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Martin Stewart-Weeks


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What is the point of the public service?
A submission from Public Purpose Pty Ltd to the Independent Review

of the Australian Public Service (APS) July 2018

This submission to the review of the Australian public service is from Public

Purpose Pty Ltd, whose principal, Martin Stewart-Weeks, has worked in, for and

with the public service in Australia at state, federal and local level since 1978.
He has also worked with, and advised, public service thinkers, leaders and

practitioners in India, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK, the US, Canada, Denmark and

In the context of the Review’s scope and focus, this short submission poses ten

questions to which the Review should either provide compelling answers or explain

how the APS itself might respond.

Characteristics and conditions

The APS, in common with similar institutions across the world, faces a period of

both great peril and high promise.
The peril is manifest in the threat of continued erosion of trust, capability and

The public service, through a combination of ideology, economic imperative and

cultural challenge from a more diverse and plural landscape of insight and ideas,
risks becoming increasingly irrelevant to the complex policy problems whose

resolution it is expected to contribute and, often, to lead.
It sometimes feels as if the public service is an institution coming adrift from the

needs, values and rhythms of the world it is meant to serve. A harsh critique would

suggest they can sometimes feel as if they are moving in opposite directions.
But it is clearly capable of responding. There is no shortage of examples of great

work, done well with considerable impact and benefit for citizens and communities.
The promise lies in recovering the confidence and capability to shaoe and lead

successive waves of public purpose work, confronting contemporary challenges

with a vigorous exposition of skill and endurance that continually sets new

standards of public and social innovation for public value.
It is not too dramatic to suggest the world, and Australia in particular, needs a

competent and confident public service more than ever. Nor is it too dramatic to at

least query whether, just when we need it most, the public service is capable of

stepping up.

Responding to a changing world

The review takes place in a context defined by a series of internal factors, including

culture, capability, performance, structure and leadership, all of which are the

subject of some of the questions which form the basis of this submission and which

the review should be trying to answer.
The context is also shaped by external factors, briefly described here, and whose

impact is a function of their individual significance and complex interaction.
Digital, data and design

The digital era changes everything, even if some of the day to day work of

institutions, including in the public service, will look and feel very much the same.
The review has to get beyond the question of how digital can help the APS do what

it is doing now and answer a much more basic question – what is the “theory of the

business” for the APS in the digital era? What does a “digital APS” look like?
Tightly linked to that is the question of data.
Public administration has been in the data business since it was invented in China

and Ancient Egypt and certainly since it was refined into the more recognisable

form we are familiar with by the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the 19th century.
But we’ve never quite been in the data business at this level of scale, speed and

Nor have we been in the data business with the capacity to draw on the kind of

tools that artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example, are now offering.
And we’re only just at the beginning of that journey, whose progress will be shaped

by a combination of investment, regulation and ethics and new skills we are still

busy inventing.
The third “d” – design – often provides a link between the digital and data worlds.
Design and design thinking offer a set of tools and capabilities, and a whole mindset,
that puts users at the centre and thrives on an ethic of creative experimentation.
Fuelled by data and always arcing towards practical solutions, design is already

showing its creative potential for service and policy reform.
As this trifecta of capabilities provisions a “new normal” across every sphere of life,
the public service risks being left behind, unable to renovate its operating models be

engaging fast and deeply enough with its new demands and opportunities.
Trust – competence, talent, legibility and engagement

The only currency in which the public service trades, like most institutions, is trust.
And trust is leaking at alarming rates from most institutions. The public service is

no different.
The trust equation for the public service stitches together:
• Competence (the ability to get stuff done, and done well)
• Requisite talent to feed competence for good services and policy
• The ability to make its work “legible” to those in government and the wider
• And authentic engagement, a willingness to see “we the people” as an asset
from which to expect insights and expertise the public service has reason to
A review of the APS for the next 10 years, and perhaps even further out, should have

something provocative to say about how the public service curates the stocks and

flows of trust on which it feeds.
The work of the future

Work is changing – where it gets done, in what combinations of skill and capability,
with what mix of interests at the table and with what mixture of speed, intensity

and openness.
In the digital era, with access pretty much to any combination of knowledge,
information and, at a pinch, wisdom the public service needs to think about the

right mix of structure, culture and capability from which to shape its new work and

the new leadership that work demands.
At the same time, public work, whether or not it is done by the public service either

entirely or predominantly (and that combination is already changing and is likely to

change a lot more in the next 20 years), calls on enduring values to render it

Those values include rigour, ethics, due process, fairness, honesty, an ability to

privilege the public interest and the common good, the ability to serve governments

of different political persuasions and, increasingly, an ability to conceive of, and

robustly defend, the importance of “public”.

Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

A submission from Public Purpose Pty Ltd July 2018 Page 2 of 11
Policy complexity

The APS is at the heart of our national response to a range of big policy challenges

that pose difficult questions we need to answer as the basis for a future that is open,
prosperous, fair and sustainable.
For example:
• Ensuring environmental sustainability and the appropriate response in
Australia, and as part of Australia’s contribution to its region and the world, to
climate change
• Making our rapidly growing cities efficient, inclusive and productive through
judicious investments in physical, digital, human, cultural and social capital to
sustain good lives, equality and innovation
• Adopting larger frame of wellbeing to tackle the causes of economic and social
inequality whose unchecked growth feeds a self-reinforcing cycle of exclusion
and social instability, fewer opportunities for work, poor economic growth and
declining individual and national confidence
• Rethinking education, health and social care systems, whose industrial
institutional roots are increasingly unable to respond to changing demands for
learning for work and life, preventing illness and promoting health, breaking
the architecture of disadvantage and, when it is needed, providing adequate
and compassionate care on a human scale
• Rethinking the role of the state and the contribution of the public sector to
mission-led innovation and inclusive growth

There are other big questions of course – provisioning a requisite defence capability

as part of a realistic, generous and confident foreign policy, determining and paying

for a virtually limitless inventory of physical and digital infrastructure that, almost

literally, holds our economy and society together, crafting energy policies that are

affordable, reliable and sustainable, embedding Australian know how, invention and

sheer cleverness in complex global webs of pure and applied science, innovation and

But whatever the list, the implications for the APS are the same.
What should we expect from the public service in terms of skills, expertise and

insight to help solve these problems?
Even more importantly, will the APS have the culture, structure, mindset and

capability to curate more complex networks of collective intelligence from across

government, business, universities and civil society to fashion a distinctively

Australian problem solving “machine”?
The role of the state and the purpose of government

The final factor is the most basic.
It seems difficult to address questions about the future role and capability of the

public service without having some sense of the role of the state and the purpose of

Australia’s public administration culture and practice tends to eschew questions of

deep culture and purpose for a (mostly) admirable predisposition to focus on more

pragmatic issues of practice, structure and operations.
That doesn’t seem adequate to the particular moment in which the review, and the

APS itself, finds themselves.
The APS needs a new “theory of the business.”.

Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

A submission from Public Purpose Pty Ltd July 2018 Page 3 of 11
It needs to think again about, and the relationship between:
• The context it works in (society, markets, customers and technology),
• What its job or mission is in that changing world
• What its core competencies need to be to get that work done.
In that process, the public service needs a new theory, an institutional story, about

its role, purpose and value in digital era.
That doesn’t mean enduring values of public work should be jettisoned. Nor does it

mean that “digital” is the simple and singular answer to every challenge it faces.
But is does imply that an answer to the question about a fit-for-the-future public

service at this particular moment can’t be either incremental or limited.
The review’s insights and recommendations should have something to say about

how the APS responds to these conditions and, in the process retains or, in some

cases rescues, the combination of relevance and respect.

Ten questions

The review should answer, or help the APS to answer, these 10 questions which

reflect the range and mix of opportunities, and risks, from which the future of the

public service will be forged.
Context and conditions

1 Does the APS understand the economic, social, cultural and technology
characteristics and conditions of the world in which the APS has to work over
the next 20 years?
The public service has to manifest an acute, practical and constantly evolving

understanding of the changing rhythms, ideas and practices that determine and

shape the larger context of which its policy, regulatory and service design and

delivery work has to make sense.
This is about a “foresight” capability on steroids.
The review should be clear about what those rhythms are right now. More

importantly, it should offer some ideas about how the APS can become better at

sensing and learning about how they change and how that knowledge infects its

daily work of analysis and advice.
Role of the APS

2 What is the role of the APS in the context of those characteristics and
conditions and how widely understood, shared and supported is that role?
It’s hard for the APS to be competent and effective if its role – the reason it exists–
is not clear and widely understood.
The task here is more than some legislative definitions and a few annual reports

from the Public Service Commission.
This is about a lively and widespread engagement by public servants themselves

with their role and the role of the institution they work in. That is partly an act of

leadership and partly a process of storytelling and honest and effective

Purpose of the APS

3 Is the mission and purpose of the APS clear, compelling, understood and
supported in the context of those characteristics and conditions?
Understanding purpose – the difference that the public service is expected to make
– is similarly a task that has to reach beyond mission statements or statements of

public service values.

Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

A submission from Public Purpose Pty Ltd July 2018 Page 4 of 11
Understanding purpose is a daily task of conversation and collective discernment

about the relationship between what the public service does, why, how it makes a

difference and how those it serves experience that work.
A shared sense of purpose has always been a defining characteristic of effective

organisations and institutions. At this particular moment especially, the need to

maintain a persistent conversation across and within the public service about

purpose, and therefore about value and impact, is especially important.
Relevance of the APS

4 How does the APS retain or, in some cases, rescue its relevance?
The worst thing that can happen to any institution or organisation is to lose its

relevance for those it is intended to serve or benefit. Irrelevance is the condition in

which change becomes impossible, performance declines and respect erodes.
Relevance in the end is a function of three things:
• A persistent mastery of content and expertise in the areas of work for which
you are responsible
• In the case of the public service, clear signs of effective policy management
and the ability to “campaign” for solutions to complex problems that are in
the public interest, practical and affordable
• And an obsession with clear, honest communication about the impact and
results that policy and service delivery decisions produce.
To demonstrate relevance, the public service has to be able to demonstrate, every

day and in each decision it takes, how it applies its content and “campaign”
knowledge and expertise to land results which demonstrably advance the interests

of people and communities across the country.
Competence of the APS

5 In what mix of skills and capabilities does the APS need to demonstrate deep
competence in the next 20 years?
This is related to the “public servant of the future” question (see #9 below) and is a

question about how widely shared and understood are the skills and capabilities of a

modern public service.
Do the public service and the wider community have a sense of the things the

public service should be good at to be, and to be seen to be, effective and useful.
The question assumes some exploration of the extent to which those skills and

capabilities that are expected in the public service form the basis for recruitment,
retention and reward.
When public servants access learning and capability development systems for

example, can they find the necessary opportunities to gain or grow the skills and

capabilities they know are important for the work they do?
And of course, there is, or should be, a clear “line of sight” between the inventory of

skills and capabilities of a modern public service and the stories about its purpose

and mission.
Closing the loop that lines up purpose and capabilities is a powerful engine of

motivation and engagement that, in turn, unlocks steady improvements in

performance and, ultimately, positive impact on the lives and circumstances of

citizens and communities.

Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

A submission from Public Purpose Pty Ltd July 2018 Page 5 of 11
Requisite talent

6 Does the APS know how to access, use, nurture and grow the requisite talent it
needs, both inside the public service and across other networks and
communities, to do its work now and into the future?
There are two dimensions to the talent question for the public service.
One dimension is finding and keeping the talent needed to turn mission and

purpose into effective performance. In the case of the public service, that means

talent in traditional areas like strategic policy and advice (in both of which there are

claims that capability has been declining for some time), service design and delivery

and effective regulation.
It also means talent in newer areas, not the least in digital, data and design.
The challenge is complicated by the unnecessary, but growing contest between

public servants and political advisors about how owns the policy management role.
If short term “fixing” and the demands of political spin and presentation are

privileged too often over persistent, patient and rigorous analysis, testing and

evaluation, the public service risks being stuck in a vicious spiral of demoralisation,
reduced capacity and what in another context would be described as the “soft

bigotry of low expectations.”
The second dimension is making effective use of the talent you’ve got or which is

developed in the public service.
Are there situations where poor leadership, lack of information or a series of other

obstacles result in great talent effectively ‘hiding in plain sight” within the public

service without being properly deployed or supported?
There is no shortage of work in Australia and around the world being done to tackle

the talent question for the public service.
The review provides a useful opportunity to take stock of that work and to ask some

basic questions about the quality and effectiveness of the systems, culture and

practice in the public sector that impacts how well talent is found and used across

the service.

