Blair Comley’s ‘NSW model’ and the public sector’s unsolved dilemmas


In his valedictory address to the NSW public sector, the outgoing chief urges all public servants to get out and about to see the front line and contribute to the sector’s unsolved problems. Keep outcomes front of mind as the sector advances into new ways of working.

Outgoing head of the New South Wales public service and secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Blair Comley PSM was invited to give the 2017 State of the Service address to IPAA NSW.  He reflects on achievements and what underpins the sector’s ability to meet government priorities and community expectations in 2018.

I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. And I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present. Having now been in NSW for three years and having had the privilege of listening to great welcomes to country from people like Uncle Chicka Madden I now know that the mighty Eora nation is bounded by the Hawkesbury, Nepean and Georges Rivers.

Thank you to IPAA and Martin Hoffman for inviting me to give a State of the Sector speech. Martin invited me a long time ago to give this speech, a long time before he knew that would double up as a valedictory. That is, unless he knew something that I didn’t know at the time!

I would like to start by reflecting on our mission in public service. In doing so, I’d like to borrow from DPC’s mission which is to enhance the lives of the people of NSW. It may sound trite but the great privilege of working in the public sector is that is our goal on a daily basis. This is true not just for my department, but for the sector as a whole.

In the case of DPC, we do this by driving priorities, brokering outcomes and delivering programs and services.

I see NSW Health enhancing lives by keeping people healthy and out of hospital, providing world class clinical care and delivering truly integrated care.

I see the Department of Education enhancing lives by creating a highly skilled, educated, vibrant and inclusive NSW.

I see Transport for NSW enhancing lives by making NSW a better place to live, do business and visit. And these are just a few examples.

A clear and aligned sense of purpose not only improves the outcomes that we generate for the community but also highlights, for our workforce, the intrinsic value of our work.

I will cover later my assessment of the capacity of the sector. Assessing capacity is only meaningful in terms of the context of what we’re trying to achieve. At the level below the overall mission I would outline five key areas of government focus.

1. Strong budget and economy

The first area is maintaining a strong budget and economy. The government has emphasised fiscal sustainability, in particular by maintaining a Triple-A credit rating, maintaining strong surpluses and ensuring that the balance sheet is actively managed, including though substantial asset recycling. Another principal economic lever for a state government is the planning system. Within Sydney, this has been driven by the newly established Greater Sydney Commission and the vision of three cities with a focus on balanced planning incorporating economic, social and environmental objectives. In recent times another clear economic priority has been to address difficulties in the energy markets. Energy is now a hobby for me rather than a full-time endeavour, but there is no doubt that affordable and reliable energy is a key building block of any modern economy.

2. Infrastructure

The second area is infrastructure. The government has been rolling out an ambitious infrastructure program. This is obvious in Sydney. As the Premier has recently commented Sydney is second only to Dubai on the world crane index. But, it is also true outside Sydney where projects such as improvements to the Pacific Highway continue at pace. The challenge for the public service is to deliver these projects on time and on budget. In recent years we have put in place an assurance framework that is recognised around the world as exemplary. In my opinion the assurance framework works because it is run by an incredibly professional organisation, Infrastructure NSW, but with a clear understanding that accountability must rest with delivery agencies.

“I understand how frustrating it can be when a central agency dips in to an area that is beyond their expertise on the assumption they have all the answers.”

We have tried to combine a culture that allows people to come forward and call out delivery difficulties early without fear of retribution with a sophisticated understanding of governance that does not blur the distinction between delivery and assurance. A central agency like DPC must really understand the way the rules and behaviours drive initiatives. The centre must facilitate and support line agencies wherever it can.

I have been the Secretary of a line agency and I understand how frustrating it can be when a central agency dips in to an area that is beyond their expertise on the assumption they have all the answers. I can’t say that we’ve always got it right in DPC, but we have tried to get the balance right between central drive and direction and dispersed accountability. Many people claim they value good governance without either really understanding what it is or without a commitment to follow through with sound governance when it is inconvenient. The heart of good governance is having a razor sharp focus on understanding genuine accountability and making it happen in a practical way on a daily basis.

