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How ANZSOG has adapted the EMPA to help build senior capability in the public sector

3 June 2021

News and media


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ANZSOG has done a huge amount of work to adapt its programs to the COVID-world, both in content and delivery. ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith writes about the challenges of moving online, the positive changes that have occurred, and why dedicated, well-trained public sector leaders will be more important than ever in the post-COVID world.

Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand have learned many lessons since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but one of the most important was that a professional, evidence-focused and dedicated public service is irreplaceable.

From my perspective as a former public servant, I was very proud of the way that our public servants responded to the pandemic, as they went above and beyond to develop and implement new policy and service delivery approaches in a complex and fast-changing environment, while keeping the trust of the public.

COVID-19 made it clear that contemporary public sector leaders need both depth and breadth, and must be capable of critical thinking, collaboration, communicating with stakeholders and the public, and have an intimate understanding of the political environment in which they operate. These skills need to be tied together with a laser-like focus on why they are in the public service in the first place – to serve the government of the day and deliver public value for the community.

It is gratifying to note that several pieces of research, including this piece by ANZSOG, Western Australian government and Curtin University Professor Shaun Goldfinch, have shown a significant rise in public trust of governments – both elected politicians and public servants – as a result of our response to the pandemic.

However, that trust could easily dissipate over the coming years, and public sector leaders will return to an environment of constrained resources, increasing demands and even greater scrutiny from traditional and online media.

The next great crisis may be another pandemic, an economic crash or something completely unexpected, but public sector leaders will need to increase their capability to manage crises in a complex global environment.

At ANZSOG, we remain committed to offering contemporary education and evidence-based research that builds that capability for the future.

How ANZSOG adapted to the impact of COVID-19

For ANZSOG, the COVID pandemic has been a challenging period, where we have worked both to adapt our programs to the online world and to develop new offerings which provide public sector leaders with the tools and knowledge needed to respond to the COVID crisis.

One of our biggest challenges was shifting our ‘intellectual spine’ the two-year post-graduate Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) degree online.

The EMPA exposes participants to a unique mix of leading academics and practitioners. It is designed to give high-performing potential senior leaders the critical thinking and craft skills they need to take the next crucial step in their careers, which is often to a vital leadership position

Led by its academic director, Dr Chris Walker, the EMPA is always adapting as we identify new public sector trends and issues and respond to feedback from governments, but the changes we made in 2020 were the biggest in our almost 20 years of delivery. The work that Chris and the team did internally, and with our domestic and international faculty, as we moved to an online-only format has ensured that the EMPA continues to be a global leader in post-graduate public administration programs.

ANZSOG engaged experts in education technologies to work with Subject Leaders globally in the conversion of subject material and the development of online teaching methodologies, this was backed by detailed discussions among Subject Leaders to finetune teaching practice during the year. Students were given individual support to ensure they were able to adapt to the technology.

The result was that when students assessed the subjects overall to date each individual subject received an average of 4.4 with a range of 4.04-4.68 on a five-point scale. A major independent review recently commissioned into the EMPA (which assessed the degree against the Higher Education Standards) stated that:

“It is evident from the material considered that the EMPA is fit for purpose, that it has high standing with the relevant stakeholders, that it has an exceptionally well qualified academic staffing profile, and that ANZSOG’s framework for delivery is also fit for purpose.”

Despite the online environment, participants were able to engage with each other in core EMPA subjects, like the Work-Based Project that focuses on building a small team to create work that addresses needs nominated by actual public sector agencies. Like previous cohorts, the EMPA has given them a valuable network to last them the rest of their careers.

We have continued to teach online in 2021 because of the uncertainty of COVID. Whatever the future holds and however much it is impacted by the ongoing pandemic, there will be no return to the days when all courses were entirely face-to-face. We know online teaching works, and we will end up with a blended approach which mixes online and face-to-face teaching, and synchronous and asynchronous learning.

This flexibility suits many learners who find it easier to balance work and family commitments with study, and it allows us to bring together an even broader mix of local and global experts to share their perspectives. For example, I joined former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and other experts, for an online EMPA panel to share thoughts on crisis management and engage with EMPA students late last year (read more on former Prime Minister Rudd’s EMPA appearance here).

Take on the EMPA challenge

The EMPA is not for the faint-hearted, it is a rigorous course designed for capable and ambitious people who already have a high degree of experience. We want participants to be stretched and challenged and to produce work that is of a higher standard than they thought themselves capable of. It takes people with high levels of public sector ‘content knowledge’ and provides an opportunity for them to broaden their knowledge, while preparing them to deep dive into new areas.

We work closely with our partner universities to deliver the degree, and our core courses are led by renowned academics such as Prof Ross Guest (Government in a Market Economy), Prof Janine O’Flynn (Delivering Public Value) Prof Paul ‘t Hart (Leading Public Sector Change), Professor Kimberley Isett (Decision Making Under Uncertainty), Prof Michael Macauley and Dr Jo Cribb (Managing Public Sector Organisations) Prof Arie Freiberg (GBR) Dr Chris Walker (Designing Public Programs and Programs); Prof Suresh Cuganesan (Public Financial Management); Dr Zina O’Leary (Work-Based Project)

Participants often say the EMPA gives them a ‘toolkit’ to solve problems, a set of skills to evaluate information, and new frameworks to think critically and strategically about where their role fits in the bigger picture, as well as a renewed focus on public value.

Based on the feedback ANZSOG is receiving, there is currently an increased demand for capability building and for professional development across the public sector, as agencies think about what skills their staff will need post-COVID. All of ANZSOG’s courses offered online in 2021 are receiving higher-than-usual interest, including the Executive Fellows Program and Towards Strategic Leadership program which will be offered in the second-half of the year.

Applications for the 2022 EMPA are now open and the program remains the best and most comprehensive program available for future public sector leaders in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, and is one of the best Executive programs in public administration globally. The trials and tribulations of COVID have only made it stronger.

Applications for the 2022 Executive Master of Public Administration can be submitted here.

Express your interest for the next Executive Fellows Program in the second half of 2021 here.

Express your interest for the next Towards Strategic Leadership Program in late 2021 here.

Find out more about ANZSOG programs and free webinars at our Education and events page, including Women leading the public sector, Authentic leadership, and an array of programs for Regulators.

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