently showed the people in the middle of the APS age range – many of them ELs – were the least happy, although he speculated that could relate to mid-life personal issues.

“What I do see and what I have seen over the time that I’ve been dealing with the middle management layer is that the definition or the range of people in middle management has actually expanded,” Schmidtchen told the forum.

“Where in the past I might have thought about it as in the federal government classification system of APS 5 through to EL2 being the upper end of middle management, I would now start to include SES Band 1 in middle management as well.”

Schmidtchen said this thickening of the middle management layer meant senior executives were increasingly acting as “production workers” some of the time and helped explain the “rising elevation of decision rights” that presents a long-term threat to capability, according to de Brouwer and plenty of other informed commentators.

One of the event’s laudable aims was to explore how evidence finds its way into policy, and what else it runs into and merges with along the way. Understanding how the public service works and particularly where middle managers fit in helps researchers influence public policy, and better evidence obviously means better advice to government.

David Schmidtchen

The audience heard that even when things work the way they are meant to, and even though public servants love evidence – the more scientifically robust, the better – policy is built through a complex, messy process that revolves around politics and public opinion. But things don’t actually work the way they are meant to, a lot of the time, and a lot of middle managers who might be receptive to research findings have a tough job and a lot on their plate.

“Middle managers are in this tricky position between policy and implementation, and between politics and evidence, and truth and post-truth,” said Tim Johnson, a self-described unimportant “nobody” from somewhere in the Department of Employment, whose views are definitely just his own.

“But that’s an awesome thing; that’s actually what makes the job really cool,” he added. “In some ways it’s the best aspect of the job and why you might actually want to be a middle manager, certainly in a policy role.”

Johnson reminded those researchers keen to inject information into public policy to lower their expectations of public servants. Firstly, ministers will quite often ignore them and make decisions based on political considerations and this is how the system is supposed to work; they are accountable to parliament and the original British civil service was conceived as being “duly subordinate” to them.

Secondly, being subordinate in this way means public servants often find it hard to discuss substantive issues because it is always a one-sided conversation, although Johnson said he had managed to be pretty open.

“Personally I’m always happy to hear from stakeholders, from academics, from experts,” he said.

“Not all my peers would say the same. The risk aversion probably comes in there, that not everybody wants to be put in a position of having to talk about stuff when they’re not in a position to make a decision.

“They’re not sure what they’re allowed to or not allowed to say. But personally I’m happy to talk about it.”

The act of translation

According to Schmidtchen, those in the middle are always involved in “the act of translation” between the ideas that come down from above and the frontline action.

“What do they actually do? They operationalize the guidance into actionable strategies, and that’s important,” he said.

“The movement from operational to an actionable strategy is the significant body of work. It’s really easy, as you all know, to have a really wizard idea. Much, much harder to make that wizard idea an actual thing that has an effect on the world.”

They have to keep an eye on business continuity on the one hand, but also try to action the new ideas, which can be a tricky position to find oneself in, within a large organisation.

“Middle managers are often caught,” said Schmidtchen. “They’re trapped between the desire for innovation and actionable strategy and the need to maintain continuity of service, and often the translation of action between those things in a reduced-resource environment. It’s not an insignificant problem.”

Typically departments are hungry for evidence they can record to justify every position or recommendation, but the types of evidence they will rely on is changing, along with the the way they work. “Again, middle management’s trapped at the center of that, in understanding that,” the HR consultant said.

Government agencies and other comparable organisations never really work the way their organisational charts might suggest — rather than neat hiearchies, things happen in far less structured ways, with information moving around in a more complex, fluid process.

Schmidtchen illustrated this with two diagrams, one a typical hierarchy and the other showing a much more realistic work-process with middle managers in the thick of it (see right). He said EY were able to draw a real version for a large company by analysing the frequency and direction of its email traffic. This showed “ some people carry more influence” than their position would suggest, and revealed the organisation was not really developing policy in the way its leaders thought.