7 How well do the current and emerging theories and practice of public sector
leadership align with that leaders need to do, and how they need to be, in the
future public service?
Leadership might well be the most studied and least understood attribute of

effective organisations public, private or civil society.
Too often, it feels as if the dilemmas and complexity of leadership in modern

institutions have become “undiscussable”.
Finding organisational contexts, including in the public service, in which a

combination of honesty, emotional intelligence and an unflinching willingness to

confront the gap that sometimes yawns between what people hear leaders say, and

what they hear leaders do is rare.
The review offers an opportunity to set out a demanding framework for leadership

development in the public service that engages new models of power and authority

that can unlock performance and innovation, especially in the digital age.
It needs to embrace a leadership conversation that earns a reputation for honesty

and authenticity.

Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

A submission from Public Purpose Pty Ltd July 2018 Page 6 of 11
It should set out the kinds of leadership support and development tools, platforms

and support that a modern public service needs. And it should sketch the new

leadership narrative for a public service whose dominant values are engagement,
relevance and performance.

8 How does the APS earn and retain the respect of politicians and the
Respect and relevance are two sides of the same demanding, complex “coin” of

If there is a sense that the combination of skill, attitude and culture, leadership and

organising ability are aligned to an ability to get things done and to come up with

good ideas or a better way to deliver programs and services, respect emerges as a

product of relevance.
Obviously, the opposite is also true.
If the public service is seen to produce insights and advice that either miss the mark

or fail to keep up with new developments in thinking and practice in whatever field

it might be, perceptions of irrelevance, that somehow the real work and progress on

challenges and risks is being done elsewhere, erode respect.
There is anecdotal evidence that respect for the public service seems to be declining

amongst some politicians, for example and some sections of the community.
I have had several conversations over the past 12 months, more than I can recall

over the past 20 years, with senior public service leaders at both federal and state

level, in which the work and skills of public servants have been openly disparaged

and discounted.
Of course, not public servants are always as capable and as competent as they

should be. And they and their work are certainly not beyond criticism and

But if there isn’t a core respect for the role and work of the public service by those

whose opinions can be both supportive and damaging, it makes it much harder for

civil servants to display the kind of motivation and engagement they need to be and

do their best.
The review should test a little how contemporary sources of respect are tracking

and, if they are not working, why and with what effect.
People need to respect the public service because of the difference it makes to the

big risks and opportunities the country faces and to the daily lives of citizens and

The review should ask some honest questions about levels of respect for the public

service from politicians and from the wider community, and how and why they

Public servants of the future

9 Is there a clear sense of the public servant of the future that provides guidance
and validation to those already in the public service and those thinking of either
joining or working with the public service?
There are several reports and studies from different countries about the skills and

aptitudes of the public servant of the future.
The inventory of capabilities that emerges is interesting. For example, from a series

of reports that were the subject of two recent Public Purpose blog posts here and

here, these were some of the characteristics that emerged:

Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

A submission from Public Purpose Pty Ltd July 2018 Page 7 of 11
• Iteration, data literacy, user centricity, curiosity, storytelling and insurgency
• Collaboration: relationships between people and organisations
• Communication: with an emphasis on digital media modes
• Commercialisation: getting the best value from public, private and community
• Control: ensuring legal, financial and democratic standards are met.
• Sense-making: getting to the deeper meaning or significance of what is being
• Social intelligence: relating to others deeply and directly
• Adaptive thinking: thinking and generating solutions outside of the norm to
respond to unexpected and unique situations
• Cross-cultural competency: operating in unfamiliar cultural settings and using
differences for innovation
• Computational thinking: translating large amounts of data into useful concepts and
understanding data-based reasoning
• New-media literacy: leveraging new-media forms to communicate persuasively
• Transdisciplinary: understanding concepts across different disciplines to solve
complex problems
• Design mindset: designing tasks, processes and work environments to produce
desired outcomes
• Cognitive load management: filtering important information from the ‘noise’ and
using new tools to expand mental functioning abilities
• Virtual collaboration: working productively with others across virtual distances.
It’s an impressive list.
The point is not to suggest all public servants should somehow aspire to an heroic
embrace of all of those attributes. That would hardly be realistic.
But it is a list that should provoke some discussion about how a mix and range of
aptitudes of this sort might pervade the public service in increasingly confident and
predictable patterns.
By now, it should be getting clearer that the 10 questions are interdependent and

