Monday, 29 January 2018

Imagining an optimal Public Service

A Question

Imagine a situation in twenty years or so in which the public service is genuinely designing and/or delivering what the nation and its people need.
What models, motivations and measures would need to be in place to encourage a public  service genuinely driven to design / deliver what the nation and its people need, for both the short and long term, and how should these models, motivations and measures be applied?


It’s often been said that the public service (in almost every country) is bureaucratic, risk adverse and inefficient.
Putting aside the question of accuracy of that assertion, such a complaint leads to the question – “What would work better?”
What models, motivations and measures would lead to the public service operating at the ideal level – in quality of policy design and implementation, and value it adds to the public it ostensibly serves?
Questions of this type are usually greeted by the refrain of “can’t be done in our current environment”. So think outside the current environment. Imagine an ideal future twenty years hence. Imagine that all the obstacles to improvement have been overcome, that the best models, motivations and measures can be implemented, and have been implemented, without major obstacle. What would those models, motivations and measures be?
What would motivate public servants to optimise what they do?

Additional considerations

Some extra things to consider in exploring the question above:

·         Time scale of the question
This question is positioned in to the future in an attempt to get away from thinking of current limitations. To address that, it can be useful to imagine that all your bugbears with the public service have been resolved and work backwards from there.

·         Current public service motivations
The public service (that is, the government agency sector) at times shows signs of being motivated primarily by risk aversion, politically-driven decision-making, and a determined focus on one’s own silo. This appears to be more pronounced at higher levels – those who set the direction and tone of the rest of the organisations they’re in. So what motivations and measures would help to address this?

·         Motivations for genuine improvement
If a government agency's core objectives and motivations do not properly align with the true needs of the nation, its people or its interests, what motivations can there be to improve this at all levels?

·         On the profit-based sector and objective measures of value
The commercial sector has an objective measure of value (profit) that is not available to the public sector for many good reasons. The question above is aimed at identifying a similar motivating factor that might work in the public sector.
The profit measure, for better or for worse, is a relatively simple measure that can be applied to any part of an organisation to determine whether an initiative has a positive effect on the organisation and its purpose. The public sector needs something that can be similarly universal and objective (but preferably one which does not encourage psychopathic behaviour as the profit motive appears to do at times. I would hope that the readers of this article don’t need me to re-prove that particular assertion).

·         Examples to learn from
What do other countries better run than our own do to motivate their public service? What do they have in place that drives their public service to create towards outcomes?
There would seem to be no shortage of examples of things being done well and things being done badly, but clear evidence on why certain approaches do or do not work isn’t in such an abundant supply.

·         Improving the top over time by improving the base over time
It could be argued that before we can have a well-functioning public service we first would need a well-functioning elected government.
But many democracies have demonstrated that their populations can be guided to make problematic choices for problematic reasons (a point further explored below in “The case for change”).
If it is true that part of the problem is our elected officials, what would need to change to address that? That is, if it is necessary to consider improvement in the quality of elected officials as a pre-condition to improvement in the public service, then how can we improve the quality of elected officials?
For example (and exclusively as an example), would something such as teaching critical thinking in schools for twenty years help to gradually improve the quality of political leaders we select?

·         It’s an international question
The key question above and its associated challenges is relevant to public service organisations in many countries at many levels. This is a struggle not just for the Australian Public Service or that of any government in isolation. It is a struggle for every organisation I’ve worked with that doesn’t have profit as an objective measure of value. Charities appear to have this issue too, although to a less extent.

·         Separating the “what” from the “how”
This is deliberately a question about the “what” – what should we aim for, rather than how should we get there.
Some have said that the solution is to privatise everything. In this particular case, this would miss the question. No matter who does the work, models, motivations and measures still need to be in place to drive that privatised / in-house or other approach. Privatisation, in this case, would be a “how”. This question relates to the drives of the “why” and “what”.

