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Strategic foresight and the future of the public service: Imagination and disruption

20 September 2016

News and media


How best to strategically recalibrate the public sector using the forces of disruption and imagination? Our Associate Dean (Academic) A/Prof Catherine Althaus provides some analysis based on two important reports from Canada and Australia.

Thought-provoking discussions are taking place in Canada and Australia about the future of the public service. Having worked and researched in both jurisdictions, I know there is great value in comparative intelligence that probes the policy transfer between these countries.

Canadian researcher and public service practitioner Mark Jarvis recently published Creating a High-Performing Canadian Civil Service Against a Backdrop of Disruptive Change through the Mowat Centre. Across the globe, British-Australian academics Helen Dickinson and Helen Sullivan published Imagining the 21st Century Public Service Workforce (2014) in their time together at the University of Melbourne.

Both pieces highlight the need for concerted research and action. But a brief comparison shows that the foresight thinking across the jurisdictions is calibrated a little differently. Canada is impelled by an urgency that embraces disruption in its reform propositions. Australia is marked by imagination, suggesting thoughtful, creative deliberation in workforce planning. I suggest that this differentiation is caused by political realities the authors face in their respective jurisdictions.

Why do public sector reform ideas matter for social policy? Practitioners in the field should be ready to influence the narrative that informs these foresight propositions. Strategic social policy actors will position social policy needs and challenges against public sector reform agendas. This way, they can leverage interest in changes to public service structures and desired people skills as a way to gain traction for their own social policy agendas.

Changing environment

Both Canadian and Australian research agree that the environment in which public servants work has changed massively and will be characterised by continuing dynamism. Jarvis suggests the precipitating forces as:

Decreased trust in public institutions
Polarization of politics
Changing demographics
Ongoing austerity

Dickinson and Sullivan’s list mirrors many aspects but differs on the changing nature of work itself:

Problem complexity
Financial constraints
New technologies and IT developments
Employment flexibility
Industrial relations models
Less deferential citizens

What this means for public services

Jarvis describes six interrelated characteristics that ought to inform a high performing Canadian civil service against this change backdrop:

Evidence-informed analysis
Public and political commitment

Jarvis highlights these characteristics because of a view that the Canadian civil service has responded only marginally to previous modern reform agendas. Reform has not delivered the transformational shifts and efficiencies that were hoped. While Canada has sometimes benefited from being a late adopter of reforms (such as New Public Management reforms from the 1980s and 1990s), it is generally cautious to its detriment and lacking in attention to implementation and clear strategic objectives for the reform initiatives.

Jarvis is deliberate in his invocation of disruptive change. According to Larry Quick, David Platt and Kristin Van Vloten (authors of Disrupted: Strategy for Exponential Change), the modern idea of disruption has gained traction in the business world by recognizing the influence of technological shifts that create transformational market and value opportunities for some and destroy it for others. Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen (a seminal author of disruptive innovation) and co-authors Michael Raynor and Rory McDonald (2015) explain that Netflix is a disruptor, starting as an inferior product but eventually taking away market share from traditional providers such Blockbuster.

Consultancy firms (including KPMG, which supported Jarvis’ research) have disruptive change and innovation top of mind. This may explain the use of the term in the report title. Jarvis, however, seems to move a gear beyond applying the private sector approach to public sector delivery, towards using a more broad interpretation of disruption as key to updating civil service structures. He argues that the Canadian civil service is capable, and keen to connect with its new modern change context, but lacks the motivator of competitive consequences when reform fails. His solution is to focus on public sector structures to inject much-needed new disruption into old processes and systems. He sees the Trudeau government as signalling commitment to the revitalization of civil service, but he wants commitment to translate fully into transformational action, including – and essentially – at the political level.

Dickinson and Sullivan articulate a different approach. They argue that existing public service roles of expert, regulator, engager and reticulist (or boundary spanner) will make way for more conscious and widespread recourse to the roles of commissioner, curator, foresighter and storyteller. A more incremental shift, they envision, will be the most effective. They take a building blocks approach that upholds the addition of people and relationship skills to existing technical skills that are now taken as given, and suggest three domains of future skills capacity:

Design – including future orientation and analysis/synthesis
Delivery – including project management and planning and commissioning/decommissioning; and
Relationships – including interpersonal skills, communication skills and managing change

Across these domains, the 21st century public service will encompass technical skills, human skills and conceptual skills. The embodiment and deployment of these skills will vary across levels and from public servant to public servant.

To ensure effectiveness of the service overall, we need employee mobility, workforce planning, and revised recruitment and training practices. According to Dickinson and Sullivan, a missing ingredient in the Australian Public Service is a sense of agency for public servants in determining their own future. They call on strategic imagination and small step progress to achieve a strategic vision and action plan for a 21st century public sector.

Comparative Takeaways

What spans both these discussions is the careful balancing of tensions and the need for strategic recalibration of the public sector to meet modern needs.

The important soundbite distinction is between disruption and imagination.

Jarvis is frustrated, and maps an ambitious, practical agenda of civil service reform action focused on structures and systems. The forces of disruption are locked into his interpretation of the context confronting the civil service and the need for transformational change.

Dickinson and Sullivan centre the task of futureproofing the public service on culture and people skills. They embrace a more incremental and collaborative approach, which involves public servants themselves in the reform process rather than imposing new structures top-down.

The tables, in other words, are being turned. Jarvis is calling for Canada to be the reform go-getter. Dickinson and Sullivan suggest Australia adopt a more cautious approach. This speaks to the electoral and political realities shaping the Trudeau and Turnbull governments. As Jarvis notes, political will and public commitment are essential components of public sector reform.

Public and political willingness to accept failure as a trade-off for disruptive innovation and imagination, whether radical or incremental, is a separate matter. It is here that I think more can be done to boost the true value of innovative public service.

High-performing public sectors are critical to prosperity and societal flourishing. Reform protagonists would do well to tap the benefits of both structure and culture in recognising and breaking down existing failure points, and exposing opportunities for the future.

Social policy practitioners can help by adding positive voices to the debates.

This post was first published on the Power to Persuade blog and has also appeared on The Mandarin.