Today’s Problems, Yesterday’s Toolkit: Restoring trust in government by reinventing how the public service works

Image of two chains connecting with public and sector written on each.
  • Published Date: 13 August 2019

Australian public servants are eager to join the world’s most informed and effective public administrations and adopt new ways of developing policy and services, according to a world-first survey of nearly 400 public servants, conducted by the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and the NYU Governance Lab on behalf of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

The survey is part of a new report on innovation in the public service, pdf Today’s Problems, Yesterday’s Toolkit (2.07 MB) , written by Professors Beth Noveck and Rod Glover and published today.

The pdf report (2.07 MB) for ANZSOG finds that while Australia’s public sector is generally well-functioning, it faces a “creeping crisis” of effectiveness and legitimacy. Only 40 per cent believe that senior management is willing to take risks to support new ideas. Middle management is also identified as a blocker to innovation.

The report argues that the struggle to deliver solutions to Australia’s crucial public challenges such as reducing emissions or Indigenous incarceration rates –the highest in the world - helps to explain why an Ipsos Social Research Survey conducted in 2018 found trust in Australian government to be at an all-time low.

The release of Today’s Problems, Yesterday’s Toolkit is timely, with the final report of the Thodey Review of the Australian Public Service about to be published and Prime Minister Scott Morrison signaling that he plans a fundamental shake-up of the public service, focusing it more on implementation and accountability.

The report calls for a radical reimagining of the role of government and the public servant – a defining challenge for the Thodey Review, the public service and all Australian governments.

It argues that the key to improving trust in government is to change the way people in government work.

“If the Prime Minister wants a more effective public service, he needs to focus on investing in talent and letting the creative thinkers in the service advance innovative ideas that improve people’s lives,” the authors say.

“Stripping the service of the policy capability to advise government wisely and the license to speak truth to power, so that we rely excessively on private sector consultants for solutions to public problems, is a false economy.”

Today’s Problems, Yesterday’s Toolkit pinpoints nine skills that make up a 21st century toolkit for public problem solving, one that provides a concrete method for overcoming genuine but generic concerns with silo mentalities and risk aversion in the public service.

The report finds that public servants who use these skills know how to define actionable and specific problems. They consult data and design solutions through deep consultation with the public, a two-way conversation made possible by the digital revolution.

They implement solutions whose effectiveness can be measured. Above all, they recognise that humans cannot be as smart alone as they are together, so they collaborate.

However, the adoption of these innovative ways of working in the Australian public sector is not widespread, and awareness outstrips use, the report finds.

ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith said that the report showed how much public service leaders were operating in a rapidly changing environment.

“The decline of trust in governments is bringing new challenges, and the growth of new technology brings opportunities, as well as the obvious risks, to find new solutions to ongoing problems,” Professor Smith said.

“In this environment, public service leaders need to be able to think creatively to solve complex problems and deliver public value.

“This report has been commissioned by ANZSOG as part of a research project into public sector innovation, which includes a survey of public servants in Australia and New Zealand

“The survey shows that public servants are eager to embrace innovation skills but receive inadequate training in them.

“Governments need to invest in innovation and train public managers to think creatively and tackle problems using innovative, data-driven and participatory methods, which involve citizens and stakeholders.

“This report outlines the key skills public managers will require, and how governments can design training programs to foster innovation.”

Professor Noveck is director of the Governance Lab at New York University, and led President Obama’s Open Government initiative. Professor Glover is interim director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and a former senior Victorian public servant.

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