Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Where have all the senior public servants disappeared to?

I've been attending a number of networking and other business events in the last month across Canberra, and have noticed that amongst all the CEOs, CTOs, Financial Directors and similar, that there's been no senior public servants in attendance.

While there was a good turn-out of public servants at one event I've attended, the Life beyond Lanyards launch last week, these were mid-level or lower.

So I'm beginning to wonder about how much actual cross-fertilization is going on between senior public servants and the private sector, how much senior public servants are getting 'out there' to meet and interact meaningfully with business owners.

Of course this is one person's impression over a short time period at a limited number of events, but when I think back over the last ten years, it's rare for senior public servants to spend much time with their colleagues in the corporate sector.

Definitely there's arranged events, speaking at conferences, attending lunch seminars and the like, but as soon as their part is done, senior public servants tend to race back to the office rather than shoot the breeze with their private sector equivalents, to discuss broader issues and topics.

Of course they have good reason - senior public servants are incredibly busy meeting their commitments to Ministers, managing their organisations and keeping work flowing through approvals and initiating work programs.

The culture of Australia's public service, for the most part, involves dedicated and hard work in service of the government of the day, in order to serve the citizens of the country.

However I think that sometimes working on their business is as important as working in their business. This is something that good corporate executives and small business people alike learn - that networking to form relationships, that consulting and learning from colleagues across other industries, is a key to improving their own organisations and achieving success.

This is a key ingredient in innovation - associating with people from many walks of life, rather than simply with one's one public sector colleagues.

Successive Australian governments have recognised the value of this cross-fertilisation, and the APS has also fostered bringing private sector people into senior government roles as a way to foster a broadening of attitudes, rather than the 'groupthink' that can emerge from any group of people with similar backgrounds, career paths, values and experience.

This has had mixed success in my view, many people with extensive private sector but without public sector experience don't last that long in SES roles, due to the level of difference in approach and views.

The current fledgling program of seconding senior public servants into the private sector is another attempt at achieving the same end - bringing a broader set of viewpoints and experience (as well as larger and more complex networks) back into the public sector, thereby improving the effectiveness of policy design and delivery and fostering innovation.

I hope this works well - but I don't believe either of the above are the full solution to this wicked problem.

What we need is for senior public servants to be mandated and supported to recognise that building deep relationships across and understanding of the sectors they serve is a valid and important part of dedicated public service.

This means delegating more tasks and approval authority downwards to leave senior public servants with time, and the mandate, to spend less time checking grammar and more time associating with groups and individuals outside of government.

Who knows, it could even help foster the external credibility of government.

1 comment:

  1. I too would reinforce this perspective, though note it has been happening for a while. As a former senior public servant who attended conferences, speakers would emerge from the shadows, speak and depart quickly. I note your comments about work load. My view is that this is a management -v- leadership debate. Leaders should be obtaining other views - much more important than 'keeping work flowing'

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