7 lessons from the ANZSOG case library

By The Mandarin

Tuesday November 21, 2017

Asian chess pieces. High Resolution image concept.

Last month the Australia and New Zealand School of Government opened its John L. Alford Case Library to the public. As Research Fellow and ‘resident storyteller’ for the Case Program, I’ve contributed and edited a fair portion of the 200-plus cases which explore the complex dilemmas faced by public sector managers on both sides of the Tasman. This work has taken me everywhere from police patrols in Perth to fisheries in Port Stephens and involved issues as diverse as shark culling, digital disruption and liquor licensing.

Letting students examine real-world cases is an important component of ANZSOG’s teaching. It lets them flex their analytical muscles without career-limiting consequences and learn from the successes and failures of others. Though each case involves a unique set of circumstances, here are (in no special order) a few personal observations:

1. Mind your language

Everybody hates the jargon-heavy, content-lite corporate speak that permeates government communications. Trying to decode congealed layers of euphemism and unbroken text is an exercise in self-harm. The consequences for public discourse and democracy have been well canvassed.  But working in the public sector doesn’t automatically provide people with antibodies to bureaucratic language. No one wants to be the person in the meeting who admits they don’t know what the Senior Strategic Risk Advisor is supposed to be doing. Especially if they are the Senior Strategic Risk Advisor. The results can be devastating. So instead of checking that everyone is on the same page, make sure you’re starting out with a shared vocabulary.

2. Relationships matter

There are many reasons why projects fall apart. But relationships seem to be a big part of why they succeed. Particularly when different departments, agencies or stakeholders need to work together. Protocols and MOUs are supposed to smooth the way but nothing loosens the cogs like a well-timed phone call to the right person. Building rapport, establishing common ground and demonstrating good faith can disarm even trenchant critics. This usually takes time and patience, both of which are heavily rationed during crises. So maybe don’t wait until you have one to start laying the groundwork. Also encourage relationship building at different levels to keep the momentum going, even if key personnel move on.

3. Shut up and lead

Power doesn’t corrupt so much as amplify negative qualities, making people less observant, less likely to listen, less empathetic and more likely to act as though the rules don’t apply to them. At the same time, selection processes for leadership positions often screen out or discourage people who could make very good leaders, while favouring applicants who excel at talking themselves up but not necessarily anything else the job entails. Leaders who succeeded in difficult circumstances tended to be those prepared to park their assumptions, try understanding different perspectives and hear some uncomfortable truths. Staying accessible to subordinates and making space for dissenting opinions isn’t easy but it’s easier than fronting up to a Senate Committee or Royal Commission, no?

4. Ask before you consult

What are we really trying to find out? Is this a problem of a highly specialist or technical nature? Does this consulting firm have people with the right skills and experience? Will this firm actually assign those people to us? Could we just hire those people directly instead? Does anyone within our organisation have enough expertise to assess the quality of the work being done? Might the consultants have an incentive to provide certain answers or to cross-sell the firm’s other services? Has anyone bothered to ask our frontline staff or end users about the issues first? If the question concerns privatising or outsourcing, have the costs of contract management been considered?  Are we already sitting on a stack of reports that tell us what the problems are and how to solve them? Why are we doing this again?

5. Don’t leave evaluation until last

ANZSOG bangs the drum pretty hard for good evaluation. And a good evaluation is best mapped out at the beginning of a program, not tacked on to the end. Thinking about how you will define and measure success can point to possible problems in policy formation or implementation. Sound evaluation makes it easier for worthwhile programs to amass political support and expand. But just as importantly, it helps to build a body of knowledge that can prevent the resurrection of zombies that belong in the policy graveyard. This becomes even more vital when departments and agencies can’t always rely on having sufficient institutional memory to draw on.

6. Governments can’t outsource responsibility


7. Disasters are rarely one person’s doing

In the aftermath of catastrophes and debacles, the media and the public typically insist upon a scapegoat spit-roast – it satisfies the craving for simple narratives and catharsis. Maybe there’s a readymade candidate; maybe one has to be created. Either way, the spectacle can obscure a genuine search for answers. Although events might be triggered or exacerbated by individuals, they’re typically the product of systemic weaknesses at the organisation or agency concerned. It might be a history of under-resourcing, a ‘Good Vibes Only’ or ‘Whatever It Takes’ culture; perhaps it’s tangled lines of communication and unclear responsibilities. This is a harder concept to convey but important to understand. A loose rivet might cause a plane to fall out of the sky but was it a manufacturing fault, shoddy maintenance or poor design?

It’s only fair to point out that our sample is somewhat skewed. Plenty of stuff ups and near misses never see daylight, likewise, situations where everything runs smoothly. Yet as a body of work, ANZSOG cases certainly point to issues common to all levels of government. As to how you’d go about improving things – well, luckily, my job is about posing the questions, rather than supplying the answers. But maybe some potential strategies would make good grist for a Part 2?

Marinella Padula is a research fellow at ANZSOG, working on the development of the school’s case program. With a background in organisational psychology, Marinella was previously at the Melbourne Business School where she was involved in examining leadership and innovation in research and development teams. 

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