3. Delivering better services

The third area is delivering better services. One of the things that really strikes me in state government is the direct and tangible connection with the lives of citizens. This is true whether the person is driving on a road, being helped by a national park ranger, visiting a hospital or having their children educated in a school. The government has been keen to measure the level of satisfaction with government services. In fact, one of the Premier’s priorities is to improve satisfaction with government services on an annual basis which we will measure and benchmark against other industries. I was recently at a business event and I commented that the data from our annual survey of customer satisfaction shows that NSW government services receive a higher satisfaction rate than most parts of the private sector.

NSW Government services receive a higher customer satisfaction score (6.8/10) than utilities (5.5/10), banks (6.2/10) and only trail satisfaction with airlines (7.0). Probably because I am an economist my suspicion is that the depth of competition in the airline market is a significant driver of those satisfaction rates. But, putting that aside, when I made the general observation to that business audience they were very surprised.

“There can be a form of cultural cringe in the public service where we are reluctant to celebrate successes…”

I think we should talk about this data much more often. There can be a form of cultural cringe in the public service where we are reluctant to celebrate successes and many people are ready to talk down the contribution that stereotypically cardigan-wearing “bureaucrats” make to society. This external chatter does affect the morale and self-perception of those within the sector. But what the data shows is that when the public thinks about public services not in the abstract but in terms of the teacher at their school, the nurse at the hospital or the police officer who ensures their personal safety, they have a much more positive impression. And that’s before you even think about the really hard jobs like that done by the child protection case worker faced with the incredibly difficult decision of whether to place a young child in care or keep them with a currently dysfunctional family.

Finally on services, initiatives like Service NSW are helping to streamline customer interaction with government. Service NSW is really quite an incredible story with customer  satisfaction rates of  98% satisfaction for a service that normally includes executingtransactions that are compulsory for the residents of NSW. Service NSW is also doing great work on business’ interaction with government as well as consumers’. Just this week, the Easy to do Business initiative being led by the Small Business Commissioner and Service NSW was recognised as a finalist in the Prime Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management.

4. Protecting the vulnerable

The fourth area is protecting the vulnerable. The government is supporting the provision of more social housing, progressing major reforms to Out Of Home Care, and working towards a major milestone in the NDIS transition. The latter is one of the more challenging policy and implementation tasks on the national agenda. Not only are governments broadening the number of people who will receive assistance but there are also doing this while radically transforming the service delivery model. The centralised model of public service delivery is to be replaced with empowered consumers selecting the providers of their choice. The NDIS is a classic example of the evolution of public service delivery. Governments are creating a market, providing the funding, and empowering individuals to make decisions based on their deep knowledge of their own needs and local circumstances.

5. Safety and security

The fifth area is safety and security. Not a COAG goes by where first ministers don’t collectively say that the first obligation of government is to keep the community safe. The government is undertaking major reforms to the justice system to enhance community safety and rolling out programs to reduce domestic violence. Events around the world also continue to underline the need for active attention to counter-terrorism. The task is never really done and stretches from measures to protect crowded places to initiatives to engage the community, to driving inclusion, and to preventing a sense of alienation that contributes to violent extremism.

So, that’s a pretty long list. And even though it is a long list it is only a small subset of what government is doing on a daily basis. It is also a list ordered by subject material. I should confess that that is the way I tend to order my thoughts. But there are other ways. In particular, the government and the public service are pursuing all of these things with renewed focus on regional communities to ensure the benefits are spread across all of NSW. This recognises that sometimes what matters most to people are the local concerns of the community in which they live. We have been looking at how to deliver at a whole of state level and also a community level. This need for sensitivity and granularity complicates the business of government but it is essential because we can’t move forward pretending that these differences and complexities don’t exist. Only yesterday we were reminded of this again with the geographical differences in votes in the same-sex marriage postal survey.

One of the great privileges of my role has been the ability to get out to the regions. Every time I learn something. Whether it was talking to the year 12 school captains in Bourke, seeing the steel mill in Wollongong or visiting the residential centre in Stockton that cares for intellectually disabled clients who will transition into new arrangements under the NDIS. I would strongly encourage all public servants to get out and about to see the front line, to speak to those affected by policy and to deepen their knowledge of difference.

