Australian Public service faces ‘creeping crisis’

Australia’s public sector faces a “creeping crisis” of effectiveness and legitimacy caused by blunt management tools and cultural inertia, according to a wide-ranging survey of public servants.

A new report on innovation in the public service, Today’s Problems, Yesterday’s Toolkit , surveyed nearly 400 Australian and New Zealand public servants, interviewed senior officials and compared government training practices around the world.

“The survey findings show that public servants are eager to embrace skills for innovation but receive inadequate training in them,” the report by the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) says.

“Blunt public sector management tools, including hiring freezes, efficiency dividends, and funding cuts that hobble innovative or experimental initiatives, are creating what interviewees for this study describe as a creeping crisis for the public sector.

“The slow adoption of tools widely used beyond government, together with cultural inertia, erodes the prospect of a more collaborative, creative and empathetic public sector workforce.”

The report says trust in government is at an all-time low, with fewer than 41 per cent of Australians satisfied with how democracy works, down from 86 per cent in 2007.

Just 31 per cent of the population say they trust the federal government while approval ratings for state and local governments around one-third.

Only 40 per cent believe senior management is willing to take risks to support new ideas and middle management is seen as an innovation blocker.

From public servant to public entrepreneur

The report argues that the only way to improve trust in government is to change the way public servants work, effectively transforming them from public servants into ‘public entrepreneurs’.

It calls for a “radical reshaping” of training, including online and offline learning, project-based coaching  and mentorship.

“Governments must train public servants to become ‘public entrepreneurs’ who tackle problems using innovative, data-driven, and participatory methods, and who are comfortable with risk and even initial failure in pursuit of outcomes that improve the lives of citizens,” it says.

The authors say institutions need to support and reward innovation in public servants, and recognise that improving individual skills is a linchpin for restoring trust in government.

ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith said the survey underscored the need for public service leaders to be able to think creatively and solve complex problems if they are to deliver public value.

“Governments need to invest in innovation and train public managers to think creatively and tackle problems using innovative, data-driven and participatory methods, which involve citizens and stakeholders,” he said.

“This report outlines the key skills public managers will require, and how governments can design training programs to foster innovation.”

The report outlines the core skills – what the authors refer to as a 21st Century toolkit – required by the ‘public entrepreneur’, and sets out a suite of recommendations for an effective public sector training program.

Its release comes ahead of the final report the David Thodey’s Independent Review of the Australian Public Service and just weeks after Prime Minister Scott Morrison signaled a major shake-up of the sector.

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