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Beyond deference: creating truly innovative public sector leadership

6 June 2018

News and media


Robin Ryde

Robin Ryde is Co-Director of ANZSOG’s Executive Fellows Program and a former CEO of the UK National School of Government.

There is no doubt that the work of public sector leadership is undergoing a change. Governments across the globe are being disrupted by new technologies, the increased ability of citizens to scrutinise governments, and the stirrings of populism and nationalism in western democracies, to name but a few. Australia and New Zealand are no different of course, experiencing the same issues and facing two critical questions; how should we respond, and how should we get our leadership to step up to these challenges.

Adding to these challenges is the persistent loss of trust in the institutions of government – along with other key institutions in our societies. The public is no longer willing to offer unquestioned deference to senior government officials, politicians, lawmakers, the media and big business. We are moving towards a world where our leaders need to earn respect rather than demand it. 

The annual Edelman Trust Barometer reported in 2018 that in Australia: “It is the second year in a row that trust fell across all four pillars – government, media, NGOs and business – making Australia’s institutions amongst the least trusted in the world.”

As someone who has made a career in leadership development, this leads me to ask the question of what modus operandi should modern public leaders use, both within their organisations and in their interactions with the public?

It would seem that Malcolm Turnbull and David Thodey would agree these are worthwhile questions with the launch of an independent review into the Australian Public Service where they stated: “It is timely to ask whether the APS’s capability, culture and operating model are suited to harness the opportunities of a transformed Australian economy and society, in an increasingly complex global context”.

The words they use in framing this work speak of agility, innovation and collaboration.  There should be more of these qualities in the APS, they argue. Who could disagree? However, the question remains as to how this can be done. Because you can be sure, once the data is in, the review is concluded, and the ink dries on the report, it is the leadership that will have to make this happen.

Leading Beyond Authority

So, what does this have to do with leadership development?  The answer is that we need leaders to loosen their grip on command and control models dependent on positional power, and learn to raise their game in engagement, in co-design with employees and with communities.

Without these qualities, the mandate to lead rests on a very flimsy premise. Leadership programs need to address this before those in leadership positions wake up and find that they have already spent all their authority.

The loss of authority comes at a time when change is accelerating and the demands on the public service are increasing. Thirty years ago, before the internet and data revolution, the public sector landscape was a lot easier to scan, there were fewer competing versions of what was going on and the public was less able to ‘talk back’ to government.

Now, public sector leaders are in an operating environment characterised by unpredictability and volatility, and need to get better at handling these new realities – rather than resisting or ignoring them because they inevitably create discomfort.

The best leadership improvement endeavours will also help participants to break out of the familiar, and break into other worlds that are rich in insight and learning. This often means getting out of the classroom into other sectors, other government systems. The basis of leadership needs to be ‘Cognitive Agility’, which is a leader’s ability to think flexibly, creatively and in an agile way, to anticipate and respond quickly to shifting realities.

Over the last few decades, power, information and resources have moved from being concentrated in the hands of a few, to being dispersed across many. Organisations need to move on from the idea that they are the sole custodians of the ‘right way’ of thinking or doing.

Ingrained systems of deference can stop the public sector from being agile, innovative and ethical. Structures based on hierarchy and a workplace culture based on deference are the enemies of organisational success and need to be dismantled so that in its place we can build modern organisations with a new breed of managers and leaders.

Learning by Immersion

From a pedagogical perspective, I am seeing another change also inspired by the death of deference.  With the increasing pace and complexity of the operating environment it is becoming less tenable to assume that academics and tutors on leadership programs have the answer, and it is just a matter of communicating this to students in the most compelling fashion.  

The truth is that we are all feeling our way on complex issues – everything from obesity to data privacy to family violence to fake news.  In my experience the best way to make progress in these and other areas is firstly to acknowledge that we don’t yet have the answer, and secondly to engage in immersive inquiries where senior participants are asked to add value to live and messy issues through first-hand experience of the problem.

I’ll be working later in the year on one such example with Executive Fellows Program Co-Director Associate Professor Catherine Althaus where we’ll immerse senior public service leaders in policy innovations and challenges surrounding the screen industry of New Zealand to understand how success was achieved, the role that government played, who exactly has benefited from this, and how this can be amplified and applied elsewhere.  We don’t know precisely what we’ll find, but that’s the point.

A lot of good things are already happening in the Australian Public Sector. Agility, innovation and collaboration, as targeted by Turnbull and Thodey, are found in abundance across the APS. These examples need to be tracked down and expanded, and their initiators recognised and rewarded. Others need to be given the chance to innovate, and the freedom to fail.

Importing the Best

Last year I visited LinkedIn in Singapore, which showed me the profound work they are doing to build the most detailed map of global demand for skills, both now and in the future. Their use of hundreds of millions of data points was astounding and this is an area that the public service could learn from. The same applies to Facebook which is world-leading, through data, in understanding the needs and wants of the population. Handling data ethically must remain a priority for the public sector, but if the public service is to meet the needs of their public, they must explore new ways to use data and learn from the private sector.

This is one example of an area where the public sector is falling behind, but there are more others where barriers have been created to adopting beneficial practices which are not natural to the public service eco-system. We are less well versed in the financial disciplines found in the commercial sector. We are often behind the not-for-profit sector in their innovation and ingenuity often driven by funding constraints. While the public sector must maintain the values and purpose that separates it from the private sector, it must do more to actively learn from the private and wider public purpose sector. Progress lies in a both/and solution, where public service values remain firmly in place, while also importing the capabilities found in other sectors. 

Leadership programs should assist them in accessing a global mindset, not from afar, but by making direct contact with other leaders and systems of government, and not as business tourists but as serious learners. Public service leaders never had it so tough, and leadership developers need to be there to help.

This article originally appeared in The Mandarin.