All of these five areas are affected by the wider context. They are influenced by broader trends of big data, rapid technological change and demographic shifts. For example education systems need to be fit for purpose as the nature of work changes, transport solutions are changing amidst increasing urbanisation and automation, and policing is being transformed by innovations like body-worn video that has a positive impact in reducing domestic violence.

We are fortunate to have had 26 years of uninterrupted growth in Australia. But, globally we see a genuinely more complex environment. Around the world we see diminishing faith in institutions, increasing diversity in community expectations, and big cities getting bigger. We also see growing divides – sometimes along wealth lines, sometimes geographic, and sometimes generational.

The reality is that the Government can’t solve every issue, but governments must listen to and understand the concerns of the community.

Collaboration remains the unsolved problem of the sector

Against this backdrop, I will now turn to the public sector itself.

I have been lucky to be a part of the NSW public sector since late 2014. During my time, I have seen strong growth in collaboration. Meaningful collaboration involves creating a culture where we continuously engage with parties who have an interest in an issue or outcome. In doing so, we access a range of perspectives, better understand the nature of a problem and can identify creative ways to solve them. I would particularly like to acknowledge my fellow Secretaries. The Secretaries Board has operated in a very collegiate manner which has demonstrated improved outcomes.

The challenge for the sector is to drive collaboration at all levels. A problem we are yet to solve is how to reconcile high level agreement to collaborate with the tension caused by very specific KPIs at the operational level. It is a challenge for the manager of an emergency department to prioritise child welfare concerns when we are driving hard to improve waiting times. We often get there with goodwill, but it is hard to systematise. Other jurisdictions have also not solved this problem, but that should not discourage us from trying.

In addition to better collaboration, I believe our work is evolving in six broad areas.

1. Commission and contestability

First, commissioning and contestability has changed the way we think about outcomes. We’ve always cared about outcomes, but now we are thinking more deeply about how to execute this with quite different supply chains. This means we seek out partnerships with the private sector or not for profit sector where they might offer new or different ways to deliver those outcomes.

2. Customer centricity

Secondly, customer centricity is now playing a larger role when we develop policies. While it seems like common sense, increasingly we are designing and implementing services and policies with customers, users and the community at the centre. For example, Transport has shifted from an engineering focus to a broader customer satisfaction focus leading to better services and reliability for the community.

3. Data

Thirdly, the prevalence and sophistication of data has had a significant impact on the speed at which we get insights, the type of insights we can get, and how we process complexity. I am convinced that the best use of data is going to be a very strong cross-cutting theme over the next decade. At this point we collect a lot of data but we have a long way to go to leverage fully the data to achieve better outcomes. Our data is often collected in silos, there are cultural and legislative impediments to sharing across silos, and we often under resource the analytical areas that could develop insights that would significantly improve service delivery. This is a tricky balance to get right. There is a natural desire to prioritise the frontline, but if the frontline can be directed to the biggest problems more quickly, then the frontline can be supported better and be more productive.

4. Internal process

Fourthly, there is an increased focus on getting the right internal process to make better decisions. The reform of Cabinet processes is a very good example. Cabinet by its nature happens behind closed doors, so we don’t talk about it a lot externally. I was therefore pleased to see the Premier acknowledged the improved Cabinet process as a key achievement of my time in NSW. Some people think Cabinet processes are boring and bureaucratic. I take a different view. Good Cabinet process is about harnessing the collective wisdom of the Cabinet and the departments that support them. If good Cabinet process is coupled with high quality external consultation then government has the best chance of designing and implementing well targeted, well executed and efficient policies. It would not surprise you to hear me say that good process leads to good outcomes. I suspect all my predecessors across almost all jurisdictions would say the same thing. But it’s true. Ideas articulated and exposed to the broadest range of perspectives are tempered and shaped into practical initiatives that really matter for the lives of the people of NSW and beyond.

