Skip to content

Renewed importance of public sector and lessons learned from COVID-19: Public service commissioners

14 December 2020

News and media


business people walking

COVID-19 has disrupted governments and led to new expectations and challenges for the public sector. Meeting these will require new skills and ideas, and greater creativity and flexibility across public services.

ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders’ series, which began in November and will run for six months, will examine every facet of these challenges, with a focus on leadership, strategy, structures and priorities for the public sector. This online series of masterclasses and keynote panel discussions is designed for public sector leaders who want to hear from expert academics and practitioners and explore new approaches to the public sector.

There will be no ‘snap back’ to normal for the public sector, and public sector leaders have begun thinking about what skills are required, how governments should operate, and whether our existing assumptions about public service values and operating procedures remain fit for purpose in a post-COVID world.

The opening keynote, hosted by Professor Glyn Davis, brought together three public service commissioners – Peter Hughes CNZM, New Zealand State Services Commissioner; Kathrina Lo, NSW Public Service Commissioner; and Peter Woolcott AO, Australian Public Service Commissioner, to discuss these issues – and take questions from the audience.

Watch – Governing in a COVID-19 world: The Public Service Commissioners’ perspective

Professor Davis introduced the session, saying that the COVID-19 pandemic, and Australia’s relative success in handling it, had led to a renewed importance of the public sector, a growing scepticism of reliance on contractors, and the re-election of governments who had handled the pandemic well. He asked the panel what lessons had been learnt and what would be the future paths for governments.

Mr Hughes said that in New Zealand, senior leaders in government had “got out of the way and let people get at the challenge”.

“The context took care of that for us – this was an opportunity for these salt-of-the-earth public servants to focus on what they do best, serving the needs of New Zealanders,” he said,

“Overwhelmingly the result has reinforced my belief that, in the future, we will need to get as good at working across hierarchies as up and down them. There will be no future for a public service that sees us working through vertical siloes. There is a need to be flexible and ‘team up’ across the system around common goals.”

Ms Lo said that in NSW the response to the pandemic has accelerated several existing trends, including an increase in flexibility and mobility, with public servants redeployed to working on contact tracing or other parts of the COVID-19 effort, and adapting to working remotely.

“All this gives us a pointer to future ways of working – people want a hybrid way of working. We’ve also seen the rise of digital service delivery in health, through the rise of telehealth and in justice through the rise of virtual courts,” she said.

“Overall, there has been rapid and effective collaboration across the sector, and between government and business as well.”

Mr Woolcott said that public expectations of government had never been higher, but that “not all the levers have been at our disposal”.

“We still have a long way to go in terms of doing whole-of-government well at a federal level, not even thinking about how we work with the states,” he said.

“Joining up in a coordinated way has been effective – look at the way institutions have stood up in Australia and New Zealand – and has been a key driver in maintaining our health and prosperity.

“National Cabinet has served Australia as a fast-moving body built around leaders to make quick decisions, with a shared purpose and the use of experts. COAG served a purpose but won’t be greatly mourned, the question is: how do we go forward in this joined up way?”

Shift to local leadership, teamwork, and focus on delivery

Mr Hughes said that his experience of New Zealand’s response to the pandemic had convinced him of the need to devolve power to the local level as much as possible.

“On a recent visit to Gisborne, I met with a group of agency heads, NGOs and local Māori leaders, who had organised themselves into a team and come with a plan for the region. It occurred to me that the best thing we could do was to fund the plan and get out of it! That might not be possible, but we need to move away from running government departments into places like Gisborne over the top, and further down the continuum to local control.”

Mr Woolcott said that there was “nothing like a crisis to underscore leadership” and that one quality that had come to the fore were leaders who were naturally collaborative, with a focus on both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of delivery.

“We need to develop strong performers, high-performing teams and resilient organisations. Resilience is particularly critical because people are tired after back-to-back crises.”

Mr Hughes said that the public sector mindset needed to change to give greater prominence to service delivery.

“We need to make sure service delivery is not at the bottom of the hierarchy, it needs to be equal with strategy and policy, and we need to run our processes in our less linear way, so it is there from the beginning. In the private sector you’d never design a product without sales staff involved,” he said.

Ms Lo said that NSW had had a focus on customer service for a while, and a mission to make the NSW-government the world’s most customer-centric, but this had sharpened during the pandemic.

She said the public services post-COVID would require more adaptive leadership, and leaders who know themselves, understand the times, and are willing to commit to ongoing learning.

She said that public services needed to handle staff better and optimise mobility of talented people.

“We need to get better at talent identification and talent management, we also need to use talent pools where people have gone through a rigorous process, and can be pulled out of that pool, and we can move people around a lot better.”

How to reshape public services

Mr Woolcott said that COVID-19 had accelerated many of the reforms already underway and that governments needed to lock in what they wanted to keep and address those things that didn’t quite work quite so well.

