Using evidence to combat growing public sector uncertainty

Group of people sitting in a class
  • Published Date: 15 August 2019

The public sector is operating in an environment that is more complex, volatile and politicised than ever, and public managers need to develop new tools to thrive.

So, how can they balance dealing with growing uncertainty with achieving long-term strategic outcomes?

ANZSOG Senior Fellow Dr Zina O’Leary says these escalating demands on public managers make the ability to develop evidence-based policy, and combine it with political astuteness, even more important.

“A lot of the increased pressure is being driven by the 24-hour media cycle, and by social media,” she said.

“There have always been pressures on the public service, but there is a new pressure to be responsive, we have to be on our toes all the time.

“The question for the public service is: how do we balance the long-term strategic outcomes and goals, with these short-term demands? It’s really about finding that balance between how to respond to ministers and other political pressures, while focusing on the long-term benefits.”

Dr O’Leary is teaching ANZSOG’s Decision Making Under Uncertainty course – a micro-credentialed unit taught through WA’s Curtin University’s School of Management.

A key focus of the course is on how public managers can better aggregate and use evidence in times of uncertainty by using several broad frameworks for public sector decision-making. Students will become better-informed consumers of the growing amount of evidence available.

Asking the right questions

“The first thing is that you need to know is what questions you want to ask. That may not be easy. You need to spend time formulating good questions to help you with decision making,” Dr O’Leary said.

“It is very difficult to articulate a good research question. Public managers need to be taught to think strategically about research, and what makes a good data-based question.”

“Once you know what questions you want answered, you can look at what data already exists, who you need to talk to, and whether you need to commission someone to collect new data.”

Dr O’Leary said that the exponential growth in the amount of data and evidence available means that public managers had to get better at gathering, weighing and applying it.

“If you want to take an opportunistic approach you’ll be able to find data to support your agenda – that’s easy – what is more difficult is to take an objective look at what is out there and gather true evidence.”

“There will always be political pressures and compromises, but it’s still important to get the best data you can. There is no better way to weigh up options, mitigate risk, and make the most optimal decisions possible.”

Developing political astuteness

But good evidence alone is not enough to change policy.

Dr O’Leary said that all public managers needed to have some ‘political astuteness’ to understand where their work fitted in a broader picture, and where opportunities might arise. This was particularly the case with the growing importance of stakeholders in delivering policy.

“If you want your research to impact on decision making, you need to be ‘small p’ political. You need to know what the political arena is and what the agendas are,” she said.

“There have been millions of dollars spent on policy-based research that sits on shelves and leads to nothing due to a lack of political astuteness.

“Strategic thinking is not just asking ‘is this politically viable’ but ‘how can we make it more politically viable?’

“We need to keep the energy going because sometimes the original space for action does not stay open for very long, and we need to keep working the system. We need to gauge the political landscape at the beginning, but we need to keep doing so right through to implementation.

“If you are doing a research project, you want people to be waiting for the results so they can make their decisions.”

Dr O’Leary does not believe that the growing environment of uncertainty has led to political paralysis among public managers.

“There may be some policy challenges at the political level - leadership changes in Australia are never ending - but at the middle management level, the will is strong,” she said.

“They are not shying away from making things happen – there are a lot of stoic, committed people trying to get on with what they have to do.

“There is still a lot of optimism and energy that goes towards making things as good as they can be.”

Decision making under uncertainty

The Decision Making Under Uncertainty course will led by ANZSOG Senior Fellow Dr Zina O’Leary is a four-day intensive workshop guiding participants through the uncertainties in policy and management decision contexts.

This highly interactive workshop will support participants to be more confident about identifying and assessing the quality of evidence, and to be better equipped to use evidence to inform their decision-making.

Participants can expect a variety of educational formats including case study teaching, small group discussions, exercises, speaker panels and syndicate presentations.

Register for Decision making under uncertainty