Five lessons for leaders who want to enhance public value

Renee Leon

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Faced with a growing number of regulatory issues, public officials need to prioritise the most serious challenges and collaborate effectively if they want to succeed, Mitzi Bolton and Michael Mintrom from Monash University write. 

In Australia and across the world, regulatory reform remains an ongoing challenge. Coupled with a growing number of areas that require regulation in an increasingly fast changing environment, the pressure is on for regulators to become more effective in how they work.

To address these challenges and contribute to public value, public sector leaders should heed five key lessons, starting with building contextual awareness.

Building contextual awareness

All leaders need to understand their operational contexts and the forces shaping them.

Sometimes, public sector leaders can get swept along by current events and what others tell them to do. They can lose sight of the broader dynamics shaping their areas of interest.

Whilst new technologies provide tools to better monitor what is happening, expert knowledge remains critical to interpreting changes and drawing out what they mean in practice.

Analytics and insights teams can provide dynamic dashboards for busy leaders, however, these need to be underpinned by qualitative insights on what the numbers are really talking to, so that leaders are empowered to make smart decisions.

Addressing the most serious challenges

Public agendas are often swamped with urgent issues. The rapid news cycle can make it difficult to prioritise the most serious challenges over the most urgent. To overcome this, public sector leaders need to work with others and build consensus around what challenges are the most serious ahead of the news cycle.

This is where receiving sound advice really matters. Because there are many different forms of expertise in society, coming from various sources, separating sound advice from noise can be tricky. Discerning which voices genuinely reflect expertise, and broader public sentiment, and which ones are simply loud, is a skill that takes time to build.

Increasingly, technologies exist to help prioritise and address current challenges. The skilled public sector leader finds ways to harness technology while also playing the long game – investing time in building trusting relationships for future challenges.

Clarifying the options at hand

How the public sector responds to challenges can have big impacts on public value – both negative and positive.

The fallout from the robodebt scheme offers a case in point. It eroded trust in the public sector and has threatened to reduce society’s appetite for harnessing technology to improve system performance.

Public servants need to have confidence that their organisations will back their decisions come-what-may. Equally, organisational leaders need to have confidence that, given the tools and knowledge to hand, their staff members will make good decisions.

This balance can be struck by clarifying the regulatory and policymaking options, and employing internal evaluation and mentoring programs. Such actions create organisations with strong and open cultures where people feel comfortable to speak up, and staff who fully appreciate the nuances of their work.

Collaborating to create effective solutions

Governments get things done by working closely with businesses, community organisations, and citizens. Those working relationships yield better results when they are based on collaboration, rather than command and control.

Most complex challenges, like climate change and pandemics, don’t respect organisational or societal boundaries. So public sector leaders need to build their collaboration skills, reach across traditional siloes, and make time for people to be genuinely heard.

In a time poor environment, they also need to encourage their teams to do the same. Working with others can be a powerful way to gain new insights and identify novel ways to solve challenges.

Communicating for impact

In hierarchies, staff often follow their boss’s lead. If a leader focuses on addressing the big challenges, there’s a good chance everyone else will, too.

Now more than ever before, organisational leaders have many ways to communicate with their teams. How they use those options is vital.

There is no single communication style that will work for everyone. What matters most is that communication is seen as a two-way street: leaders must convey key decisions clearly, so everyone knows what they are expected to do and why it matters. Yet, leaders must also be good listeners, willing to change their approach in the face of advice from the front line.  

We live in complex and challenging times. But they present big opportunities for Australia as a regional power and as a high-performing, multicultural, democratic country.

Through their practices, public sector leaders can routinely enhance public value. Those who can interpret changing contexts, identify challenges, and work effectively with others, will contribute to a better future for all Australians.

Read the full article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration. 

Dr Mitzi Bolton is a research fellow at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute. Driven by the 12 years’ experience she gained across the Victorian and Australian public sectors, Mitzi’s research employs systems thinking to identify and test ways to support public servants to improve public outcomes.

Michael Mintrom is Professor of Public Policy at Monash University, where he serves as the Director of Better Governance and Policy, a university-wide initiative to support the impact of research on public decision making. Michael holds a PhD from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His books include Public Policy: Investing for a Better World (Oxford University Press) and Policy Entrepreneurs and Dynamic Change (Cambridge University Press).