Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The journey to social public service

We often talk about the professional values of the public service - honesty, integrity, respect, courtesy, care and responsibility.

These professional values comprise a major part of the Australian Public Service's (APS) Code of Conduct, and similarly are prominent in many public service codes and charters in Australia and around the world.

They aim to define and shape the professional behaviour of public servants in the interest of better governance.

However in many of these codes and charters, again including the APS Code, there's one extremely critical behaviour that isn't named. Communication.

Perhaps this is because communication is assumed to be at the core of other professional values, perhaps it is believed that communication is implicit in any act of public service.

Whatever the case however, communication - social interaction between individuals and groups - is necessary in virtually all public service activities. Improve communication and other improvements follow - understanding, information exchange, engagement, efficiency, physical outcomes.

If we consider improving communication as one of the key ways to improve the effectiveness of any public service, then it is worth considering the impact of poor communication.

What does this look like? Individuals that choose to not share their experience and learnings. Siloed teams that hoard information to preserve their jobs. Hierarchical structures with communication bottlenecks. Agencies that take the view that they own data collected with public fund and that cannot be shared with other government agencies, let alone the public.

In all of these cases the solution isn't always to hold an enquiry, change processes, break structures apart (or put them together) or even change leaders.
However the solution must also involve increasing communication - sharing data, information, experience and best practice so that individuals and teams alike can grow, adapt and improve their effectiveness.

In the corporate sector this is often termed a 'social business', one that recognises that its survival and success is based on making every staff member as effective as they can be, tearing down any barriers that reduce their individual or collective prowess.

In the public sector I call this a 'social public service', one where there are open lines of communication across professions, programs and policy areas. Where both individual and team learnings are shared - not just within a team, but across the entire public service. Where individuals are valued not by the knowledge they horde, but the knowledge they share and their personal contribution to the net wisdom of their team, branch, agency, entire service and across multiple services at various levels of government and in different jurisdictions.

I've glimpsed aspects of the social public service across the Government 2.0 community, where many people are willing to share their experiences with others in other agencies and at different levels of government. I have also glimpsed it in certain professional groups in government, where Fraud officers and Freedom of Information units share experiences across agencies in order to build their own capabilities, at conferences and at events.

However once people return to their own agencies the budding social public service seems to fade almost into non-existence. Occasionally it is useful to know who to call in another agency for information or support, however the widespread and collaborative creation of knowledge and best practice still remains in its infancy.

Over the next ten years, as the Government's Gov 2.0, APS reform and innovation agendas unfold, and as we see a new generation of public servants, digital natives used to social media interactions, take on increasing responsibility, I believe we'll also see an increasing trend towards a social public service.

In fact I believe there's few ways that any of the 'old guard', who built their careers on silos and hoarded knowledge, can slow or stop this trend. As society and policy grows in complexity, individuals will increasingly specialise in smaller areas and, rather than forming new and smaller silos, will need to interact with each other to form a holistic policy and societal view.

This mirrors the progression of the sciences, which started as an undifferentiated topic - 'scientists' who studied the entire world around them - and fragmented into specialised disciplines. These disciplines, similar to the public servants of today, formed silos defined by their area of speciality and then, over the last twenty years, have begun re-converging, with many major discoveries coming from the combination of specialists from different fields.

Equally we're seeing more and more public policy issues that cross 'traditional' portfolios. There's more and more collaboration between government levels and increasing requirements for people to cross-skill.

This progression will drive the impetus towards a social public service, supported and facilitated by an array of communications tools, amongst them - and possibly the most important - social media, used to collaborate, communicate and empower.

So what will this future social public service look like?

Possibly flatter and more fluid, with cross-functional groups formed as needed to develop a given policy, manage a project or program or deliver an outcome, less loyal to departments, divisions and branches and more loyal to the public service as a whole, more adaptable to change, less separated by portfolio or layer, more focused on customer service and definitely more communicative and social.


  1. Is "social public service" equivalent to "social business"? ;-)

  2. Yep, in a different sphere.

    However call it social business in the public sector and some will tell you that government is different and special, so they need their own label.

  3. Martin Stewart-WeeksApril 18, 2011 at 7:44 PM

    A couple of other thoughts (great post btw).
    Part of the move towards a social public sector is also a move towards a social "public purpose" sector, that is, a 'sector' whose skills, assets and expertise will lie inside and outside the formal structures of the public sector itself. In a way, that's been happening for some time. But increasingly in the future, the capacity for policy coherence, relevance, speed and adaptability will be the capacity for the social public sector to include many people and organisations who are in loosely connected networks outside the government and the public sector more narrowly defined. That starts to get really interesting as we learn the new rhythms of "social" on a larger scale.

    And the second issue flows directly from that, and has to do with the misalignment between ideas of the social public sector and the persistent, and legitimate, need to ensure appropriate levels of accountability across this more diffuse, more loosely defined value system.

    Who gets to carry the costs of outcomes that are sub-standard, wrong or even criminal? In a social system, it's often harder to work out where the buck either does or should stop.

    One of the gaps in the Govt2 conversation, I think, is some sustained and credible work on these questions. Without some good answers, or at least some promising lines of inquiry, the 'old guard' will find it easier to dismiss the shifts that Craig is sketching as still something of a sideshow, peripheral to the 'real' business of the public sector.

  4. Well, Very good post on the journey to social public service.. After all the They aim to define and shape the professional behaviour of public servants in the interest of better governance. Thanks for sharing the useful information.