Peter Shergold: ditch the old public service model

A different type of public service is required, the former top public servant argues. And it can’t just be an improved version of what already exists.

Central to the goals set out in the New South Wales government’s 10-year plan, NSW 2021, is the intention to improve the performance of the state’s economy. The overall objective is to make NSW not just the best performing state in Australia, but a leading economic and financial capital in the Asia-Pacific region. An efficient, effective and ethical public sector is critical to this bold ambition.

The state government remains NSW’s largest employer with around 400,000 workers; 11% of the state’s workforce.The size and scope of the public sector as a program funder, service deliverer and market regulator means that strategies focused on improving state performance must depend in large measure on the sector’s productivity. It must do more with less. It must do things differently.

Commitment and dedication are not the issue. NSW public sector employees work hard to deliver high-quality service in an environment characterised by structural and operational change and fiscal restraint. Those who work conscientiously for successive governments are strongly imbued with a sense of public purpose. At all levels, across the extraordinary diversity of the occupations within the State public sector, a sense of vocation continues to exist.That is a strong foundation on which to build. Being a public servant has always been challenging

But it’s becoming harder. The complexities of public policy are becoming progressively more “wicked”. Citizen expectations are rising faster than governments and public services can deliver. Conversely, there is growing resistance to the incursion of government into people’s private behaviours. Partly as a consequence, the traditional challenge of assessing competing interests has intensified.

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