What is the point of the public service?

By Martin Stewart-Weeks

August 30, 2018

Martin Stewart-Weeks argues that the APS needs a new ‘theory of the business’ that more effectively explains and validates the role and purpose of a public service for the digital age.  

Peril and promise

The APS, in common with similar institutions across the world, faces a period of both great peril and high promise.

The peril is manifest in the threat of continued erosion of trust, capability and credibility.

The public service, through a combination of ideology, economic imperative and cultural challenge from a more diverse and plural landscape of insight and ideas, risks becoming increasingly irrelevant to the complex policy problems whose resolution it is expected to contribute and, often, to lead.

It sometimes feels as if the public service is an institution coming adrift from the needs, values and rhythms of the world it is meant to serve. A harsh critique would suggest they can sometimes feel as if they are moving in opposite directions.

The promise lies in recovering the confidence and capability to confront contemporary challenges with a vigorous exposition of skill and endurance that continually sets new standards of public and social innovation for public value.

Responding to a changing world

The digital era changes everything.

“The review has to get beyond the question of how digital can help the APS do what it is doing now and answer a much more basic question – what is the ‘theory of the business’ for the APS in the digital era?”

The review has to get beyond the question of how digital can help the APS do what it is doing now and answer a much more basic question – what is the “theory of the business” for the APS in the digital era?  What does a “digital APS” look like?

Tightly linked to that is the question of data.

We’ve never quite been in the data business at this level of scale, speed and intensity.

Nor have we been in the data business with the capacity to draw on the kind of tools that artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example, are now offering. And we’re only just at the beginning of that journey, whose progress will be shaped by a combination of investment, regulation and ethics and new skills we are still inventing.

Trust – competence, talent, legibility and engagement

The only currency in which the public service trades, like most institutions, is trust.  And trust is leaking at alarming rates from most institutions.  The public service is no different.

The trust equation for the public service stitches together:

  • Competence (the ability to get stuff done, and done well)
  • Requisite talent to feed competence for good services and policy
  • The ability to make its work “legible” to those in government and the wider community
  • And authentic engagement, a willingness to see “we the people” as an asset from which to expect insights and expertise the public service has reason to value.

The work of the future

Work is changing – where it gets done, in what combinations of skill and capability, with what mix of interests at the table and with what mixture of speed, intensity and openness.

In the digital era, with access pretty much to any combination of knowledge and information, the public service needs to think about the right mix of structure, culture and capability from which to shape its new work and the new leadership that work demands.

The role of the state and the purpose of government

It seems difficult to address questions about the future role and capability of the public service without having some sense of the role of the state and the purpose of government.

The APS needs a new “theory of the business”.

It needs to think again about context, mission and competencies, and the relationship between them.

In that process, the public service needs, an institutional story about its role, purpose and value in digital era. And it can’t be a digital version of the current story.  There are enduring values, for sure – ethics, probity, rigour, independence, serving the public interest – but the a digital APS needs a different sense of itself and its value.

Ten questions

These are 10 questions which reflect the range and mix of opportunities, and risks, from which the future of the public service will be forged.

  • Does the APS understand the economic, social, cultural and technology characteristics and conditions of the world in which the APS has to work over the next 20 years?
  • What is the role of the APS in the context of those characteristics and conditions and how widely understood, shared and supported is that role?
  • Is the mission and purpose of the APS clear, compelling, understood and supported in the context of those characteristics and conditions?
  • How does the APS retain or, in some cases, rescue its relevance?
  • In what mix of skills and capabilities does the APS need to demonstrate deep competence in the next 20 years?.
  • Does the APS know how to access, use, nurture and grow the requisite talent it needs, both inside the public service and across other networks and communities, to do its work now and into the future?
  • How well do the current and emerging theories and practice of public sector leadership align with that leaders need to do, and how they need to be, in the future digital public service?
  • How does the APS earn and retain the respect of politicians and the community?
  • Is there a clear sense of the skills, attributes and mindset that the public servant of the future needs which provides guidance and validation to those already in the public service and those thinking of either joining or working with the public service?
  • How does the public service grow or access the necessary confidence and skill in the use of new digital tools, platforms and capabilities, including artificial intelligence, machine learning and new approach to the analysis and use of data at speed and scale, for better policy, regulation and services?

What’s the point of the public service?

Australia needs a high functioning public service of imagination, intelligence and insight now more than ever.

“The public service is one of our most important institutions. Its daily work continues to astonish and frustrate in equal measure.”

We need it to be unusually clever and resilient.

We need it to be persistently and regularly capable of outsized feats of brilliance in the face of solutions to complex problems that, frankly, are beginning to feel beyond our collective reach.

We need a public service of nuance and subtlety to match its emerging mission to corral, and put to work, Australia’s dispersed and diffuse assets of collective intelligence.

The public service is one of our most important institutions.

Its daily work continues to astonish and frustrate in equal measure. It scales great heights of intellectual and institutional insight and remarkable operational performance, especially under pressure (think floods, fires and emergencies).

But it can just as easily betray undeniable symptoms of fear, hesitation and incompetence.

Australia has no hope of grappling successfully with the tangle of interlocking public problems, and opportunities, which will determine our future shared prosperity, without the ability to rely on, and therefore without properly nurturing, an extraordinary public service.

So, what is the point of the public service?

In the light of the context and conditions in which we need, as a nation, to find an answer – a story we can believe in and which explains its role, purpose and value – it may not turn out to be as simple or obvious as we think.

This piece is based on a longer submission that Martin Stewart-Weeks made to the independent review of the Australian Public Service.

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