mutually reinforcing.
It should be possible to link together
• A clear sense of mission and purpose, itself reflecting a solid understanding of
context and conditions
• A tight connection between relevance and respect, based on competence and
• All fed by an ability to find, keep and reward requisite talent with the skills and
aptitudes that a modern public service needs to do its work and deliver its
The Review to bring together its deliberations not only in a series of findings and

recommendations but in a depiction of a coherent “persona” of the modern public

Digital capabilities

10 How does the public service grow or access the necessary confidence and skill
in the use of new digital tools, platforms and capabilities, including artificial
intelligence, machine learning and new approach to the analysis and use of data
at speed and scale, for better policy, regulation and services?
The final question ties back to the underlying proposition of this submission, that

the public service needs a new (and an old) story, a “theory of the business” that fits

the digital age.

Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

A submission from Public Purpose Pty Ltd July 2018 Page 8 of 11
If it’s true that digital changes everything and isn’t just making the way things are

done now either faster or more convenient, then what we could describe as the
“digital intelligence quotient” across the public service becomes critical.
In this context, we could define “digital intelligence” as the mix of skills, aptitudes,
mindsets and culture necessary to understand, and confidently to use, the new tools

and platforms of the digital world in the different contexts of public work.
There is some discussion about the extent to which the public service, not just in

Australia but in other countries too, is growing and using digital capabilities at a

sufficient pace and depth. And there are formal training and learning responses

within the public service to address that challenge, including for example the GDS

Digital Academy in the UK.
Given the central role of digital (and data) in framing so many questions about a fit-
for-the-future public service, it’s important that the Review makes some assessment

of at least these elements of the public service’s current and prospective digital

• How well understood are the basic tools, platforms and applications of the
digital world and their relevance to, and use in, the business of governing and
the work of the public sector?
• Is the public service making consistent use of standard contemporary digital
tools and platforms, including cloud computing, agile software development
and project methodologies, social media and mobile technologies and
• What’s the evidence that the public service is actively exploring ways to use
digital capabilities and culture to rethink processes, programs and policy
development from the ground up rather than simply to speed up existing
processes and activities?
• Is the current and emerging leadership across the public service fit-for-
digital-purpose in an institution that needs strong direction, persistent
support and active encouragement to use digital and data in creative,
sometimes disruptive way to improve results and impact for citizens and

What is the point?
The question underlying the review is simple: in the modern world, what is the

point of the public service?
It sounds a little blunt. To some, especially current public servants perhaps, it might

sound disparaging and disrespectful.
It is none of those things.
The question is as basic and urgent as the strength and seriousness of this

submission’s underlying commitment to a future public service that is properly

valued because it is extraordinarily effective.
Australia needs a high functioning public service of imagination, intelligence and

insight now more than ever.
We need it to be unusually clever and resilient.
We need it to be persistently and regularly capable of outsized, often unreasonable

feats of brilliance in the face of solutions to complex problems that, frankly, are

beginning to feel beyond our collective reach.
We need a public service of nuance and subtlety to match its emerging mission to

corral, and put to work, Australia’s dispersed and diffuse assets of collective


Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

A submission from Public Purpose Pty Ltd July 2018 Page 9 of 11
The public service is one of our most important institutions.
Its daily work continues to astonish and frustrate in equal measure. It scales great

heights of intellectual and institutional insight and remarkable operational

performance, especially under pressure (think floods, fires and emergencies).
But it can just as easily betray undeniable symptoms of fear, hesitation and

Australia has no hope of grappling successfully with the tangle of interlocking

public problems, and opportunities, which will determine our future shared

prosperity, without the ability to rely on, and therefore without properly nurturing,
an extraordinary public service.
So, what is the point of the public service?
In the light of the context and conditions in which we need, as a nation, to find an

answer – a story we can believe in and which explains its role, purpose and value –
it may not turn out to be as simple or obvious as we think.
The review is an opportunity to make a start on that task.

Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

A submission from Public Purpose Pty Ltd July 2018 Page 10 of 11
Links and references





https://press.princeton.edu/titles/11098.html Geoff Mulgan Big Mind: How Collective

Intelligence Can Change our World


https://www.csf.gov.sg/ Centre for Strategic Futures, Singapore








Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

A submission from Public Purpose Pty Ltd July 2018 Page 11 of 11