The public sector has been a tough place to work as governments tighten the belt. But the enthusiasm for the job — and the big ideas for reform — are still flowing freely, reports Stephen Bartos.

Picture this: a public sector employees’ emergency and disaster relief fund. It’s a simple but powerful idea. Bureaucrats don’t always have spare cash but most have leave entitlements; with employers’ help they could cash in days to help those in need.

That was the winning idea from a competition as part of the recent national conference of the Institute of Public Administration Australia. Public servants from around Australia had been invited to send in ideas for a better public sector; the best five were selected by a judges’ panel to pitch. Rhys Williams, from the New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services, was declared the winner.

It was one of many innovative ideas from the conference. At a time when the Commonwealth government had just announced widespread staff cuts, the mood was surprisingly upbeat. But there were tough messages.

Dr Ian Watt, head of the Prime Minister’s Department, warned that the fiscal environment would grow tighter for at least the next decade, which meant even tighter public service budgets. And in his Garran oration, newly appointed head of the Australian and New Zealand School of Government, Gary Banks, noted a loss of trust in both government and public servants. He provided a long list of policy making failures, including the national broadband network, key strands of immigration policy and industrial relations — failures, he said, on a “monumental scale”.

Speakers from Britain and New Zealand — both of which have conservative coalition governments — talked about the ways in which they had through necessity been learning how to deal better with service delivery via community groups and focus effort on key results. New Zealand’s deputy state services commissioner, Ryan Orange, made a strong case for the new sense of purpose that the New Zealand public service has gained since Prime Minister John Key set them just 10 results to achieve over three to five years.

In the United Kingdom, according to Paul Kirby CB, the former head of the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street, new ways of working with the community are delivering better and more responsive services. Although some of the audience questioned whether the proponents of the reforms were making larger claims than the results deserved, the ideas were welcomed with interest.

The conference started with Professor Christopher Pollitt, of the Catholic University at Leuven, outlining what he called the three “big ideas” behind public service reforms. Two he claimed were outmoded: “dissolution” (the public service is a problem that requires private sector disciplines) and “revolution” (the public service can transform hierarchies and silos to become joined up and agile). The new idea is evolution; an emphasis on governance rather than government. It absorbs and remoulds the first two ideas, integrating knowledge from public servants, citizens and academics.

The idea of context was fundamental to Pollitt’s presentation. Public servants need to recognise that what might have worked at one time may not necessarily work now, and what might have worked in one country will not necessarily work in another. Policy ought to diagnose the problem, he said, looking for probable fit practices that might work (better than the hackneyed “best practice”), use and integrate local knowledge.

Building trust, through better capabilities and a renewed effort in reform, emerged as the key themes that unified the conference. The 600 or so public servants in attendance were receptive to the message and went away with a wealth of materials to enable them to deliver better services.

*Key presentations from the conference, and papers from the research day that followed, are available on the conference website

This story was produced as part of a new partnership that IPAA National is working on with Private Media. To be kept up to date with how this partnership will bring information and analysis of public administration trends and issues to your in-box email us at info@ipaa.org.au.

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