·         The case for change
Many reasons could be given for whether and why the public service needs to change. Among those would be that public sector organisations generally have lower levels of customer satisfaction than banks, insurers and utilities (D’Emidio and Malfara, 2018), but also that (or possibly because) “around 70% of transformation programs don’t succeed, mostly due to employee resistance to change and management behaviour” (D’Emidio and Malfara, 2018). That is, the public service in most countries isn’t achieving the changes it sets out to achieve.
“If governments do not change with the times, they become less and less capable of addressing people’s needs, and citizens grow more dissatisfied and disenfranchised. …
“The goal [of government reform] should be to reshape current governments into forms more suitable for modern life: technologically savvy, data-driven and fully globalised.
“But while some governments have begun to take that approach, others, [Angela] Wilkinson [senior director of the World Energy Council and an associate fellow at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School] says, “are not doing well at all.
The contrasts can be stark. In Sweden, for example, [primary school] students learn to code and to spot fake news, whereas in the US, the president routinely promotes falsehoods. Taiwan, Spain and Iceland are exploring new methods of democracy that tap collective intelligence, but Russia and Turkey are moving toward autocracy and totalitarianism. Estonia has opened up its doors to welcome global citizens as “e-Residents,” while Britain has chosen to leave the European Union” (Nuwer, 2018).
At the same time, some senior stakeholders believe there is a “burning platform” making change essential:
“The Australian Public Service is unready to help governments as they grapple with eroding support for openness with foreign countries, ambivalence about institutions, and China's role in the world order.
"The domestic and global environment has changed so much that we do need to do policy differently if we are to adapt and succeed in a new environment, or more bluntly, the way that we are configured to make and deliver policy is no longer fit for purpose." [Quoting Heather Smith, Departmental Secretary, Australian Department of Industry, Innovation and Science]. (Dingwell, 2018).
Similarly, the current Australian Government appears to be of the view that the Australian Public Service is in need of re-examination:
“The structure, approach and operations of the APS reflect a framework for public administration shaped largely by the 1974-1976 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, and refined by subsequent inquiries and reforms. It is therefore timely to ask whether the APS’s capability, culture and operating model are suited to harness the opportunities of a transformed Australian economy and society, in an increasingly complex global context.” (Source:, June 2018).
Interestingly (and based on an entirely un-scientific review of writings on the topic), it would seem that much of the objection to the current Australian Public Service review is to the way it is being scoped and conducted, not so much objecting to the assertion that a review is needed.

The challenge of metrics
Throughout the talk of measurement in this article, it is important to note that measurement itself has the potential to be a significant part of the problem. Measurement can be difficult and problematic when what is important is quality, but the measurements available are quantitative.
When the focus is on measures, “people within the organisation will focus their attention and efforts on the things that are getting measured, often at the expense of other essential functions.” (Darabi, 2018). “What can and does get measured is not always worth measuring, may not be what we really want to know, and may draw effort away from the things we care about.” (Muller, 2018). As an example of this distortion, “when surgeons … are rated or remunerated according to their rates [of operations with positive outcomes], some respond by refusing to operate on patients with more complex or critical conditions” (Muller, 2018).
Muller goes on to pronounce:
“I’m calling for a greater reliance on professionalism and expertise. It’s in part possible by allowing decision-making to be made at a more local level: local not just in a geographic sense but in the sense of within the organisation themselves, at a lower level by people who actually know what’s going on as opposed to trying to orchestrate everything from the centre.” (Muller, Jerry quoted in Darabi, 2018)
But this leads back to the original question – At a policy level, how should we make sure that this is happening in the best way that’s realistic possible? Whether it’s through measures or some other method, how can we encourage public service organisations to do what is best?

              Nuwer, Rachael (2018), “Why governments are broken and how to fix them”, British Broadcasting Commission (BBC), 16 Jan 2018. URL: Accessed Feb 2018.
              D’Emidio, Tony; Malfara, David (2018) “Build a case, build a following: Laying the groundwork to transform customer experience in government”, McKinsey & Company, April 2018. URL: Accessed April 2018.
              Darabi, Anoush (2018) “Government by numbers: how data is damaging our public services – Q&A: Professor Jerry Muller on why government should trust professionals and stop chasing data”. Apolitical United Kingdom, 13 Feb 2018. URL: Accessed June 2018.
              Dingwell, Doug (2018) “'No burning platform': APS boss Heather Smith makes urgent case for reform”, The Canberra Times, 28 March 2018. URL: Accessed March 2018.
              Muller, Jerry Z. (2018) “The Tyranny of Metrics”, Princeton University Press USA, ISBN: 9780691174952, URL: Accessed June 2018.

The question above was originally posted in January 2018, and updated as new evidence and input has been discovered.

Chris Malcher, January and July 2018