What role should the public service play in taking care of Australia’s long term interests? We’re interested in the idea of stewardship.
This is not new to Australia.
Legislation recognises secretaries as stewards of their departments and the service as a whole. In this they act as a caretaker and responsible manager in partnership with other heads of departments.
How does this play out in practice? Is it enough? Is it time to expand the idea beyond the future of the service to the future of the country?
New Zealand has moved to a stewardship approach in significant reforms to their public service.
They define it as looking at the ‘medium and long term to identify and meet future challenges’. And taking future opportunities to ‘strengthen New Zealand and the security and wellbeing of its people’.
Should the Australian Public Service have a similar goal? How can it help leave our country and its people better off?
What does public sector stewardship mean to you?
How can we balance long term needs with the shorter term needs of the government of the day?
Are there tools, resources, frameworks, rules or incentives that could help us find that balance?
Look at what NZ are doing with their proactive regulatory stewardship approach, and their Living Standards Framework which guides their budget process. NZ is very good at recognising the need to be proactive and "look after" the assets we create (i.e. legislation, frameworks, policies). It allows for the public service to fix things which become outdated before they can do any harm.
• What does public sector stewardship mean to you?
Public sector stewardship means that the independence and political freedom of the public service is protected. Rather than taking directions from the Minister, we should inform them of what they can and can't delegate and do.
• How can we balance long term needs with the shorter term needs of the government of the day?
Average staffing levels don't accommodate lulls and times of escalating intensity in the public service. So, a 'reserve' or civil conscription (just as there's jury duty) to serve in the public service, or standby public service paid a retailer, could help balance between short and long term stressors.
•Are there tools, resources, frameworks, rules or incentives that could help us find that balance?
Instead of the current APS values, I suggest the following: Scientific mindset (base our actions on the best available evidence and reasoning - avoid overconfidence, seek informed critiques, be open to weird ideas, take alternative views seriously), openness (if good arguments show our current plans aren't helping we change our beliefs and actions), integrity (be honesty and trustworthy), collaborative (be friendly, open, welcoming and foster partnerships even when unconventional)
a) What does public sector stewardship mean to you? For a decade I was the Business Systems Manager for my agency. I advocated for, developed, maintained, and nurtured my agency's systems to ensure that the needs of my clients were met while adhering to the policies, procedures and expectations of my organisation and its leaders. In doing so I competed for resources and prioritisation against other similar managers from other business units. Hence when I think about public sector stewardship I think about my clients, bosses and stakeholders and how I can best meet their expectations. I also think about the need to advocate my cause and nurture what is good.
I generally believe that most professional public servants believe in the value of their work and embrace stewardship.
b) How can we balance long term needs with the shorter term needs of the government of the day? This is a political question, not an APS one. My reasoning is that the government of the day was actually voted in for the purpose of providing such balance and direction, including prioritising needs.
c) Are there tools, resources, frameworks, rules or incentives that could help us find that balance? Given that I believe the answer lies in improving the quality of political policies:
- All political parties should include with their policies an ISO 31000 compliant risk assessment of the aforesaid policies and how they would be implemented
- The mandate of the Auditor General should be expanded to include an unbiased assessment of costs and benefits derived from changes in public sector activities/projects as a result of changes in government policy (including those coming about from changes in government).
Hence we can learn to discern viable political policy from unviable political policy.
I am so glad the words Steward and Stewardship are being promoted in the APS.
For a long time there has been a perception that Public Servants don't work as hard as their private sector counterparts. When I joined the APS, I did it on a whim and quickly realised how wrong I was; and it is the exception rather than the rule finding people who don't pull their weight.
Due to the changes in the way we recruit and we are resourced, many of us are losing a sense of ownership of the work we do. However, when we look at our jobs through a stewardship lens, we can see each of us are actually in charge of managing and looking after a part of our nation's resources.
Some of us have responsibility for large amounts of resources and some of us for very few. If we look at the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, he has stewardship over a collection of more than 85,000 species of plants. Working with the director, there are people in charge of seeds, saplings, seedlings...such a tiny aspect of their operation. Yet thanks to them exercising their stewardship, they have been instrumental in allowing us to enjoy this Melbourne treasure for 165 years.
I don't believe in luck, and I think if we made it into the public service we are privileged. With privilege comes responsibility. Perhaps if we looked at what we do through the stewardship lens, we will understand this job not only pays the rent, but we have been tasked to manage, care for and enhance our little or big patch of our nation's resources
On a quick read, I really like the NZ concept. It gets to our core business as public servants and also helps to reshape the public image.
Given the electoral cycles it is our role to provide stability and make the case for long term investment in programs. We need to get better at our development of business cases and provide a platform for bipartisan support for long term investment projects. Through cross agency collaboration we get better at this.
We balance through providing governments of the day with the ability to implement "quick wins" within their terms however these need to work toward a longer term outcome. I think we (at least in the smaller agencies) have become as short sited as the electoral cycles.
This concept is possible - command within the military changes every three years yet they continue to be able to work toward long term objectives and respond to unforseen matters. perhaps it is worth examining how they do this.
The APS would be unable to balance the short term needs of the government with the longer term needs of the country without the government working with the APS. I agree with the NZ review that the APS would need to be seen as stewards. The APS would need to be the go to people in the field of public administration and seen as experts in what makes legislation workable/effective; as trustworthy and competent suppliers of advice (including the "frank and fearless" kind).
The minister appointment of secretaries could be problematic in the trust relationship between a minister of one government and a secretary appointed by the previous. The independent appointment of secretaries would have been helpful with this.
I would be interested in suggested ways that the APS could influence the government to change legislation which may for example be preventing the provision of holistic, or seamless services, increasing costs, damaging or negatively affecting an aspect of Australia/Australian population or preventing departments working with each other in a more meaningful way.
The biggest (and potentially most underused) tool the APS has at its disposal, besides its people, is the data administered by its agencies. Its potential needs to be unlocked - preferably across agency boundaries, while maintaining the privacy and security demanded by, and the right of the Australian Public.
For the APS it would provide the ability to monitor, predict, model, cost, impact assess, as well as back up any provided advice. This is on top the improvements in services provided to the Australian Public as a result of more exchange of information between related systems, better targeting of specialised services, highlighting trends, increasing the tailoring of services.