PM’s guide to mandarin survival

Stuart Kennedy

Proclaiming that there has “never been a more exciting time to be a public servant” the Prime Minister laid down his ideas yesterday for how savvy mandarins can live and prosper during these often brutally disruptive times.

Many of Malcolm Turnbull’s advice for mandarin survival came out of the startup playbook and ranged from failing fast to success through to not being afraid to steal good ideas from other jurisdictions.

“Now there is no doubt that we live in a time of rapid transformation,” the PM said in an address to the Australian public service at a Parliament House event hosted by Institute of Public Administration ACT that was watched by an online crowd of 3500.

The world, let alone the 150,000 member strong Australian public service, was in uncharted waters, he said.

“Just like the economy, the Australian Public Service is disrupted by forces which it cannot control. One might say therefore that there has never been a more exciting time to be a member of the Australian Public Service.”

Adding to the excitement for the APS this year are a number of tech-related initiatives such as the cloud first directive for agencies working up fresh tech projects, the reform and digitisation of procurement and tendering, and a concerted push to much more digital self-service for clients and customers.

To ride herd of the many changes, Mr Turnbull established the Digital Transformation Office early last year when he was Communications Minister.

The DTO was recently placed under Assistant Minister and former McKinseyite Angus Taylor and clearly has its work cut out under Mr Turnbull.

“Digital transformation must be at the heart of government, and therefore it must be whole-of-government. Program analytics, decision-making times, application and processing times can all be improved,” the Prime Minister said.

“These will deliver more accurate insights and, most importantly, better outcomes for the public. More accurate insights, more real time insights are much more useful for all of us to make the decisions that Australia depends upon, because after all that’s our core mission – to improve the lives of the people we serve – the Australian public.”

In improving the lot of the Australian public, the PM suggested the APS should not be shy of lifting good ideas from other governments, be they state, local or overseas. “If we find that somebody else is addressing the same problem better and more cost effectively then we will happily plagiarise them,” he said.

The PM said there was plenty of changes on the plate for the APS in 2016. “Digital disruption; greater transparency in data and information; contestability of advice; and rising community expectations for fast and personalised government services, are just a few of the challenges you face,” he said.

Mr Turnbull riffed on the public service version of the fail fast to success formula that is so often touted by the startup community.

“We have to be very up front and we’ve got, we being the Ministers, we’ve got to say when we produce a new policy, we’ve got to say that this is the best policy solution we have available to us today.”

“This is our best solution, our best idea if you like, and we’ve looked at it very carefully. But if it turns out to be deficient in some respects then we will change it and if doesn’t work at all then we will dump it.”

Mr Turnbull has certainly walked the talk on this, releasing a welter of policy ideas and then quickly dumping them, such as the whirlwind tour through handing back income tax to the states, which lasted just 48 hours in the public debate sphere before being deep sixed as politically unpalatable.

Calling on the APS to be more innovative, agile and entrepreneurial, Mr Turnbull cited Marcus Westbury’s book, Creating Cities, which has an account of how the ultimately successful ‘Renew Newcastle’ project to renovate the city’s abandoned CBD was stymied by poor governance.

In his book, Mr Westbury talks about how finding answers to simple questions about zoning and leasing of empty shops and offices was virtually impossible.

“Government has to do better,” said the PM. “The new economy, our future depends on it.”

Part of doing better will be bringing on more woman into APS leadership roles.

Decrying a lack of women in high band, APS leadership roles, Mr Turnbull said that later this month his Minister for Women Michaelia Cash would release the APS Gender Equality Strategy.

“Gender equality is an important, a critical objective in the APS. This is an opportunity to drive lasting change to remove gender bias from recruitment, promotion and retention and to do away with practices that operate sight unseen, to steer women into certain public service roles and men into others,” he said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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