5. Implementation and delivery

Fifthly, we are giving implementation and delivery the attention that it deserves. Good implementation is just as important, if not more so, than policy. As a policy advisor, it is tempting to seek out novelty instead of focusing on the tough grind of implementation. But it is important that we get this balance right. The development of the Premier’s Implementation Unit has been an important step. What we have discovered, working with line agencies, is that most of the time getting better outcomes is not about dreaming up a new policy, but instead ensuring that we consistently execute across all sites in a manner consistent with the best that we already have. The deliverology mantra of using data, creating routines, identifying targeted interventions and continually testing what’s working with fieldwork should be ingrained in all of us. It should be common sense, but as Voltaire said “common sense is sometimes not that common”. Sir Michael Barber, a key designer of the methodology, was in Sydney just last week. Some of you may have attended the IPAA Spann Oration, which he presented last week.

Sir Michael highlighted that the PIU model isn’t just a technocratic thing or a data thing – it is a creative thing. I agree. When things don’t go as expected, it’s an opportunity to think about new and different ways to solve the problem – or in Sir Michael’s words, an opportunity to say ‘how fascinating’. It’s about focus, information gathering, collaboration and honest assessment. And there are plenty of examples of how this has paid off.

The first example is the Guardianship Pilot Project which is one of the key interventions to improve service levels in hospitals, which is one of the 12 Premier’s Priorities. The Priority has a target of 81% of patients through emergency departments within 4 hours by 2019.

As part of work on the Premier’s Priority the PIU and Health conducted, as the PIU does on all the priorities, a series of fieldwork visits to the frontline. One of those visits took them to John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle where some hospital staff pointed out that there were a number of patients in the hospital ready for discharge, but were occupying beds due to delays in the guardianship process. Later data analysis confirmed this as a system wide problem with some patients spending months in a hospital bed waiting on the appointment of a guardian.

Following that visit to John Hunter Hospital , a state-wide pilot was designed and commenced on 1 February 2017 involving the Premier’s Implementation Unit, the Ministry of Health, NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, the Office of the Public Guardian, Trustee and Guardian, Treasury and the Department of Justice.

It was a great success. The pilot has demonstrated successful outcomes with an estimated overall reduction of over 46,000 bed days per annum. This represents a significant improvement in outcomes for patients and their families in leaving hospitals much sooner than was previously experienced. The impact of freeing up these additional beds in wards has been recognised in PIU fieldwork in hospitals across the State as directly impacting patient flow and contributing to improved emergency department performance.

The second example relates to the Premier’s Priority to increase the proportion of NSW students in the top two NAPLAN bands by eight per cent by 2019. Preliminary 2017 NAPLAN results show we have met the 2019 Improving Education Results target two years early with an average of 35.4 per cent of students (more than 167,700 students) achieving the top two NAPLAN bands in reading and/or numeracy. This is 8,300 additional students compared to last year.

Students achieving results in the top two bands increased 2.9 percentage points from 2016 to 35.4% (0.2 percentage points above the target). This fantastic result validates the approach taken by the Department of Education to set high expectations, pay careful attention to what the data shows at the student, school and system level, and strengthen focus on quality implementation.

This is clearly evidenced by implementation of the Bump it Up Strategy which targets support to 137 schools that are performing below their potential. These schools, as a group, achieved greater improvements in results for students in the top 2 bands for reading and numeracy compared to other schools in NSW. The remarkable things about the Bump it Up Strategy is that it has achieved the success it has without any allocation of additional funding or resources. It’s a fantastic example of what can be achieved through relentless focus on a specific target. There is more to do to sustain this progress but a great early result for one of our Premier’s Priorities.

6. Communication

The final key area I want to highlight is communication – we have developed a better understanding of the importance of communication in policy and service design. Importantly we need to build communications thinking into the early stage of policy and service design. It should not be just a bolt on. And we need to explain what it means for each individual across the state and country to the greatest extent possible. Good communication can make reform more durable and reduce the need for low value expenditure.

Across these six areas, I’ve already highlighted a range of fantastic examples such as the PIU and the NDIS, but there are many more. There is the great work of the Behavioural Insights Unit, the Data Analytics Centre, and the Office of Social Impact Investment to name just a few. All of these initiatives are unique, innovative and durable – but also have many things in common. They think creatively about achieving outcomes, have people at the centre of design, use data for new insights, have important routines and systems for robustness in analysis and approach, are committed to getting implementation right and consider communication and collaboration throughout.

