There is a romantic notion of the good ol’ days, when colleagues were exceptional and the people running public sector organisations knew what they were doing. A Chief Executive who has spent many years working in Minister’s Offices recently mentioned that he believes senior public servants compare unfavourably with the ‘giants’ of his early career, noting they are now relatively inexperienced, unworldly and unsophisticated.
However, at a recent Nexus training, another senior public servant and Chief of Staff to a Minister said that compared to his early career in the 80s, contemporary public servants are more professional, better educated and work longer hours (not to mention they are better dressed, but then again it was the 80s). The long lunches may be gone, but we are all better off with more diversity and more women in leadership positions.
So, is the public sector today better or worse? It’s difficult to tell, seeing as though we’re comparing very different decades. The public sector (and the world) has changed dramatically in the last 40 years, as we’ve previously discussed in our opinion piece on 20 years of change in the public sector. Public servants needed very different skills from those in the digital age, although it doesn’t account for criticism that we’ve lost policy capacity and sophistication at senior levels of government.
The independent review of the Australian Public Service initiated by the Prime Minister will be an interesting insight into whether the panel, comprising mostly senior executives from the private sector, will advocate for the adoption of more private sector practices and disciplines. Aside from the fact that the behaviour of private sector organisations is often less than exemplary (revealed in evidence set before the Financial Services Royal Commission), there is a risk that uncritically adopting private sector practices will ignore the fundamental differences between the public and private sectors.
If the review is to be successful, it will need to prepare the public sector for relentless and fundamental change, including the adoption of AI and other new technologies, the implications of big data and data analytics, the emergence of new service delivery models and ongoing questions about the role of government in service delivery. Inevitably, the boundaries between different sectors—public, private and not-for-profit—will become even more permeable.
However, some fundamentals of the public sector must remain, including Ministerial accountability, political partisanship and scrutiny. The review will need to achieve a balance between ensuring the public sector of the future is equipped with the skills required to confront a challenging and changing environment, while still acknowledging that government work is inherently different from operating in the private sector.
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