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Public Sector Management Program turns 25: what we’ve learned so far

If you can think back to 1989 in Australia and the major events swirling around the world of government, it was a time of significant and sometimes turbulent change.

As communism faltered in Europe, university students here received their first HECS notices, while Phil Collins dominated the charts and Back to the Future 2 packed out cinemas.

There was also a wave of change about to sweep across state and federal public service machines.

After decades of different jurisdictions training their public service managers to individual, if broadly similar, standards, one of the great yet largely understated feats of national harmonisation was about to occur.

(Picture front, left to right: Associate Professor Vicky Browning QUT; Professor Robina Xavier QUT; Jonathan Hutson, Deputy Secretary, Department of Human Services; Hon. John Lloyd PSM, Australian Public Service Commissioner; Dr Evelyne Meier, QUT; Matt McNeice, QUT) 

An inclusive national vision

Having strongly pursued a vision of reform through consensus politics, prime minister of the day Bob Hawke wrote to all premiers and chief ministers urging the development of a national Public Sector Management Program spanning Australia’s three tiers of government.

In terms of public administration, it was a pivotal event for a country based on a federation of states that sometimes competed to the point that incongruous standards impeded national endeavour — the infamous rail gauge scenario.

It may not have a high public profile, but the pursuit of a genuinely national framework and curriculum for public sector management education matters deeply — especially when it comes to creating and competently delivering vital services Australians expect.

As public servants seek to better their knowledge, proficiencies and careers, the nation also benefits as skills and competencies become recognised and interoperable across jurisdictions.

So, as the public sector embraces the digital age and all it brings, it’s worth reflecting on 25 years of the Public Sector Management Program and where it’s taken us.

From little things, big things grow…

First piloted in Adelaide in 1991 and rolled-out nationally in 1992, more than 11,000 public servants have now earned a Graduate Certificate in Business (Public Sector Management).

And despite occasional cyclical fluctuations in overall public service numbers, demand for the PSM Program remains strong and healthy.

The PSM Program’s core purpose is to equip public servants with the skills they need to manage and implement government policy and reforms. It also seeks to foster the adoption of management approaches that are more strategic, increasingly flexible, genuinely participatory and fundamentally accountable.

Those management values and skills that underpin not only the confidence of policymakers — who in a democracy regularly change — but the wider public and business communities with which there is a necessarily enduring relationship.

Some things have changed over time, arguably for the better. Thick and heavy study folders have been replaced with online delivery; social media and twitter now influence policy development — however the core purpose and value of the PSM Program remains the same.

Why do organisations sponsor employees to participate in the PSMP?

The PSMP enriches participants’ skills to think strategically, creatively and systematically. Importantly, it also embraces critical thinking, a necessary ability to question the status quo and ways to develop innovative solutions.

There’s a strong ‘people’ factor too. The program deliberately focuses on the soft skills necessary to lead, manage, engage and communicate with effect

Relevance and application of skills and theory is integral. All assessments are work-related and culminate in a workplace change project, equivalent to a small consultancy project.

A logical question is who is taking-up the PSMP and what is its reach?

It looks like this:

  • Since 2015, 215 government organisations and 6 NGOs have sponsored over 1000 employees to enrol.
  • There is a nearly even split between Commonwealth and state and territory employees.
  • About 20 employees are from local government and six from the NGO sector.

Creating a strong evidence base for effectiveness

In 2019, public sector employers will for the first time be informed whether the spending of taxpayer’s money on this program delivers a return on investment.

This an important public sector milestone because it seeks to empirically validate the effectiveness of a key developmental element of public administration from its base, contest assumptions and go beyond what might otherwise be taken for granted.

QUT (Queensland University of Technology) has commenced a comprehensive two-year research project that specifically aims to measure the direct impact of the PSM Program directly on behavioural change, career mobility and organisational outcomes.

It’s the first time such a research has been undertaken in Australia and will provide a much needed evidence base on which to base sound decisions, investment and resources going into the future.

As the public sector increasingly professionalises, this evidence will form a framework for more effective, efficient and equitable development of management and future public service leadership.

In an era when public confidence in government and some of its institutions is challenged, strong evidence has arguably never been needed more.

So who does the Public Sector Management Program? Here’s a profile

If the stereotype of an ambitious young male, not long out of university and keen to work their way up quickly to nab a job with a consultancy springs to mind, think again.

She is female (60% female and 40% male) has no undergraduate degree (around 60%) and will complete the program (overall 97% completion rate).

At a time when gender equality and cultural diversity remain key issues for the public sector, these statistics help illustrate the value of fostering talent from within to accomplish greater things while retaining vital corporate memory.

Importantly the national participation rate for Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander in the PSMP is 6% and 14% in the Northern Territory.

What PSMP graduates tell us

The views of some PSMP participants provide a key insight, especially in terms of how they value their jobs and wider contribution:

“The PSMP was both challenging and rewarding in gaining a rich understanding of the systems of government. This gave me a greater understanding of public value as well as relevant leadership tools to equip me as a public sector manager. Having not undertaken any tertiary studies before, the PSMP journey instilled a new confidence around learning, resulting in my continuation of further postgraduate studies through QUT…the best is yet to come!

Jeffrey Ropati
NSW Department of Education 2016

The ability to learn while at work, and to apply new and relevant skills quickly, is also seen as a strong positive.

I definitely took a lot out of the program having been promoted halfway through the PSM to a challenging project and policy role in state education. Now I have also gained a position as a Regional Manager for Dept. Workforce Training and Development in the West Kimberley. I got quite a lot out of the program and in my current directorate I am the only Aboriginal staff member to complete it so I am pushing others to do so too.
Andrew Bowen

Currency of content

From relatively humble beginnings that started 25 years ago, the legacy of collaboration and co-design of PSMP course content continues right to this day after chalking up some significant milestones and achievements.

In 2014, following a competitive public tender process by the Australian Pubic Service Commission, QUT was awarded the contract to update the program and deliver it nationally until 2019.

The update to the PSMP was deliberately a collaborative effort to maintain relevance with over 130 public servants involved. This collegiate of collaboration for the public good is a major factor in the PSMP’s success to date.

An important structural enhancement that was also made in 2014 was the recognition of the importance of the not for profit sector in delivering government services.

This change means managers from the not for profit sector can now also participate in the program.

Government is by nature in a state of constant change. Thus, QUT consults annually with reference groups in every state about jurisdictional ‘hot’ issues and policies that affect public sector in the performance of their jobs and the outcomes they deliver.

This input is then included in the curriculum for the year, keeping courses both contemporary and pertinent. Its facilitators are content experts and most are also teaching in the Executive Masters of Business Administration program and hence abreast of latest developments in their respective fields.

Ready — and relevant — for the future

The coming years will undoubtedly offer public sector managers significant new challenges in terms of policy, reform and societal change – but they will also offer major opportunities to those equipped with the skills to take them in their professional stride.

To find out more about how the Public Sector Management Program delivered by QUT can benefit you, your staff or your organisation – or to make suggestions — don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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