Improving the lot of public servant

The recent Queensland State budget, and the previously announced cutbacks in staffing numbers, have shone spotlights on areas few in the general public would know or care much about.

During the last century most Western nations (and many others) adopted the model of complex bureaucratic structures staffed by a professional public service to meet the increasingly complex needs of the State. This model both met and promoted public expectations for new or better services. The relative stability and certainty for public servants under the traditional model has been challenged in recent times by reforms driven variously by political ideology, intellectual fashion, a more demanding and critical public, electoral outcomes or simply pragmatic responses to a changing economic or strategic environment. The waves of reform visited on the apparatus and functions of the State have been the subject of intense scrutiny by public sector employees themselves, politicians, occasionally the media, the general public and researchers, accompanied by rising expectations about public sector performance and management relative to practices in the private sector.

Among the questions raised by these reforms are the most fundamental of all: how and why is the public sector different from the private sector? What do these differences mean for management practices? What skills do professional public servants need to do their jobs, indeed to survive?
As a further complication, recent international events and trends form a significant backdrop to the work of Australian public servants. Among these are the transformation of economic power and strategic interest to south and east Asia; the world’s booming population and questions about resource security; disaster management and social resilience; the still unfolding reverberations of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis in Europe and elsewhere; the re-alignment of ethnic, national security and religious perspectives in many places but exemplified by the turmoil of the Middle East and around the Mediterranean; the revolution in access to information and associated technologies; growing international application of the principles of sustainability in economic, social and environmental policy contexts concentrated in debates over climate change and its causes, effects and remedies.

More clearly, domestic issues also shape the daily working environment of the public sector employee. To name just a few: an ageing population with its many implications for health and other social services; generic service delivery issues; urban densification and regional development; drugs policy; Indigenous disadvantage; resource security and economic uncertainty; international competition and the importance of a highly educated population; policy innovation and agility; a drive for austerity and efficiency in public sector financial management and program delivery.

The theme common to all these issues is the pressure they place on public sector employees to absorb, advise on, design and deliver policy options to address problems that stubbornly resist such lasting solutions. Meanwhile alongside a blurring of traditional political ideologies, there is a deeper and more personalised political divide and volatility in electoral outcomes. What has not changed is the often poor public understanding of the role of public servants and differing expectations about how public servants should respond in the overtly political environment of their workplace.

Given the pace and depth of changes in the contemporary world, the cyclical process of rediscovery of what the public sector represents and how it functions is unlikely to abate any time soon. For public servants inevitably caught up in it, the process demands continuous re-definition of roles and responsibilities and, most important, acquiring new skills to cope.

Most public servants commence their careers with a degree or other relevant vocational qualification, and some have postgraduate qualifications as well. Many others will change their careers and recommence study at some point out of personal interest, because of promotional opportunities, because they seek a different direction, or because of Government restructuring after electoral change. Many individuals will make the choice to take their portable skills between jobs in the private and public sectors several times during their careers. Regardless of what the job is or in which sector, the higher the position being sought, the emphasis on professional skills will reduce but will grow on generic management skills and intellectual agility.

Most universities offer undergraduate and postgraduate teaching programs and associated research expertise for public servants to acquire their initial professional accreditation. Some universities go much further, by offering highly targeted programs that give public servants the intellectual strategies to understand and master the complex environment in which they work. For example Griffith University, through its new School of Government and International Relations, has brought together expert researchers and teachers, many with public service experience and also former politicians, to give students access to both former and current decision-makers and policy thinkers who are at the cutting edge of theory and practice in their areas.

These programs balance academic theory and relevant, practical application to give students a picture of what to expect, and how to cope, in the dynamic public sector environment. This also gives a level of portability that is as critically important to today’s public servant as any other skill.

Terry Hogan is an Adjunct Professor of Politics and Public Policy at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations. He is a former public servant at Commonwealth, State and Local Government level.