“We came together very well as one APS, I was impressed around evidence-based decision making and dealing with the changed expectations of government,” he said.

“What we will face in the next 12-24 months will be a focus on implementation – we’ll be looking as much for ‘doers’ as ‘thinkers’. The Prime Minister is very focused on delivery, he’s not interested in silos or excuses, all the pressure is to actually do things, and COVID has accelerated this.”

He said that the National Cabinet process was potentially more effective than COAG and could lead to progress in state/commonwealth relations.

“The key is that you don’t have too many things on the agenda, and that it is driven from the top. When you have it driven from the top things tend to happen, because it has flexibility in the system. But there are also opportunities to need to work quietly under the political radar and think about how we as commissioners take the agenda forward.”

Ms Lo said that public services needed to keep their focus on reform and customer service.

“The question is: how do we avoid slipping back? We need to be very definite about what actions need to be taken to embed these things, such as looking at ways of working in the public service, or moving to digital. We need to ask if our industrial settings support what we want to do,” she said.

Mr Hughes said that leading and managing change was the issue, and that organisations needed to do it in ways that are less damaging and abrupt to people, because public sector organisations were knowledge organisations whose value lay in their people.

He concluded by saying governments needed to be looser with programs and tighter with priorities.

“What if we organised the public sector around the differences we are trying to make, not around the products and services we offer? That’s something we are trying to experiment with – what if we organised around priorities, not the status quo?”

ANZSOG’s Future Public Sector Leaders’ series

Registrations for masterclasses and the two remaining keynotes in the ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders’ series are still open. The new online series is designed to inspire and educate public sector leaders at a time when it is more vital than ever for you to invest in your leadership and that of your teams to ensure you are ready to respond to the complexities of today with an eye on the challenges of tomorrow.

You can register for masterclasses anytime throughout the series as registrations for each masterclass and keynote are open up to 24 hours before the date of delivery, however, we encourage you to secure your place now to take advantage of the discounts that come with the leadership packages.

January and February deliveries include:

Leading under pressure: the COVID-19 story – 19 January 2021 – Led by: Professor Paul ‘t Hart (Professor of Public Administration, Utrecht University and Associate Dean, Netherlands School of Public Administration in The Hague)
Forming public policy in a complex, crisis-driven authorising environment – 27 January 2021 – Led by: David Bartlett (Former Premier of Tasmania)
Adaptive leadership: building an adaptive mindset in the face of uncertainty – 2 February 2021 – Led by: Robin Ryde (Co-Director ANZSOG’s Executive Fellows Program, leadership and organisational development expert)
Leading with integrity: why your authenticity matters – 16 February 2021 or 23 February 2021 – Led by: Professor Dana Born (Public Policy lecturer, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School)
Political astuteness in disruptive times – 16 February 2021 or 23 February 2021 – Led by: Professor Yehudi Blacher (Professorial Fellow, The University of Melbourne, former Secretary in the Victorian Public Service) and featuring panel discussions with Professor Margaret Gardner (President and Vice-Chancellor of Monash University), Jim Betts (Secretary of NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment) and Peter Harris AO (CEO of National COVID-19 Commission) and Anna Bligh (CEO, Australian Banking Association – 16 February session only).
Designing and delivering: the keys to reimagining how the public service works – 2 March 2021 – Led by: Beth Noveck (Director, The Governance Lab)/ Professor Rod Glover (Monash Sustainable Development Institute)
Applying systems thinking to public problems – 9 March 2021 – Led by: Dr Nick Fleming (Director, Innergise)
Bringing co-design to life: empowering citizens through policy design – 16 March 2021 – Led by: Dr Jo Cribb (former Chief Executive, NZ Ministry for Women and former Deputy Children’s Commissioner and leader of the Commissioner’s Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty)
Design by numbers: The art and science of data-driven policy design – 23 March 2021 or 30 March 2021 – Led by: Dr Zina O’Leary (Adjunct senior lecturer at UNSW and ANZSOG Senior Fellow)
Cutting through the noise: making evidence count in policy making – 23 March 2021 or 30 March 2021 – Led by: Maria Katsonis (Public Policy Fellow, The University of Melbourne, former senior public servant, Victorian Public Service), Dr Subho Banerjee (Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Research and Advisory, ANZSOG and former Deputy Secretary, Australian Public Service).
Capstone: Embracing the future of the public service: The Public Service Commissioners’ perspective – 31 March 2021 – Led by: Professor Glyn Davis AC (CEO of Ramsay Foundation, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Crawford School of Public Policy, Chair ANZSOG Research Committee and former Vice-Chancellor of Griffith University and University of Melbourne). Guest speakers TBC

Visit the ANZSOG website or contact e.education@anzsog.edu.au to secure your place now.