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Public leadership in a complex and changing world: ANZSOG launches an “essentials” program for the digital age

12 June 2024

News and media


The rapid changes of the digital age, including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and big data, are not just a set of tools, or something that public sector leaders can leave to their technology departments – they represent a fundamental change in how the public sector can operate. 

ANZSOG’s new Public Leadership in the Digital Age (PLDA) program will give public leaders a grounding in this new environment and a better understanding of how new technology can deliver public value. 

The program is being directed by ANZSOG Practice Fellow Martin Stewart-Weeks who says that public sector leaders often find themselves navigating this new world without the context, frameworks and tools they need.  

“We set out to develop an “essentials” program for current and aspiring senior public leaders, modelled a little on the AICD directors’ course, that helps people get their bearings about the extraordinary opportunities as well as the very real challenges leading in and for the digital age,” he said. 

“There are some fundamental values and practices of good public leadership and effective public administration that won’t change, but so much else about good public leadership needs to be thought of, and practiced, quite differently.” 

Work on the PLDA program began last year with a small, but now rapidly growing, group of experts inside and outside government. It included a prototype in December with about 50 senior public servants from across Australia and of one element of the program which explored the impact of AI. Consultations are continuing with ANZSOG’s member governments about what they need from the program. 

“We are all feeling our way in this new era, so it makes sense to work closely with governments to make sure the content is timely and relevant,” Mr Stewart-Weeks said. 

“There is growing frustration amongst senior, emerging, and aspiring public leaders that they don’t have access to the right mix of tools, knowledge, expertise and mindset to lead effectively in the digital age.” 

“To be honest, they are often feeling a bit overwhelmed by the pace of technological change and its impact on their work.” 

“The point about the digital transformation of government, is that the digital transformation itself isn’t the point. It is the transformation of government and the work and practice of the public sector. It’s about public value and public purpose. It’s about how leaders wrangle the new tools and capabilities of the digital age ‘for good and for all’” 

Harnessing the potential of technology

Despite media focus on the dangers of technology, several recent reports have outlined how the digital age has huge potential for making government more responsive and more effective at delivering services, if technology is used well. 

The Deloitte Government Trends 2024 Report for Australia talks about a renaissance in government, driven in part by AI, that can potentially offer  a tenfold improvement in operations and service delivery (known as 10x government).  

“The ongoing digital revolution and advances in AI have already set the stage for significant shifts, but true transformation will demand the synergy of technological advances, business innovation, human-centered design, and cross-sector collaboration,” the report says.  

The Australian Government’s long-term insights briefing on Artificial Intelligence in Government , published in October 2023 offers insights into how the Australian Public Service (APS) can ensure AI contributes to high-quality and trustworthy public services in the future and found that:  

  • AI must be designed and implemented with integrity  
  • Using AI shouldn’t come at the expense of empathy  
  • AI should improve the performance of public services  
  • Supporting people to use AI-enabled services in the long-term is required in order to achieve successful service delivery.  

Understanding new ways of working

PLDA will use a range of experts from Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, globally and from within the public sector to share their expertise and experience of new public leadership thinking and practice. The program will help participants understand new ways of working and leading based on a robust and practical toolkit of digital methods and mindsetswith a focus on: 

  • Modern digital tools and platformsthe safe, ethical and effective use of data 
  • Responding to cybersecurity risks 
  • Understanding the role of new digital identity frameworks and tools 
  • The uses and misuses of AI 
  • Understanding the role of ethics, information access and privacy. 

 PLDA will integrate a focus on First Nations frameworks and ways of thinking, the principles and practice of adaptive leadershipand the concepts of public value.   

 As well, the program will engage frameworks and ways of working that are already essential elements for effective public leadership: 

  • Decision making in conditions of constant change and mounting complexity based on the “risk, reward and resilience” framework developed in globally recognised methods by ANU’s Anthea Roberts 
  • Understanding policy as an end-to-end system relying on a robust infrastructure of tools and methods to more effectively links decisions, implementation, and impact  
  • The use of strategic foresight and futures analysis as a critical part of navigating uncertainty and complexity.  

In many ways PLDA is a leadership literacy program designed to help public leaders to “read” the opportunities and risks of the digital age, so they have a chance of thriving and being effective in terms of the mission they are trying to deliver and their own career,” Mr Stewart-Weeks said. 

“It assembles some building blocks – ideas, research and expertise inside and outside government – and invites participants to thread that story for themselves.   

“These are massive and deep changes to the way the public sector works. On its own, PLDA is not going to be the simple or singular source of all the skills and capabilities public leaders need, but it will offer a way to work out what those skills and capabilities are, how they fit together, why they are valuable and necessary.” 

The inaugural Public Leadership in the Digital Age will take place in October. The program will involve a mix of in-person, online and self-directed learning, over the course of 3-4 weeks, with two in-person modules in Canberra on 10-11 October and 31 October – 1 November: This program is aimed at Deputy Secretary, First Assistant Secretary and Executive Director levels, or their equivalents, in the Australian and State/Territory public services and in the public service in Aotearoa New Zealand. Places in the cohort will be limited to ensure a high-quality, interactive experience. More information including how to register is available here.