Michael Holzmann
Noetic Group

This edition of our e-newsletter is dedicated to the challenges of tackling fundamental change in the Australian Public Sector (APS). We will review two current topics that are on the APS’s change agenda: Service Delivery Reform and implementing Cultural Change. Two questions will guide our reflection. First, what lies at the heart of the human aspect of implementing these changes? Second, how can an organisation build the capacity to implement change themselves?

The Demands of Service Delivery Reform on Public Servants

The consolidation of Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency into the Department of Human Services seeks to put “people first to improve the quality of interactions between the community and Government”[1] in order to deliver “better services for citizens”.[2] The APS’s challenge is “to extend the role of the public and invite them to contribute to the design of the service”.[3] This will require building “skills, knowledge and training that public servants will need to do their job effectively”.[4]

The UK’s ‘co-production‘ reform of the Open Public Service has drawn a number of lessons from their attempt at changing how services are conceived and delivered. This approach goes well beyond citizen satisfaction surveys and identifies some fundamental behavioural challenges for public servants. The ability and flexibility to engage with integrity requires a significant shift of the mind.

The UK experience highlights the need for the concerned service delivery organisations to build the capacity of its people. This has been done successfully in industries such as retail banking. Bank managers now have to go beyond their ‘desk of comfort’ to engage with the issues and needs of the customer and co-create a financial solution.

How are individuals to acquire these crucial ‘personal attributes and professional skills needed by public servants’?[5] Public servants will not be able to meet these demands if the training does not explicitly create safe environments, not only to understand, but also to practice these new behaviours. These requirements may well explain the current focus on simulations and scenario-based training observed in the leadership development industry. A programmatic approach to change will not suffice, nor will the traditional leadership courses.

Implementing Cultural Change – What can Leaders do in their Part of the Organisation?

‘The culture needs to change’ is a familiar conclusion of independent reviews, government audits, and more recently of the Ahead of the Game Blueprint.[6] To implement the Blueprint leaders need to create clarity how ‘things ought to be’ while modelling, and requiring others to model these new behaviours. But what does the leader have control over in a constantly evolving public sector environment? The answer may seem a challenge to leaders and managers throughout the APS: the workplace climate of your employees – ‘the way it feels to work there’. Despite changes to funding, organisational structures, employee agreements and the like, the leader is responsible for about two thirds of the organisational climate experienced by employees. This environment is the one that engages or disengages on a daily basis.

The positive implication of these findings is that this ‘climate’ is not as ambiguous and elusive as its cousin ‘culture’. The critical dimensions of climate that drive employee engagement (and by extension performance) can be measured. The span of control of the leader and the team extend to such issues as clarity, standards, accountability, flexibility, reward and recognition, and team commitment. By tackling the culture change from the angle of how they shape their own organisational climate, APS leaders and employees are better empowered to drive change together.

An example that immediately springs to mind is the Public Service Case Officer who exclaimed during an organisational climate intervention: “It is not my job to discuss the procedures and how we are organised with my EL2. My job is to apply technical expertise to solve the case at hand”. Well, yes it is. However, the manager did not seem to have created a climate that made this possible. How could this case officer discuss his perceptions of the work environment without questioning the authority and the person of his superior? The introduction of the dimensions of climate created a new dialogue, and an improved outcome for this team.

What emerges from these two areas of change in the APS: service delivery reform and culture change? A key conclusion is the need for public service organisations to build their capacity to change by themselves. Change cannot be viewed as the shift from a current state to a desired future state. Change cannot be viewed as a response to external imperatives alone. Change is now a constant process, not simply an imposition on the current workload. Change must become part of business as usual. To achieve this, employees must be empowered to practice new behaviours safely.

[1] Australian Public Service, APS Reform: Building the Future Together, 2011, <http://www.apsc.gov.au/APSreform/21enablecitizens.html>.

[2] Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration, 2010, <http://www.dpmc.gov.au/publications/aga_reform/aga_reform_blueprint/index.cfm#toc>.

[3] L Briggs, Co-Design: Toward A New Service Vision For Australia, 2011, <http://www.humanservices.gov.au/spw/corporate/publications-and-resources/resources/co-design-toward-a-new-service-vision-for-australia.pdf>.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Parliament of Australia, Citizens’ engagement in policymaking and the design of public services, Research Paper No. 1, 2011-12, <http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/rp/2011-12/12rp01.pdf.>.

[6] Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration, 2010.

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