Today is United Nations Public Service Day. A day to celebrate the incredible contribution that public servants make to domestic and international development.
Aimed at supporting the achievement of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Government goals, this year’s theme is accelerating public service innovation.
The public service in Australia has already begun to successfully adapt its business model to be citizen-centric and responsive to the new communication channels available to the Australian public. As citizens, we can lodge our tax returns anywhere, anytime, from the convenience of our preferred device. We use technology to capture our compliance responsibilities, and if we have an issue with a government decision or service, we raise it directly via social media – and often receive a timely response. Government reform is embracing new technologies that continue to support a more connected citizen experience.
Combine this with the non-stop media and news cycle, and it’s clear that the demands of government are at an all-time high.
Accepting the challenge of accelerating public service innovation certainly does mean keeping up with the exponential digital and data change and ensuring that the public sector has the right capabilities to speak more directly to citizens and customers. Relying on ‘hierarchy’ for decision-making is no longer a sustainable option when the world is moving faster. Meeting the expectations of citizen-centricity requires loosening the reins of control. It means empowering staff to be decision makers.
With fast and big change comes risk. Big risk. To reputation, quality, delivery, and to people. The risk for the public service within this context lies in the tendency to push accountability up the chain. But pushing accountability up takes the decision-making away from staff at the forefront of citizen engagement. Certainly, in many cases, this protects more junior staff from having difficult conversations, being scrutinised by our parliamentary democracy, or ending up as the media story.
We cannot and will not ever be able to take away the risk of the wrong thing being said, misinformation being circulated on a public platform, or staff (public and private sector) feeling disparaged by difficult conversations. What we can do is empower our people with knowledge and accountability, and give them permission to be part of the new world. Younger staff can often be in a better position to understand risk and consequences. Most people under 30 do not recall life without selfies, Instagram and immediate access to public figures and decision makers. Young people have also experienced, sometimes tragically, the consequences of their lives being on public display as they reach adulthood. A president directly tweeting to the public is probably life-as-we-know-it for most millennials.
Empowering staff also means exposing them to difficult experiences and asking people at all levels to take ownership of their decisions and actions. This may mean lowering delegations; making senior people more accessible to junior staff, ideas and concepts; and providing all staff with opportunities to think on their feet and to have their work scrutinised. People will gain two very important skills: increased resilience and problem-solving ability. They are also more likely to think about what is reasonable in decision-making – what is now referred to as the pub test – if they have to take personal responsibility and ownership.
The demands for government to do more with less are only increasing. We need to invest in our next generation now by letting them fail, experience difficult conversations, and continue on in our proud Westminster tradition of being able to provide frank and fearless advice to the government of the day. Being able to do this takes resilience that can only be developed through experience. This will underpin a culture of innovation.
You may be thinking this is easy for me to say: the throwaway lines of someone removed from the real challenges faced by the Australian Public Service. Remember, though, KPMG is staffed by professionals with a vested interest in supporting our public sector colleagues to be the backbone of our political economy. We, too, are Australians working towards our nation’s collective success – and we are accepting similar challenges in our own house.
If there’s one thing that we are all going to need in 2030, it will be resilient leaders. Resilience and leadership are not built overnight: people need permission to fail and learn and fail again, and we need to continue to invest in the next generation.
Relinquishing control takes exceptional leadership. And accelerating innovation is an investment in sustainable government and the future we all want.