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ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders’ series to examine policy implementation and digital transformation in post-COVID world

28 October 2020

News and media


Hand holding digital interface


The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of effective government action in fighting a society-wide crisis but also revealed weaknesses in our existing systems of making and implementing policy.

The challenge now for public sector leaders is to address the immediate challenges of the pandemic while recognising there will be no ‘snap back’ to normal, and that the long-term structures and practices of the public sector must be rethought.

From November 17, ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders’ (FPSL) series will examine how the public service needs to change in response to COVID-19 and provide public sector leaders of the future with an opportunity for self-reflection and professional growth.

A series of short masterclasses on a range of themes will focus on the future of public services and bring together leading academics and practitioners.

Professor Anne Tiernan, Professor of Politics and Dean of Engagement for the Griffith Business School, Griffith University, who will lead the ‘Bridging the gap between policy and implementation’ masterclass on 15 December, says that the pandemic has exposed leaders and systems in many countries – including some of the world’s wealthiest.

“The pandemic has exposed a lack of capacity and capability that is a product of decades of critique of and disinvestment in systems of public service provision; and a focus on ‘efficiencies’ over preparedness for contingencies,” she said.

Martin Stewart-Weeks, digital transformation specialist and co-author of ‘Are We There Yet? The Digital Transformation of Government and the Public Service in Australia’, who will lead the ‘Digital Transformation: strategy, skills and leadership’ masterclass, along with Simon Cooper, on 8 December, says the COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity to embed digital transformation in governments, and to move towards a ‘4D’ version of government based on: digital, data, design and decision-making

“There is little doubt that we’ve seen more “transformation” in digital tools, platforms and ways of working in the last few months in government, as we have in every other sector, than we have in the past few years,” he said.

“It’s been remarkable to witness the relative success with which many of the changes have been navigated, but the real test is still to come.

“Will the changes that all governments have witnessed in the past year become entrenched as a new normal? Whether that experience is deeply embedded in changes to work, process, performance, culture and leadership, which really would be transformational, remains to be seen.”

Big government vs networked and innovative government

Both masterclass leaders see the pandemic as having reminded citizens of the value of a competent government, and its fundamental role of keeping people safe and protecting the public interest, and both see it as an opportunity to change how governments work for the better.

Professor Tiernan said a return to ‘big government’ and greater reliance on impartial expert advice was likely to occur in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand as the two countries navigated the twin dilemmas of managing the continuing threat to public health and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

“But I don’t anticipate a trend to centralisation, nor to traditional hierarchy. Instead, I think there will be a premium on coordination, collaboration, resource and power sharing, because the scale and complexity of the challenges demands it.

“I hope to see much more respect for local knowledge and frontline experience; and more humility – a willingness to listen and learn, rather than presuming to have all the answers.

“There are opportunities for systematic lessons to be drawn from the COVID-19 crisis; and, to ensure that lessons from other crises are embedded as we rebuild towards a ‘better normal’.

“The answers we’re looking for will be found in collective leadership and collaborations that transcend traditional boundaries.”

Mr Stewart-Weeks said that governments needed to review the changes which have already happened, and make sure the best of them are retained and entrenched.

“These include new more collaborative ways of working, better ways to share data more quickly and openly to solve pressing policy and delivery challenges, being more open and transparent, better communication, more rapid procurement, easing or removing altogether regulatory provisions that serve little purpose,” he said.

“That requires leadership, clear and conscious decisions and possibly changes in rules, culture and systems.

“Governments need to take an explicit and systematic “4D” strategy to entrench a new culture of work and leadership in the public sector. This is partly a function of what we’ve learnt from the COVID-19 response, but actually picks up trends that were at play before the pandemic broke, these will form the foundation for a new ethic of public work.”

He identified the ‘4D’ trends as:

Digital: the increasingly default and invisible platform and culture of all work in government and the public sector
Data: a more open, collaborative approach to curating, sharing and improving the quality and use of data across all aspects of public work
Design: in the sense of combining a reflexive first focus on users, citizens and the experience of those most affected by policy, programs and services at the core of good practice
Decision-making: learning how to make good decisions under conditions of intensity, speed and the need for proper risk taking and sensible experimentation for learning.

Mr Stewart-Weeks said that the future would require public sector leaders with, among other things: a great instinct for collaboration, a willingness to act with speed and intensity if required again, an approach that was open to risk and experimentation balanced with rigour, good judgement, transparency and accountability.

Fixing the federation and addressing inequity

COVID-19 has been a stress test for governments across the world and, while Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand have done well compared to other jurisdictions, many weaknesses have been exposed.

Professor Tiernan said that the Australian and New Zealand governments’ handling of the pandemic reflected the comparative strengths and adaptive capacities of our systems of governance, and a uniquely resilient public policy tradition that places social protection – the belief that governments should intervene to protect vulnerable groups from external shocks – at its core.

“Nonetheless, the crisis has focused attention on the need for more and better coordination within and between governments and partners in other sectors,” she said.

“I’m among the many people concerned that our political and public institutions and our policy processes have been weakened by the hyper-partisanship of the past 20 years, but the pandemic has shown this trend can still be reversed. The challenge now is to engage citizens in making sure that happens and doesn’t revert to type.”

She said that the economic costs and consequences have been disproportionately borne by the most vulnerable in society, raising important questions about equity.

“It’s clear that the pandemic accelerated and exposed trends and vulnerabilities that have been evident for decades – growing inequality, a lack of digital maturity, under-investment in and a lack of regulatory attention to health, aged care and other service systems.”

Mr Stewart-Weeks said the pandemic had delivered a mix of insights into the state of government in Australia – reinforcing some strengths of the federal model but also weaknesses – such as the challenges of getting coordinated responses and the opportunity for parochial interests to undermine momentum for necessary policy changes.

“I think another dimension of good governance that has been in the spotlight is not just the greater reliance on expertise and deep knowledge, but the way expertise and knowledge combine with appropriate political leadership and accountability.

“I’m not sure any country has got this exactly right, and some have got it spectacularly wrong. My sense is Australia has been more at the “right” than the “wrong” end of the spectrum, but it has been variable and not without considerable contest and some controversy.”

While Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand have coped with COVID-19 better than most countries, they believe the pandemic has still exposed weaknesses and can be a catalyst for long-term improvements in how governments develop and implement policy.

“Crises present challenges for implementation because inevitably, decisions have to be taken quickly based on information that is available at the time. However, and as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, they can also catalyse innovation and improvisation, revealing latent capacity and inherent strengths,” Professor Tiernan said.

The first FPSL keynote session, Governing in a COVID-19 world: the public service commissioners’ perspective, will be led by Ramsay Foundation CEO Professor Glyn Davis and will feature Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott AO and NSW Public Service Commissioner Kathrina Lo.

Future masterclasses will bring together leading academics and practitioners to discuss key issues including Professor Cheryl Saunders, former Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett, Professor Paul ‘t Hart and Professor Zeger van der Wal.

Find more information on the Future public sector leaders’ series, including how you and your team can register to take part here.