In the Public Eye

Thursday, March 1, 2007 - 15:12

Lynelle Briggs, Public Service Commissioner, represents the changing face of our public sector. Here she talks to Jennifer Alexander about the management challenges for public sector reform, human resources and "wicked" problems.

Lynelle Briggs assumed the role of Public Service Commissioner in November 2004. The Commissioner is a statutory position responsible for promoting and evaluating the implementation of the Australian Public Service Values and Code of Conduct, and for reporting on the health of the APS. She also has policy responsibilities relating to public administration and people management, particularly the promotion of leadership skills.

The Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) promotes good practice in managing people, supports leadership and learning and development in the Australian Public Service (APS). The APS has over 145,000 employees. Briggs has been with the APS for almost 30 years. Her career has involved time in the former Department of Social Security, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Treasury and the then Department of Health and Aged Care.

Q: Can you start by telling us how you got to where you are today?

A: I went to a country high school before going to the Philippines as an exchange student. Following that I studied politics and economics in Sydney. From the age of 15 I had wanted to work in social policy in government, so it was a very useful background. I am very strongly driven by what will improve the lives and circumstances of the Australian people.

Q: What are your objectives as Commissioner?

A: When Peter Shergold (Head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) called to tell me that I was going to become Public Service Commissioner, I was surprised because I'd never worked in human resource management, although my jobs had involved a lot of personal leadership and strategic direction. I think he chose me because he wanted to see a new direction and a renewed emphasis on HR management and strategic leadership in the public service.

There was a sense that the APSC had lost its way and had no real raison d'etre. I know that Peter wanted me to invest personally in improved leadership and development within the public service. When I got there, I felt the organisation wasn't working enough with HR managers, and insufficiently with the Senior Executive Service who, for the most part, are the drivers of day-to-day activity along with the executive level. I've set about re-engaging with that core leadership group and developing a strong sense of ethical leadership.

Q: Is there a stage in your career you remember fondly?

A: I worked in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet with two secretaries, Mike Codd and Michael Keating, and Mary Ann O'Loughlin as Division Head, plus three other branch heads in the social policy division. The balance of the personalities and the skill sets was enormously powerful. A key lesson from my experience is that not only is it about getting the right people together, but also that you don't necessarily need a lot of people to make a very large difference.

Q: Are there any achievements you are particularly proud of from that time?

A: I was very conscious of the tendency that can occur [in] central agencies to say no much of the time, to consider that no idea that comes from outside the centre is a good idea. I think it's very important for the Westminster System that we have a strong external bunch of agencies. The then government was very interested in how to support carers in the community. So I convinced the Social Security Department to take some savings from one of their measures to put more money into a program run by the Health Department. And at the time the people involved said they couldn't remember it ever happening before.

Q: What have you achieved so far, and what are the key challenges you're going to face?

A: When I started in the job, I said the focus was around how I raised the profile of the organisation and increased its effectiveness. I think that we have managed that.

Now it's about consolidating the gains around the Senior Executive Service cadre, providing them with support to do their role well, and some thought leadership in where the public service is heading. The APS is regarded across the world as leading edge, and I believe we're ready for another public sector reform cycle. If I could, I would increase the research and evaluation function in this area because there is a very strong need for it.

I think we also need to invest more in our middle management group. They're fundamental to managing people, and we've got a major turnover in our staff at the moment because baby boomers are leaving. We've got an increasingly skilled workforce and must manage in an environment that's controlled constantly by finances and the quality of people we recruit. This means the middle manager level has to be absolutely in tune with the direction of the organisation.

Q: Could you expand on your views on public sector reform?

A: I think we're still struggling with how to work across government. This is not something that our institutional, hierarchical, agency-based accountability and financial arrangements support as well as they might.

We also have a series of what Peter Shergold calls "wicked" (and "tame") problems. A quite inflexible program management-type arrangement does not work for worldwide issues such as climate change, or indeed, for delivering improved services to indigenous people. All those sorts of issues require fundamentally different ways of operating from the norm of liberal democratic tradition, which is to provide a baseline level of support and let the individual take it from there.

I think as well we need to make sure that our regulatory framework is up to the minute, and that our services are moving towards being citizen-focused rather than just delivering programs effectively.

Q: What do you mean by tame and wicked problems?

A: Tame problems are things that are relatively straightforward administratively. In Australia , these are processes such as delivering income support, providing health insurance through Medicare and collecting income tax and GST through the Tax Office.

Wicked problems are entirely different. They operate at many different levels, in many different contexts. They can vary in their impact, and if you touch one bit you cannot be sure that the impact somewhere else will be in an intended way. There may well be unintended consequences.

