How to get ahead in public sector management

Ladder to heaven

There’s no magic formula to getting promoted as a public sector manager, says the Australian Public Service Commission’s Human Capital Officer Ian Fitzgerald. It’s mostly a matter of just being very good at your job and knowing when to volunteer for higher duties. Marie Sansom puts her foot on the ladder.

Ian Fitzgerald is clear about how to ascend the public sector management ladder but it is no easy shortcut that he offers.

“The best way to get promoted is to do your current job exceptionally well,” he says.

“There’s no point in seeking a more complex role if you’re still in the learning phase or your current role. You’ve got to master the job first.”

He warns that people who move jobs too quickly risk never seeing the consequences of their decisions and actions. They also don’t have time to develop someone else to take over their role when they leave.

Once you feel you’ve learned everything you can in your role and you feel you are doing well, what next?

“Once you’re performing at a high level you’ve got to make it clear to your manager that you’re up for some other projects and other activities outside of what you normally do. Say you already love your job. Earn your rights. All of these are good ways to get promoted,” Mr Fitzgerald says.

But he cautions that managers need to be realistic about what taking the next step could mean for them.

“More senior roles mean more responsibility for resources, people and outcomes and over a longer term. It means more complexity and ambiguity and so you have to be centred and self-aware to manage that well. As you get more senior you have the opportunity to impact more people.”

One trick to developing your capabilities, says Mr Fitzgerald, is to think about the best managers you’ve ever had and compare them to yourself.

“If you wouldn’t want to work for yourself you’ve got a problem!” he says.

What skills do managers need

Asked what capabilities are most in demand in public sector managers, Mr Fitzgerald said it was a combination of the old school basics like managing budgets and staff performance, along with newer skills like digital expertise.

He says managers need to look ahead, identify emerging trends and issues; plan a course of action and take their teams along with them, “it’s critical to policy advice and service delivery and makes teams more agile”.

There are absolute key management skills in whatever sector you work: managing for high performance, managing change and helping teams engage with risk positively.

Workers want managers who know their stuff and get things done. People who are ethical and straightforward and interested in their careers who they trust.

Mr Fitzgerald feels that differences between managers in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors have been played up in the past.

“It’s about aligning strategies, organisational goals, business plans, bringing these strategies to life so individuals and teams can see how their work is connected: that strategic intent,” he says.

“It’s about setting clear goals, allocating resources to achieve them, helping people to overcome hurdles and develop their skills and giving performance feedback.”

Other critical skills include commercial and procurement skills, program design and IT.

“For me, a prerequisite for success is to have really good technical capabilities in the area that you’re responsible for. Manager should be leading and role modelling the way ahead and they should be across the latest evidence or best practice in their area of expertise.”

The public sector buzzword ‘contestability’ frequently comes up in contemporary public sector discussions t but Mr Fitzgerald says that you can’t outsource ultimate responsibility for a service.

“Procurement is increasingly the idea that there is a mixed market of providers. We should always be open to the best way for services to be delivered, not just the private sector but the not-for-profit. The procurement task is about a healthy and effective working relationship with the provider.”


Differences between the public and private sector

But he says there are some critical differences between the public and private sector, one of the main ones being that it is easier to measure success in the private sector by using indicators such as share prices, customer satisfaction and profits or losses.

“In the public sector you don’t have any of that. There’s greater responsibility on managers to define short and long-term goals and they have really good evidence systems in place. Public value is much harder to define than economic value.”

Defining public value, for example measuring the success of an education project or policy designed to tackle entrenched indigenous disadvantage, demands a long-term view.

“You need to keep in perspective the long-term social gains that the government is trying to achieve and I think this is something special to public management. It requires a degree of sophistication in terms of measuring and designing programs. You need to think about evaluation.

“Our job is to use scarce public resources as well as we can and that’s where trust and confidence comes from, the effective use of resources.”

The APSC funds the materials for a core skills develop program for agencies to use themselves or through an accredited training provider.

Mr Fitzgerald says the weakness most commonly identified in public sector managers was the inability to reprioritise work to fit changing needs and budgets.

“That’s something that really well practised in the private sector – a company’s survival depends on it and you have to respond to changes in revenue, investment and budgets.”

Under Pressure

In his opinion, some public sector managers have been too set in their ways and closed to new ways of thinking but budget pressures have galvanised people into action and opened up new ways of thinking and doing things.

“I think that we’re feeling the budget pressures now and our response needs to be to come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things,” he says.

While technical skills are vital, taking the leap into a more senior managerial role will demand a great deal more besides.

“Once you make that transition into senior management technical skills are not enough. It’s how you bring the technical skills of many people together, situational awareness, being able to read people, collaboration. The outcome being more important than the emotional battles you might be having.”

While some public sector experts have criticised public sector job cuts and redundancies and lamented the loss of corporate memory, skills and experience, Mr Fitzgerald is relatively upbeat about recent events and says that shrinking budgets have exposed incompetent managers.

“The reduction in service size has flushed out some of those people out and I think that’s probably healthy. Those who perform well will be recognised and promoted.”

Mr Fitzgerald said there hadn’t been a recruitment freeze in the APS but things had been “really, really restricted”.

“There has been a significant reduction in the size of the public service. When you don’t have the fat in the system you need to make sure every person is contributing in the best way possible.”

The focus should now be on gaps in capability, he says.

Postgraduate courses for managers

As well as developing your core skills at work, having a coach or mentor and volunteering to act up when you can, courses are a good way to take a breather from your daily work routine, generate new ideas and approach tasks with renewed energy.

One way to boost your credentials is to consider doing an MBA. While some MBAs and other postgraduate qualifications are squarely aimed at public sector managers a broader-based MBA is also valuable, says Mr Fitzgerald, particularly because many managers are now pinging between the public and private sectors.

“It is useful because of the range of disciplines it covers. Those with financial backgrounds are asked to consider issues of leadership, culture and people management. Those from HR acquire economics, finance and accounting skills,” he says.

“For me personally, one of the most beneficial activities was the network learning. People from all backgrounds and sectors had to work together to unpack and solve business problems. Coming from a public sector background previously it enabled me to move into the private sector.”

 Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZOG) has a two-year postgraduate degree of Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) and also runs residential programs for managers building on core relationship, leadership and management skills.

Queensland University of Technology runs a public sector management and emerging leaders program which includes the Graduate Certificate in Business (managing and leading in the public sector), the Graduate Certificate in Business (public sector management) and a Graduate Certificate in Policy and Governance. There is also an option to do a more specific MBA, such as the Master of Business Administration (Health Management) offered by Tasmania University.

This story first appeared in Government News magazine June/July 2015.


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