I’m keen for these key lessons to go viral across the sector. We’ve come a long way, but there is certainly more that can be done to mainstream these important practices.

So what impact will the evolving nature of our work have on the public sector workforce and capabilities? The size of the public sector is shrinking. This is not surprising considering the impact that technology has had on the size and nature of workforce in general. In addition, as I noted earlier, commissioning and contestability reforms have transformed markets for service delivery.

Our workforce should continue to be flexible in responding to emerging needs. We are taking important steps through capability building to meet emerging and adapting needs but we should also continue to enhance the diversity of the public sector and support access to flexible work arrangements. This will ensure that we attract the best talent and produce the best work.

We are on a positive trajectory but should not lose focus

Driving public sector diversity is a Premier’s Priority and we are seeing an increasing number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees in senior leadership roles, and are also increasing the proportion of women in senior leadership roles.

We have increasingly been adopting an ‘if not, why not’ approach to flexibility, acknowledging that employees need greater flexibility to balance their career and other life roles. Technology has allowed for increasing opportunities for this flexibility and we should take advantage of that.

Finally I want to talk about leadership. Leadership is essential for the sector to deliver for the community. As has been highlighted by the Public Service Commission’s 2016 State of the NSW Public Sector Report, “as public expectations of government services increase, the ability to make the most of opportunities and respond effectively to current and emerging challenges is critical: the best services require the best leaders”.

To develop public sector leadership capabilities we need to invest in the leadership capability. Leadership is a developed skill and should be embedded in our culture. The Leadership Academy program is a big part of this. The program, introduced in 2015, provides ‘structured, needs-based development at key career transition points for highperforming and high-potential leaders’. The program contributes to the sector’s culture of stewardship as it provides a whole of sector perspective to leadership capabilities and has a strong emphasis on skills required for managing people and inspiring direction and purpose to support the best outcomes. The Leadership Academy is important in itself, but is also important because it sends the signal that we are prepared to invest in our people.

We are the State’s biggest employer. Continuing our focus on diversity, performance, mobility, flexibility and leadership – all of which are closely inextricably linked – will be a key contributor to the NSW Government being an employer of choice.

So where to from here?

As a sector we are passionate about what we want to achieve and it is this passion that encourages the sector to continue to tackle complex challenges and seek out new ideas and approaches to adapt to the needs of the community.

Outcomes are front of mind, policy and services are designed with customers at the centre, data is driving new insights and approaches to policy making, we are rolling out better systems and routines to track progress and dedicating time and attention to getting implementation right. Communication is increasingly considered during the policy design process and not only dealt with as an afterthought.

I am not saying the job is done but I am buoyed by the engagement, talents, capabilities and innovation of the public sector workforce, which I see rising up to these challenges, always seeking to improve, and continuing to be passionate about its purpose.

What we work on, how we work, and the context we operate in will change and adapt over time, and the sector should be responsive to this.

Why we do our work hasn’t changed.

We should absolutely be ready to tackle today’s challenges, but keep an eye on the long term needs of the community.

I encourage you all to think of new and better ways of achieving positive community outcomes. The reality is that how we approach this might change over time, but it is built on the strong foundation of our purpose.

Finally, on reflecting on my time in NSW and the state of the sector I’m very pleased that Tim Reardon is taking over from me. Tim and I are both graduates of the Leadership Academy. It is great to see that there is the capability within the sector to manage internal succession. This was indeed one of the key objectives of the leadership Academy – to ensure we have the bench strength to fill key leadership positions.

Like all managers my mantra at a time like this is that we’ve come a long way but there is more still to do. With Tim and the collective and collegial leadership of the Secretaries Board and with the continued efforts of everyone in the NSW public service there is a great platform to deliver on that fundamental mission of enhancing the lives of the people of NSW.

Top photo: Blair Comley deliverying the 2017 State of the Sector address, courtesy of IPAA NSW.