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Working with uncertainty and discomfort: Paul ‘t Hart on the role of the post-COVID public servant

14 June 2023

News and media


Public servants need to learn to deal with increased uncertainty, outdated structures of spending and accountability, and the greater expectations placed on governments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Professor Paul ‘t Hart. 

He warns that COVID-19 won’t lead to long-term positive reforms in the way public services work, and that Australian governments should not be complacent about the level of dissatisfaction in their societies. 

Professor ‘t Hart, a Professor of Public Administration at Utrecht University and Associate Dean of the Netherlands School of Public Administration in The Hague, returned to Australia earlier this year for face-to-face teaching of ANZSOG’s Towards Strategic Leadership program, and is also the subject leader for Leading Public Sector Change in the Executive Master of Public Administration. 

As well as his work with ANZSOG, he has wide experience of working with governments in Europe consulting on political and public sector leadership, policy evaluation, crisis management and public accountability. 

Professor ‘t Hart said that the key issues ANZSOG students were bringing to programs included their frustration at working in highly siloed systems and multi-storey hierarchies, as well as a degree of concern about how the political system is operating and its impact on public servants. 

“All this was present prior to COVID-19, but it has worsened due to the confluence of COVID-19 and the increasing visibility of climate change, and expansion of the disruptive nature of contemporary technology such as AI.” 

“They realise that concepts of agility and resilience, that five or ten years ago felt to them like management fads, are relevant because we have got to be a shock-absorbing system. That requires something from us as individuals, as well as something at the level of our culture, our teams and our HR. 

“You can’t risk-manage your way out of the reality of a world that is going to throw up more shock, jolts and punctuations of day-to-day equilibriums.” 

Break down the siloes and stop the MOGs

He said that while public services needed to change, there were limits to what individual public servants could do because much of the work needed to be done at the system level. 

“For example, we need to ask: how does money flow? how is accountability organised? Because as long as governments are siloed, and as long as it’s about money, accountability and organisational capacity being attached to the minister and their portfolio – rather than being attached to the task or the challenge – public servants are going to face an uphill struggle trying to compensate for institutional incentive structures that are at odds with what the times require.” 

He said that senior public servants needed to put up more resistance against the routinisation of Machinery of Government changes (MOGs) by elected governments, which wasted time and resources. 

“It is just silliness, and I used that word deliberately, to constantly rearrange the deckchairs to meet the needs of political portfolio allocations – and the naïve belief on the part of politicians that if they change organisational structures and labels, then somehow the problems of collaboration that sit underneath that are going to be solved. 

“I’d love public servants to take up what is sometimes called their stewardship role in a pro-active and strategic manner and try talk politicians and their advisers out of this sort of hyper-addiction to MOGs. 

“They are very disruptive and inefficient, destroy corporate memory, create cynicism and do not enhance effectiveness. It’s a phenomenon that is routinised, but its dysfunctionality is becoming more and more felt.” 

Adapting to an increased role for government

Professor ‘t Hart’s work has challenged the assumption that crises bring renewal or long-term change and improvement to public services. He said that while the immediate response to COVID-19 had brought out the best in public services as they acted with greater responsiveness and flexibly, things were returning to the pre-COVID normal. 

“I have been studying crises for 40 years and the consistent pattern has been that once we got through a crisis we ask, ‘why can’t we work the way we worked in this emergency period on other issues?’.  

“We have seen the same dynamic in COVID-19. It brought out best in public services through de-siloing, allowing for improvisation and giving people the ability to do stuff and ask permission later. 

“But, somehow, in the wake of a crisis, those perceptions of urgency and interdependency recede and we unlearn, or we start responding to the fact that the incentives, the funding and accountability, have snapped back to where they were.”  

He said that COVID-19 had intensified the move towards an increased role for the state in solving social and environmental issues, a trend which created greater expectations and potential disaffection with governments. 

“The gravitational pull was already back towards the state, and COVID-19 has exacerbated that. There is a sense that the pendulum on neo-liberalism is swinging back and the Reaganesque idea that ‘government is not the solution, government is the problem’, has run its natural course.  

“A lot of people are considering a more prominent role for government which takes us to questions of resources but also capabilities. Does this perceived return of the state, does that also translate into a willingness to pay taxes, for example?” 

He said the immediate future would be a difficult period for public services, dealing with increasing demands and expectations in a time of increased political fragmentation. 

“We might be in for a period of profound ambiguity – where we realise the market is not going to produce certain basic welfare state things for us that we now badly need, but there is still a big undercurrent of scepticism about whether the state can deliver the things we now expect of it. 

“That’s fairly difficult terrain for public servants to mobilise. It’s just not on the cards that we’re going back to a Menzies era with its stable economic growth, solid tax base and a public that basically accepts state paternalism. The preconditions for that are not there in the 2020s.” 

“At the same time everybody realises that if we still want to have inhabitable cities, if we still want to have agriculture in an era of climate change, we will need the state to be a smart regulator and to incentivise the transformation in energy and on other areas. People realise this but they don’t realise that there is a price tag to it.”  

What do public servants need in this environment?

In this environment public sector leaders will increasingly need to be comfortable with change and to have their own ethical compass separate to that of political leaders, Professor ‘t Hart said. 

“In these turbulent times, a sense of your purpose and a sense of your system’s purpose is very important,” he said. 

“I would like to take the narrow notion of ‘service’ as serving the government of the day and move it towards a broader notion of public service. One that asks: who do we service? and on behalf of what values do we provide services?” 

He said public servants needed to take a broader view of their work and to become comfortable with discomfort and imperfection. 

“Rather than staying in their own rabbit-hole they need to develop an outside-in perspective on what their role is. That makes them better able to monitor demographics, social moods, technical developments etcetera, and spend more time anticipating and thinking through what those bigger contextual changes mean for the public sector as a whole, as well as their role in it.”  

“The world is an imperfect place and it is getting more imperfect by the day. There is this fantasy that we’ve got all this data, all this modern technology so we can improve the world. But technology brings problems as well as solutions, and politics remains what it has always been: ‘slow boring through hard boards’” 

He said that Australian governments and public servants needed to be careful of complacency – and that Australia’s compulsory voting and ‘winner takes all’ electoral systems could be hiding the real degree of disaffection with government. 

“The sense of urgency about the vitality and stability of our democracies, is much greater in European countries and among European public servants.” 

“In countries like my own we get situations where 150 seats are shared between 22 parties, with no sense of any major parties or of parties who are at the centre of things.” 

“There is a gravitational pull away from the centre and away from traditional social fault lines. Nowhere can escape from that – but institutions can buffer it.” 

“Even though some of the numbers of trust in systems and institutional trust is pretty alarming, Australia has not yet been challenged fundamentally by a populist revolt.” 

“The good news is that nobody panics here, but the bad news is that people may be a bit too complacent about what is happening in the underbellies of their societies.”