Back in his APSC days, Schmidtchen recalled interviewing a senior executive who saw himself as the centre of decision-making with all information coming through him. “Mate, you live in a dream,” was the response, or at least words to that effect. An SES job should not involve filtering everything, he explained, but making decisions about what is most important for operational teams, to focus their efforts.

“We can’t assume that our organisations are operating the way that we think we are, and middle managers are again at the centre of that idea of organisational change,” he said.

The death of verified information

Change is happening rapidly in lots of areas through new kinds of relationships with external organisations, for example, or in the adoption of new ideas across the public sector, such as agile methodology or behavioural economics. As we’ve noted before about flexible work practices, new ways of working are often easier for the SES to promote than they are for ELs to implement.

To this, Schmidtchen adds the impact of a cultural shift in the way everyone understands information – from a resource that must be collected, combined and stored to one that is always out there and can be accessed when required. The focus now is on availability and speed, he argued, so the old process of testing and verifying information for quality has fallen by the wayside.

Intelligence officers in the Army told him about this in the early days of the internet, he said. They began to find senior officers had already formed views, based on emailing each other to discuss unverified information they found on the internet, before the tested and verified information got to them. This was something new at the time.

“Now I see that everywhere,” said Schmidtchen, adding that middle managers now come up against this constantly. And they have another big challenge when they come up against the kind of “wicked problems” that have come into focus of late.

In the workforce expert’s view, these are ongoing and more or less unstoppable and the solutions that emerge are also ongoing and typically impermanent; they might not have lasting impact. The public service is generally set up to produce solutions that can be rolled out as a package, and he believes middle managers are ill-prepared to devise and explain long-haul responses to these relentless social issues.

“How do I express that we’re not going to solve the problem? It’s not going to go away. How do I express that on all the best evidence we have available, we’re going to get to this point and then we’re going to see what happens and we’re going to test and experiment?”

No longer can middle managers rely on a “single source of truth” as they once did and that means they need to develop a stronger culture of testing and verifying everything, Schmidtchen argued.

“Now, does that mean they have to be academics? No it does not, but it means that they need to know how to use some of these tools probably far more effectively than they have in the past, and I think that’s an important component of how this middle management area has shifted.”

Public servants apply their own hiearchies of evidence regularly but to this experienced observer of how public service agencies work, their application is heavily influenced by how much time and funding is available. The stronger forms of evidence are generally slower and costlier to obtain, understand and apply, so if speed is the main concern, the hierarchy is inverted.

The so-called “pub test” now comes up regularly and evaluation – while it may be undergoing a small revival – is one of the casualities of the rapid policymaking.

“One of the things that I’ve observed across the public service over the last 10 years or so is that the art of evaluation has dropped off. It’s not as rigorously applied as I remember it once being rigorously applied,” Schmidtchen observed. He added that public servants invariably tell him they are still doing evaluation, but what they are usually referring to involves lower research standards than was once the case, he said.

A tricky situation getting trickier by the day

All of this change, he said, puts middle managers in a “really, really tricky position” and it’s one they can do little about themselves.

“They’re at the nexus of the balance between policy and implementation. They’re caught between truth and not-so-truth. They’re caught between politics or policy and evidence. They’re trapped between all these things and I think we’re being somewhat unfair to call them the ‘permafrost’ or the ‘iron colonels’.

“I think that if we recognize the challenges of the role that we have given them, which is probably the most complicated role. Maybe if we were in their shoes, we would see the world through their eyes; then we would probably behave in exactly the same way.

“It’s very easy to give them a kicking along the way. It’s not so easy to do the job that they’ve been asked to do and I personally think that that job is becoming more important, harder to do, and is fundamental to getting the outcomes that we want, whether it’s social policy or whether it’s whatever policy you want to talk about.

“That group of people are the ones who make things happen, so maybe one of the things we should think about is what’s actually happening to them and how well they’re structured?”

Top image: stock photograph.

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