In order to try and deal with these wicked problems you can't act as an island. Not only do you need to work across government but also you need to work with local level individuals, through families, through communities, through not-for-profit organisations, through the private sector, through the states and territories and local government.

Q: What do you see as the important leadership and management skills?

A: Public sector managers, within their own sphere, can have enormous power and influence, there's no doubt about that. I think these days what makes a qualitative difference for leaders, beyond a vision and setting out where they're going, is how you can influence behaviour and attitudes for the good. And a lot of that influencing happens around the soft skills, focusing on the heart and the soul of people that work in your organisation.

What I try to do is to clearly establish for the people who work with me the context in which we're operating, and where we should be going; but also to have them influence this very directly. I think the way you keep organisations active is to have a clearly identified set of priorities that you want to deal with, and when you tick them off you move onto the next; you don't sit there in happiness. There's always the next step to build on.

Q: Do you think the public sector of the 21st century is going to be different from the 20th century?

A: I think we've come through a period of enormous confidence in government in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was felt that government intervention could fix the health system and could fix poverty in this country. And in many ways it did. Where we are now is focusing on quality and standards and dealing with issues that we haven't been able to deal with before. Interestingly, in the 200 years since white settlement, this country has quite a history of partnership and contracting relations with providers to deliver services. It goes back to the Second Fleet, which was contracted out - of course it wasn't very successful because the specs were wrong!

What we've learnt, however, is that it's virtually impossible for a government to transfer risk to the groups they're partnering. This means that there must now be a qualitatively different relationship with the provider than was assumed in the tight specification of outputs we did in the late 1990s.

I expect also that our contracting arrangements will become much more streamlined in future, and there'll be a much stronger emphasis on relationships. But I have to say that I think we will also see a return to some of the more sensible assessments around inputs. For instance, I want to maintain the standard of aged care and childcare services in this country. And to do that you need, in some ways, to be confident that the quality is delivered as well as the flexibility that a normal outsourcing relationship might have.

I think we are finding our way in this world, as is the private sector. At times we've been a little too cavalier in the things that we have gone to the market for. It may well have been better done in-house. I think we have assumed among community groups a greater level of managerial and accountancy expertise than many have, and it's been very hard for them as we've lumped them with more and more things to do.

So we need to be much more strategic in the future about what we put out there. A tertiary-educated public servant should be able to deliver more effectively - and perhaps more cheaply - than contracting to a community group or a private sector body. And they may well do it more consistently and with a set of values that are in the public interest.

Q: Are there particular management similarities or differences between the private and public sectors?

A: Firstly, I think the fundamental motivator of people working in the public sector is the public interest, and I would hope that the modern public service is focusing on internal cooperation. Working together as public sector bodies is, and should be, a strong motivator.

Secondly, (and I probably make people in the private sector very cross when I say this), I think the public sector has to be far more strategic and involved in complex problem solving than many people in the private sector at key leadership levels need to be. We're not about producing widgets or selling a product or making a profit. We're about trying to resolve a problem in the best way possible, with the best outcome for all.

Q: What can the two sectors learn from each other?

A: We've learnt a lot from the private sector about fast movement and streamlining procedures, but we have a very long way to go. Also, we bring in enormous numbers of people who have worked in the private sector and they are very impatient with rigid approaches to doing business. I think that's very useful.

I think the private sector can learn from us that everything isn't black and white; that there are shades of grey and that sometimes a little patience with the public sector is needed as it tries to manage the range of stakeholder groups and the different interests. They can learn an enormous amount from us about flexibilities in the labour market and about the employment of women. We are clear leaders in that sector. I also think that the public sector sticks more strongly to a sense of duty and a sense of behaviours and values.

Q: Do you think that leadership and management skills can be taught?

A: I do. I've learnt a lot from reading books, from going to courses, from exchanging ideas, challenges and problems, and I can't see why others don't benefit from those things.

Q: Are there people who have been important in your life or acted as a mentor or role model?

A: A great disappointment of my career is that I went through my developmental stages at a time when nobody really thought to pick out the people they saw clearly as their future leaders and invest some energy in them. I feel very strongly that I would have been a better public servant had I had somebody who was prepared to help me along the way. And I think it's very important that most public servants latch onto somebody who's a bit at a distance from them. So I wouldn't say there was anyone who stands out.

I think in the days I went through, if you were a woman you were typically working with a bloke, and close relationships between the sexes were not possible. [But] with a critical mass of women at senior levels it will help get the balance right: people are now just more used to seeing men and women having coffee together in a work context.