In defence of the 21st century public servant

Last week I spoke at a forum on the 21st century public servant together with Dr Helen Dickinson from the Melbourne School of Government and Sir Gus O’Donnell, former Secretary of the UK Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service. The occasion was the launch of the School of Government report on Imagining the 21st Century Public Service Workforce. You can download the report here.

I began with three disclaimers which warrant repeating. The first is that I spoke in a personal capacity and my views were my own as they say in the twitterverse. The same applies to this blog post. The second is that my perspective is one of a policy wonk as I have spent most of my public service career in and around central agencies. The final disclaimer is that my comments are directed more broadly to the current discourse on the future of the public service rather than the School of Government report.

As Gus pointed out, the public service is not the only institution subject to the disruptive impact of the forces of change. The same can be said of universities and the media. Similarly, the public service is not the only profession that has to adapt to a changing landscape. Just think of medicine, engineering, architecture, and law. Yet how often do we hear about the 21C doctor, architect, engineer or lawyer?

What is it about the public service discourse that places us in the archaic days of cardigan wearing, typewriter tapping, pen pushing public servants? Even more so, what is it about our profession that attracts commentary and opinions about how our profession needs to change from people outside of the profession?

As a policy wonk, I read extensively about public administration and I’ve also attended a number of conferences during the year. These are some of the comments I’ve heard or read about how the public service needs to change:

  • More open, networked and horizontal organisations adept at collaboration inside and outside government are required.
  • There is an imperative for new ways of delivering services that will require a public service that has a culture of innovation and high performance.
  • The public service of the future will be engaged and focussed on delivering for citizens.
  • You must focus on your core mission and understand your customers.
  • The public sector must now undertake a transformation that would require public servants to make a step change – listen to your customers, break down the silos and continuously improve through customer feedback.

I wonder whether the people responsible these comments actually think my colleagues and I come to work:

  • not wanting to deliver and make an impact
  • committed to building silos
  • dedicated to underwhelming performance
  • focussed on non-core business.

The fact is I do work in a modern public service and I’ve seen much change in how we work over my 16 year career although admittedly we could do better on the digital front. The other paradox I find curious is that as a profession we hold the levers for change if we do agree with the commentators that we need to become more collaborative, open, networked, citizen-centric, customer focussed, innovative and high performing. The one exception is industrial relations where we don’t hold all the levers.

There was unanimous consensus among the panelists that instead of being seen as a static public service that has change foisted upon it, we need to be equipped to shape the future. Instead of the future public service we should be thinking about future proofing the public service.

The School of Government report conceives of a ‘foresighter’ role underpinned by strategic thinking and horizon scanning to anticipate and prepare for future shifts in the operating environment. The Centre for Strategic Futures is the Singapore Prime Minister’s Office best exemplifies this approach. The Centre drives the development of public service capabilities in preparing for the future and in addressing emerging strategic challenges and opportunities.

Perhaps it is a case of back to the future if we revisit the 1974 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration. HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs chaired the Royal Commission and was one of Australia’s most influential civil servants, serving and advising seven prime ministers over a thirty-year period.

In an address, Coombs described effective government as requiring a partnership between the political arm of government and the bureaucracy. In this partnership, Coombs saw the role of public administrators as that of an ‘enabler—of making it possible for the dreams of others to be achieved’.

He said: 'Beneath the vanities, self-interest and extravagances of any government there is, at least, potentially an element of vision about a juster and more humane society. It is the function of the administrator to recognise that vision and work to give the vision a local habitation.'

These words ring equally true nearly forty years later, even for the 21st century public servant in the making.