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How ANZSOG helps EMPA students deal with uncertainty

11 June 2024

News and media


The public sector environment is becoming ever more complex and uncertain, and one of the goals of ANZSOG’s Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) is to give students the tools and confidence to become ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable’.

University of Delaware Professor Kimberley Isett, subject lead for the EMPA’s Decision Making Under Uncertainty, says that EMPA students benefit from a structured study of how to manage the uncertainties they face in their daily work.

“They have a depth of practical knowledge, but they don’t necessarily have the right words for that knowledge. It’s really fun to help them draw out those mental models and put some structure around them,” she said.

“The public sector world is becoming more complex and that may create different kinds of uncertainties that we don’t quite have the tools to cope with. I think it’s an increase in complexity rather than an increase in uncertainty.

“The problems that we know how to address are straightforward. We have solutions or we have pathways to create solutions. The things that we are now grappling with in the public sector are those areas where there’s no clean boundary.

“When we look at these complex questions, it’s probably a combination of agencies that have to address this. Well, how do we do that? What are the rules of engagement? And what does the stewardship look like? Is the service at the centre or is the individual at the centre?”

“We never have all the information we want – that’s what uncertainty is. So, in Decision Making Under Uncertainty we really focus on asking ‘how can you make decisions in the best way possible when you don’t have all the information you want’?”

“Uncertainties fall into three buckets: state, effect, and response. The most important tool I give students is to just to be able to categorise what they don’t know.”

She said that one of the many tools she outlined to students was logic models.

“It’s really interesting to me that, with the exception of people who work in the health space, often it is the first time they’ve seen a logic model and it’s the first time that they’ve ever been asked to say: ‘this specifically is what an input is and this is how it contributes to these activities, and this is how it contributes to these outcomes’.”

She said that students needed to cultivate a range of personal qualities to thrive in uncertain times.

“The first is humility – being able to say, ‘I don’t know’. Being curious is also important, asking why does it work that way? What don’t I understand? But you also need to have the kind of intelligence to know when it’s time to stop the deliberations and make a decision, and when it’s time to take a step back and say, we need more time to gather information.”

“You’ve got to actually find that sweet spot of operating without all the information you’d want. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is always a good way to start.”

She said that her recent cohorts of EMPA students had still been working through problems that flowed from the COVID pandemic.

“Probably about 70% of the real-world scenarios that students bring to the discussions are still COVID related. That fallout from COVID is still working their way through the public sector,” she said.

“In addition, the way the public sector operates has changed. It is much more remote now. We’re much more comfortable with technology interfaces rather than individual interfaces. The impacts on, you know, return to work and collegiality and how workflows happen among colleagues in an office.”

Professor Isett said she enjoyed teaching the highly motivated EMPA cohort, with its mix of mid-career public servants from across Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand jurisdictions.

“You can study this stuff, but it really comes to life in a meaningful way with these public servants. They’re mid-career or advanced career, they all have experience, and it’s really fun to interact and really push against the theories and the practice of what we do,” she said.

“One thing that drives me crazy about a lot of curricula in the United States is that it’s overly theoretical and less practical – and this is a practical field.”

“I love the Australian and New Zealand public service culture of frank and fearless conversations. I feel like the public servants that I engage with here are much more willing to have the hard conversations.”

She said that the course was a chance for students to think more deeply about how they worked and how they approached uncertainty.

“I give them a space to think about how they engage with their own practices, which is something they don’t get in their day-to-day work. Every year, overwhelmingly, students feel that they’ve come away from the course engaging with what they do in a fundamentally different way.”