How the public sector is cultivating a new breed of leaders

Governments are aware that in order to flourish, they need to attract leaders who are committed to transformation and have the ability to be agents of change.

Sonia Sharp

Sonia Sharp, a partner in the Workforce Advisory Practice at EY Australia, says there’s been a shift in the expectations of citizens and employees in all aspects of life, and the government are working to reflect this as both an employer and a service provider.

Empowered people with the right capabilities will lift performance overall – this is not new information to the government, and there has been a sector-wide push to transform with this in mind. Importantly, the focus has been on ensuring public policy and service delivery are congruent with and build on digital transformation. An effective public sector leader must be able to engage in an environment where experimentation is embraced as the norm.

Attributes of the new breed of public sector leaders

To thrive through this transformation, governments are recognising that the new breed of public sector leaders will be digitally mature, have an innovative mindset, and possess a relentless focus on improving the citizen and employee experience.

This means being in tune with the needs of all citizens, including sectors of the community that are more difficult to reach out to and whose voices can be hard to hear.     

They will be continually challenging themselves, and their teams, to disrupt the way they think about making service delivery more efficient, effective and inclusive – and how they can leverage technology to make this better, faster, cheaper, easier and more accessible.

They will simplify, standardise and automate wherever possible, encourage experimentation, and know how to use data to analyse patterns and trends so that they can intervene early to improve citizen outcomes.

The new leader will also be able to safeguard citizens while working through ethical and security dilemmas that new technology poses; they will champion best practices and build trust without cramping possibility.

Cultural change: bring it on

According to the EY 2022 Tech Horizon Survey, 80 per cent of government leaders agree that cultural change is essential to get the full benefits of transformation. 

But with the public sector’s delineated structures and career paths, long-established ways of working and current pressure on public finances, this can be challenging.

The good news is change is underway according to Andrew Garner, EY Oceania Government Digital and Technology Lead.

Across all levels of government, we already see data and digital tools transforming operations, radically improving efficiencies and, most important, delivering better outcomes for citizens.

Andrew Garner

Public sector leaders tell us that the challenge is to maintain momentum if this is to continue.  

Government leaders surveyed for the Tech Horizon Survey listed creating the right organisational culture as a top ranking factor for a successful digital transformation. But 80 per cent said cultural change is needed to achieve this. 

How leaders can inspire change:

  • Make the public sector a rewarding place to work.  
  • Foster agility, experimentation, learning, and resilience. 
  • Create safe spaces for their workforce and citizens to ‘speak up’.
  • Signal success and communicate about what had happened and what is happening next.

Transformation leaders and digital champions

Andrew Garner

Transformation can be aided with the appointment of a dedicated executive who can lead the transformation program and work with talent leaders to ensure digital and workforce strategies are aligned.

This requires soft skills, such as emotional intelligence, humility and willingness to listen, as well as technical skills. 

A study by EY and the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School found 49 per cent of respondents in high performing transformations say they were provided with a clear vision.  Forty-seven per cent said their leaders welcomed ideas from junior personnel. 

The researchers’ predictive model identified six key drivers of increased transformation success:

  • Collaboration – a defined organisational culture; innovation and new ways of thinking encouraged; a cultural sense of urgency about change and transformation
  • Empowerment – incentives for embracing transformation; clear roles and responsibilities for workers; clear roles and responsibilities
  • Building – investing in the right technologies; appropriately skilled IT staff; cycber security built into transformation
  • Leadership – timely and tough decisions under pressure; open to ideas from all workers; making decisions that are best for the organisation as a whole
  • Care – ability to provide emotional support during transformation
  • Inspiration – communicating vision and strategy; clear articulation of why change is needed

Putting the employee at the centre

Managing change also means putting both the employee, as well as the citizen, at the centre. 

According to the EY 2020 Tech Horizon Survey, 64 per cent of transformations that exceed expectations extensively engaged employees in designing the new employee experience. 

“It is important to lead with empathy and seek to understand the perspectives of others by giving them a voice and a safe space to be heard,” says Leonie Costello, People advisory services – digital and design Partner at EY Oceania.  

Change can also be facilitated via digital champions who can help fellow employees understand and embrace new technology.

Digital champions can help maintain motivation and encourage risk taking, and show that  failure is a natural part of the creative process. 

Instilling a fail-fast mentality 

“Fail fast, fail often” has become a mantra for modern business, especially when it comes to technology. However, it is not necessarily easy to adopt in government.

A fail-fast mentality is a mindset where individuals or organisations quickly identify failures and turn them into teachable moments, rather than letting them persist or be discovered later in a development process. Consequently, many organisations talk more about ‘learn fast’ rather than fail fast.

The underlying theory is that by learning fast, leaders can identify what won’t work and quickly move on to a better approach. 

In industry, the learn-fast mentality enables innovation and experimentation. The high degree of public scrutiny on the government sector makes this more challenging, and 58 per cent of government leaders say they have struggled to instil a learn fast mentality among staff.

Sonia Sharp says while it’s true the learn fast approach might be more difficult in government than in the private sector, governments do find safe ways to experiment and innovate.

“Learn fast allows people to try things out and work out what will work and what won’t. It is crucial that governments find ways to continue to do this.”

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