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Collaboration is key to rebuilding public service capability

16 May 2024

News and media


Image of ANZSOG Dean and CEO Caron Beaton-Wells

By ANZSOG Dean and CEO Caron Beaton-Wells

Governments are increasingly recognising that they need to make long-term investments in public sector capability, but this investment will not be effective if we don’t fundamentally change how governments work with the community.

In rebuilding our sector’s capability, we need to systematise a ‘public service plus’ approach, engaging with and harnessing the perspectives of academia, business and not-for-profits in a way that complements and extends the know-how of the public sector.

As many recognise, our public servants need to collaborate more, think differently about structures, systems and incentives, critically examine culture and accountability frameworks and determine if they are fit for our times.

The reality is that they almost certainly aren’t. This is an uncomfortable truth for the many committed and talented public servants who are doing their best but are also aware that, under the current circumstances, their best will never be enough.

Having commenced recently as ANZSOG dean and CEO, I have a heightened awareness of the value of public sector independence and capability, and the importance of a culture of stewardship.

Governments and politicians come and go but the public sector endures (or should endure) as the permanent and stable repository of knowledge, experience and capacity that is continually adapting to perform its role over the long term.

We face huge challenges at a time when public services have been systematically run down, and in many cases are struggling to deal with day-to-day problems.

Climate change, cost of living, housing availability, shifting and unstable geopolitics, digital advancement, increasing productivity while shifting to a greener economy, First Nations disadvantage and reconciliation, to name the most obvious, present an enormous agenda for governments, and for us as a nation.

The reasons for this loss of capability and capacity have been recounted in several reviews including the Thodey review at Commonwealth level and the Coaldrake review in Queensland.

Capability gaps have been exacerbated by general underinvestment in core systems. In some jurisdictions the sector seems hollowed out, corroded by years of underinvestment. This, in turn, has seen it increasingly undervalued, undermining public trust and confidence — a vicious cycle has landed us where we find ourselves today.

Working in partnership with academia, business and not-for-profits

I strongly support efforts to rebuild the public sector capability and the associated recognition of its unique role in producing public value. But we need to be honest about the flaws in the current approach and what it will take to address them.

In terms of internal collaboration, the sector is still siloed both within and across jurisdictions. Budgets and accountabilities are tied to vertical hierarchies, while problems cut across many areas. This stifles innovative solutions and place-based pilot programs that could give us insights into what works more broadly.

Even more important is external collaboration. It is dangerous to fall into the trap of thinking that all, or even most, of the expertise and experience required to address our challenges can, or should, lie in any one sector, or even in one more than another.

Public service capability can be gained by embracing not just engagement and collaboration, but partnership. Local communities often have the best understanding of why they are struggling and what to do about it. Business has practical and effective ideas on how to unlock the potential of digital technologies to lift productivity, improve people’s lives and safeguard against risks. Academia can and does discover and validate emerging trends and innovative policy solutions.

While there is exchange of people between the public and private sectors, it has not been sufficient to enable genuinely fresh ideas to come in and stick. Recruitment must change both at entry level and later career, to bring in the diversity of skills and people needed in an effective modern public sector. So must the approach taken to professional development so that those who join the public service are incentivised to stay.

There are many smart and talented people in our public services. But if getting smart people in a room together was enough our problems would already be solved. Old models and thinking won’t work in our connected, decentralised digital age.

Real partnerships involve new cultures and accountabilities that encourage sharing information, data and even decision-making, probably in ways that are counter to the instincts of many public servants.

Of course, when governments engage in partnerships with non-government bodies, we need to think carefully about how to strike the optimal balance. How do we inject valuable specialised expertise and additional public service capability while facilitating genuine knowledge transfer and managing risk and accountability within the public sector? How do we invite innovation, while spending public money effectively, addressing market failures, and responding to crises in a human and empathetic way?

The public sector’s response to COVID-19 gave us a sense of what is possible, at least when change is involuntary and collaboration is unavoidable. The performance of the public sector under pressure, and the discovery of its latent potential should make us optimistic that this transformation is possible.

This article was first published on The Mandarin website.