The systemic roadblocks to improving public sector capability

Alistair Gordon

The Albanese Government has made it clear that it intends to reduce public sector reliance on external consultants, with Finance and Public Service Minister Katy Gallagher recently revealing plans to create an in-house consulting unit to provide professional services to agencies.

As an external consultant myself, it may be surprising that I am excited by this prospect, as well as the government’s wider Australian Public Service (APS) reform agenda.

I’m excited because I believe that the expertise that agencies usually bring in from the outside – if you look carefully – is very often already available to them on the inside.

Having worked with at least 15 public sector entities in recent years, I can say with some authority that there is a wealth of talent already working in the APS. But it hasn’t been properly cultivated or accessed for years.

Parliament house Canberra

Minister Gallagher identified existing deep expertise across areas including “data analytics and evaluation, customer service and event management, foreign policy, geoscience, or curating priceless historical collections.”

Properly recognised and given the right opportunities to develop, these experts can add huge value to their organisations and the community at large without any assistance from external consultants.

In fact, a significant irritant to many experts working in the APS is that the most interesting work is often farmed out externally.

This has contributed to the hollowing out of APS capability over the years, because many experts leave to work for private organisations, where the work is likely more interesting and better paid.

The government’s initiative to make the APS a more attractive and fulfilling place to work promises significant efficiency, engagement, and retention upsides.

But to deliver on the productivity dividend and cost savings, the APS will have to address some systematic roadblocks.

For example, many agencies have antiquated remuneration policies that dictate that you can’t get paid well unless you have lots of people reporting to you. This is, frankly, 1980s thinking.

It also means that many technical experts don’t have a clear path to progress their career, achieve seniority, get recognition and have greater impact.

There is a lack of non-technical development options within the public sector as well, leaving many experts without the enterprise skills (often referred to as soft skills) that would enable them to be more effective internal consultants.

Instead of developing their leadership skills, organisations should focus on developing their subject matter experts’ “expertship” skills.

The very best experts in the private sector are individual contributors, seen as gurus who deliver enormous strategic value, and are remunerated accordingly. One government regulator we work with has transformed their “technical leader” talent policies with hugely positive results. The APS should more broadly follow their lead, and quickly.

Also outdated is the culture of tenure – benefiting those who’ve “put in the years” with the APS. Experience can be very helpful, but it can also be an inhibitor to innovation and thinking differently.

People leaders are not the ones who typically come up with breakthrough efficiencies or create new value for the community. Experts do.

Another systemic issue within the APS is its siloed organisational structures and working habits. This leads to many potential high-value consultants only working inside their technical bubble, and not interfacing with other experts, which is a significant roadblock to innovation.

Financial constraints within the public sector do make it difficult to be agile and experiment with new ideas. However, if the budgets normally allocated to external consultants can be redirected to internal consultants, there will be far more scope to build APS capability.

Over time, government departments will become better versed in best practice and next practice, innovation and community value creation.

To do this, the final roadblock that needs to be overcome is risk aversion. Often the fear of a mistake or failure appearing in the media pervades every decision made in the public service, but it doesn’t need to.

Building strong narratives, understanding the strategic intent, and elevating stakeholder engagement can help experts and their organisations manage risk effectively.

This list of roadblocks may seem like a big agenda and a long road to success, but I don’t believe they need to be. Changing the environment and capability of technical experts, to help them build their influence and impact, can be achieved in a matter of months.

A 2019 independent review of the Australian Public Service, Our Public Service, Our Future, made a number of recommendations about improving APS organisational capability and expertise that are aligned with this thinking.

For some public sector leaders, those perhaps comfortably in place for a long time, this agenda resembles giving the residents the keys to the asylum. Their more visionary counterparts see unleashing the potential of technical experts, these internal consultants, as a precursor to achieving exciting and far-reaching community and citizen dividends.

Alistair Gordon is CEO of Expertunity, which helps organisations around the world attract, develop, and retain their technical knowledge experts. 

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

  1. Michael Lester 2 years ago

    An important issue but the answer does not lie necessarily with establishment of a new, central, free standing consulting arm with higher pay for ‘experts’. It should lie in re-building the policy and analytical capacity within individual agencies. that has been run down over a very long period as a matter of deliberate government action cutting back the APS on policy advice and turning to the large private sector consultants. the lack of capacity is systemic in that sense. it was not always thus and individual agencies need to rebuild policy expertise, including through the re-establishment of agency based research bureaux, that develop expertise tied to the practical experience and responsibilities of the agency in question. ABARE is a remnant example. In any event, this is but one manifestation of a systematic running down of the APS over decades that has resulted in a dysfunctional, politicised culture and organisation. It requires the independence and powers of a Royal Commission of Inquiry to get to the bottom of the issues. It has been far too many years, (46 years in fact) since the last serious inquiry and revamping of the APS under the Coombs, Royal Commission on Commonwealth Government Administration (RCAGA, 1976).

  2. Digital Koolaid 2 years ago

    Thanks Alistair. It’s not “talent” and it’s not a reality TV program titled the “APS has Talent”. You might have a (latent) talent for playing guitar. But if you don’t take lessons, practice, learn how to read music, learn some tunes, rehearse and get the lyrics in your head – you’ll get up on stage and get laughed off again. Talent isn’t capability. Talent is easy, and takes no effort. Capability is hard and takes hard yards. If you haven’t picked up your guitar for years you’ll be rubbish. You’ll have to go back to the start. Kidding yourself that you once met Mark Knopfler won’t help (I know a guy who pays guitar). Knowing “about” guitar won’t help (a guitar has 6 strings). Knowing “what’s needed is” to play guitar won’t help (guitar tuning is strategic). You have to do the hard yards. Polite respect for your thoughts, but show me where in the APS that will happen? Example: The DTA oversees the “digital profession”, which has no classification, no pay scale, no qualifications and no barrier to entry. The APS awarded itself huge marks for digital skills, but isn’t trained to use a hyperlink. As far as I can see there really are no professionals (maybe law). (ps. SME’s aren’t consultants. That’s why they’re called SME, and not consultant. Consulting is its own thing.).

  3. Nick Apostolidis 2 years ago

    Having worked in consulting for 40 yrs including stints in the public sector I find your article biased lacking a real understanding of professional services challenges and costs. There is no question that having a public service with sufficient skills and capability to make smart purchasing decisions and ability to manage consultancies is essential but forming an in house consulting team that competes with private consultants is unwise and reeks of ideology than sound judgment. Have seen this strategy many times in my career and always ended with disappointment.

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