Thursday, October 06, 2016

Free range 'strike teams' of specialists are a long overdue innovation for Australia's public service

I'm very pleased to see that the Australian Public Service Commission is finally considering the introduction of 'free range' teams of public servants, unattached to specific agencies, who can provide specialist skills as and where needed.

I proposed this type of team while I was working within government almost ten years ago now, as I could see that there were a range of skills that agencies did not require continuously, but were needed across the public service all the time.

This included experienced community engagement professionals, a range of digital talents as well as design and implementation specialists.

Until now the hierarchies of the public sector have been designed against such free-roaming talent, able to converge as 'strike teams' to assist agencies when they need it, and move on to other assignments when the need wanes.

There's still the strong (almost feudal) hierarchies in place, but it seems that the innovation agenda, combined with diminishing resources and an increasing need for specialists, are helping to wear away the resistance to the recognition that it's all one federal public service.

I always found it peculiar that senior public servants were adamant that they served the government of the day, but chose to do so by building rigid organisations that made it harder for skills to move around, to be 'lent' or 'shared', but instead hoarded people as jealously as they hoarded data.

This always seemed a sub-optimal strategy for government, but one with very deep roots.

There's still a number of challenges ahead for the APSC in realising this idea. It still has to navigate the hierarchies of power - some agencies might wish to hold onto talent for too long, with brush fires between agencies that need similar resources at similar times. There's also likely to be all kinds of power struggled between agency 'owned' resources and the floating specialists, who may be seen as fly-by-nights, dropping in to offer their wisdom, then leaving the mess behind for agency staff to clean up.

The APSC must find public servants with the right psychology and mindset to move around, without having a 'fixed abode' or a hierarchy to protect their position and career progression.

Many people who work in this way already are contractors or consultants and may see little benefit in giving up salary for supposed job security, while new entrants from the private sector, who might be more used to mobility, may not find public service cultures or approaches congenial to their working styles.

However I'm glad the APSC is making the attempt, and hope it will be widely supported, particularly by smaller agencies with less capacity to hire or contract the specialist skills they need.

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