Friday, June 10, 2016

The increasing importance of role models in the public sector

Role models are incredibly important for humans across both their personal and professional lives.

Role models can help show us and make us believe we can exceed our own boundaries. They can open doors and windows to new ideas, fostering innovation and positive change.

The more restricted and limiting the environment, the more important role models become. They show us where the gaps and opportunities exist and help shine a light on dark paths where many would otherwise fear to tread.

If you doubt humans need role models at every stage in their lives, watch this video showing how even a doll can become a powerful role model for a child - and the movement behind it is helping shift views across society.

The importance of role models is understood by governments, who seek to lift up those that support their agendas. Awards like Australian of the year and Young Australian of the year are examples of how exemplary citizens can be held up as national role models, presenting values and attitudes that we can aspire to share.

Similarly the importance and practical use of role models is understood by business, by the arts and by not-for-profits, which all hold up those exceptional individuals who model the behaviour that others seek to exemplify, to encourage productivity, ethical conduct, creativity and selflessness.

The concept of role models is even understood within the public service, where exceptional service and good behaviour can be recognised through awards and speaking opportunities. From the Public Service Medal to the new Public Sector Innovation Awards, role models are recognised to help illuminate the conduct and behaviours that the public sector seeks to encourage.

This is why role models are increasingly important in the public sector. With increasing digital transformation across society, new tools and new problems emerging as sunset industries fade and new ones rise, the public sector's role is changing increasingly quickly.

What does it mean to be a public servant in an era when the customer is kind and every citizen holds a supercomputer in their hand? How does government continue to reinvent itself - its policies, structures, performance criteria and behaviours - to remain relevant and effective in an age when people expect instant customized service?

While I worked in government I was alway conscious of being a role model for digital innovation. My blog made me more visible, but my conduct and work made me an example that others could learn from and follow.

I was also very conscious of the other role models within my sphere who similarly blazed trails, did great work and were held up as exemplars of what public servants could and should do. I continue to admire and be inspired by many of them to this day.

While many of these faces have now changed, in the public service, due to life changes and new opportunities, there's just as many, if not more digital and innovation role models in government today. Whether publicly recognised and held up, like Paul and the team at the Digital Transformation Office, or working within agencies, like the members of the PS Innovation Network, these individuals are modeling the behaviours and conduct the public service needs to adopt to move forward with Australian society.

But what happens if agencies or powerful public sector senior managers see these role models for innovation and change as threats - to their egos, job security or just don't fit their view of how the world they believe they control should operate?

I've seen few acts more cowardly or despicable than cutting down a positive role model for selfish personal reasons, or to preserve and protect a poisonous culture.

Indeed this too becomes a role model, of the worst kind - a negative influence that spreads fear and uncertainty. "If my role model can be cut down, then what could I do" can run the thinking, leading to the growth and spread of a negative 'prisoner' culture where no-one dares to raise their head, challenge poor decisions or demonstrate innovation or leadership.

Yes role models are powerful in the public service - both for the good and the bad.

For the public service to prosper in the digital age, to become agile, adaptable, citizen-centric and innovative, from the heights of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to outlying agencies like CSIRO, from top agency executives to graduates, positive role models must be elevated and negative role models cut without remorse.

To everyone who is a positive role model in the public service (whether you know it or not), everyone who models leadership, innovation, digital expertise and amazing stakeholder and citizen engagement, those who are collaborative, giving and supportive and love helping their colleagues and Australia succeed and grow - I salute you.

Once you grow tired of the good fight and retire the field, do so with honour, knowing that no matter whether you leave by choice or necessity, your impact has been profound, recognised and valued.

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