I sometimes wish my private-sector colleagues could walk for a few days in the shoes of a senior leader in the public sector. 

How would they cope with the pressures of giving free and frank advice in a highly political environment, under the scrutiny of Parliament, the public, the media and the Official Information Act (OIA), in a world where success is hard to measure and never absolute? 

Would they like to be held to account for outcomes in communities and whānau over whom they actually have little influence?

The pressures of making the quarterly profit target might seem a luxury by comparison. It is no coincidence that the success rate of business leaders moving to roles in our public sector is not terribly high.

New Zealand is very fortunate to have a public sector that deserves its high international reputation. Ours is a model that many countries follow and learn from.

The dilemma for our public service is similar to the All Blacks’: when you set the international standard, how do you reinvent yourself, innovate and become even better? 

No cardies here

My experience with our public sector has always been the opposite of the Gliding On mythology and the cheap shots about cardigan-wearers. The people I’ve worked with over the years are overwhelmingly professional and dedicated, with a very high service ethic. 

They often are as frustrated as the general public with the time everything takes in the bureaucracy, and the vagueness of some of the processes, including but not limited to giving advice to ministers. 

Of course, there are many parallels between the public and private sectors. Their incentives and objectives differ, but large public and private organisations are more similar than some would have you believe.

In both sectors change is constant, the ability to adapt and innovate is essential, and leadership (intellectual and behavioural) is critical. Just as private businesses must adapt to the dynamic expectations of consumers, so must the public sector adapt to the ever-changing priorities of politicians and taxpayers.

Taking risks to get results

The recent Public Service Act is a major step forward in the operating model for the broader public sector. 

It creates a platform that addresses many of the issues identified over the 30 years since the State Sector and Public Finance Acts revolutionised our public sector and led to world-leading improvements. 

Crucially, the new act enables more flexibility and clearer accountabilities for the Public Service Commissioner and the commission.

The new act is a first step, not the endpoint. 

I see a need for a continued focus on things that underpin high-performing service organisations:

  • Focusing on deliverables and outcomes has become the key issue in recent years. We should be able to take excellent, highly engineered processes as a given. The difference-maker is tying great processes to great and timely outcomes for people. 
  • Achieving outcomes implies a willingness to take risks. The risk aversion that looks for the last percentage points of certainty often takes longer and delivers poorer outcomes. Risk is a fact of life, and often the risk of doing nothing is far greater than the risk of change. A frequent risk facing today’s public sector is the growing expectation that functions should be devolved to others, including NGOs and the community. This requires trust and good relationships. 
  • The importance of leadership cannot be overestimated. Quality people are more important than perfect structures and processes. Our public sector’s talent pool and pipeline have been very good over the years. Yet, it’s possible to spend too much time on the process of leadership development. We need also to maintain and build the value proposition for being a public servant. The privilege, honour and satisfaction of serving others and delivering for the country are great drivers, but can’t be taken for granted.   
  • Technical excellence is important, but let’s not trade it away for the softer elements of human capital – attitude, values and character. The human characteristics essential to the ethic of service need to be developed and nurtured. Success is becoming as much about how organisations achieve their goals as what they achieve. 
  • In particular, empathy for those you serve is crucial in service organisations. Part of public servants’ challenge is that they serve two sets of people – the elected government and citizens. They need empathy for both.  
  • We need to simplify processes. The issues that public servants grapple with every day are hard. Trade-offs and imperfect information create genuine dilemmas – but the answer is usually not more process, more information and more consultation. Collegial collaboration is useful but can blur accountability. If you’re having trouble finding a room big enough for your interdepartmental working party, you’ll want to make sure every agency in the room is adding value. 
  • Maintaining the trust of those you serve is your licence to operate. It doesn’t matter how good you think you are; if you’re hard to deal with or have a reputation for not listening, you’ll be shunned by your minister and your public. 
  • Even when you are an above-average performer, it is important to have the ability to learn from others. That takes humility and time. Being special and unique are challengeable and transient. There are very few problems that haven’t been worked out by someone else. The trick is knowing where to look and maintaining networks of like-minded people in the public and private sectors who can help sharpen your performance.

Do you know something we should know? Email BusinessDesk's public sector investigation team: publicsector@business.co.nz.