The recently released Secretaries' Charter of Leadership Behaviours has a snappy, easy-to- remember acronym - DRIVE (be Dynamic, be Respectful, have Integrity, Value others and Empower people) - and a light and breezy graphic design. It can at first glance seem a bit glib, a bit too slick.
But it is worth a second look. It has clearly been prepared with great care and commitment by those who put it together, and there is every indication that secretaries - not least the secretary of PM&C, Glyn Davis - are standing behind it.
The new charter overlaps with legislation, rules and guidance that already provide a quite impressive framework to guide the work and behaviours of public servants, including the APS Leadership Capability Framework.
There may be a risk of some confusion here.
At the top of this structure of rules and standards, the legislated APS Values and Code of Conduct overlap considerably with the DRIVE model.
For example, the Values require public servants to be ethical, accountable and impartial (ie to have Integrity).
They also stipulate respectful and committed to service (partly encompassed by Dynamic) as core APS values. Where the charter perhaps adds most to the existing framework is in its emphasis on relationships with others (especially Value others and Empower people).
This is also where the charter is probably going to face the greatest challenge. As the new secretary of the DEWR, Natalie James said at a recent IPAA event, the Empower "piece" is probably the most challenging for some more senior leaders.
Other public servants seem to agree: over half of the respondents to the 2021 APS State of the Service survey indicated that "authority for decision making is at a higher level than required" and is a barrier to their performing at their best.
A major reason empowerment (or delegation) is difficult is because the public service is inevitably hierarchical. Hierarchy is built into our constitutional structures and therefore into the APS.
Trying to empower people lower down the structure is always going to be a challenge in such an environment.
Recommendations about flattening the structures of the service in the recent report on APS hierarchy and classifications are aimed at dealing with the hierarchy conundrum. We are not convinced, however, that this would make much actual difference. The recommended changes would not deal with the core issues, ie in-built hierarchy and a risk-averse culture.
Building on the aspiration of the DRIVE framework, there are many ways to empower more junior public servants and ameliorate the worst aspects of inbuilt hierarchy. Managers at all levels should:
There is also a deeper, structural solution to the empower piece. It is to harness the inherent agency of the public service, its capacity to influence and help shape policy and implement it.
The agency of public servants is predominately the result of the scale, complexity and uncertainty of governance in a modern liberal democratic state. Historically, this agency has often been treated as something to be diminished or even removed entirely.
That impulse is part of the neo-liberal, managerialist reforms that started in the 1980s, which sought to contractualise almost all relationships within and around government.
Some of those reforms brought welcome changes to what were often unresponsive and ineffectual practices. But that impulse has been carried too far, leaving many public servants anything but empowered. With judicious leadership, there is an opportunity to reinvigorate, harness and focus the agency that has been misused and left rather dormant in the APS, especially among those further from the centres of power.
We've made a few suggestions here, but there needs to be ideas from the many good minds in and around government. Australia needs an APS that is able to use discretion and judgement, and to do so in ways that enhance the agency of the many who depend on it - ministers, yes, but also parliamentarians, civil society, and the citizens who need a safe and vibrant society.
In this way, the very agency of public servants can become the engine that drives DRIVE. The goal should be for junior officers to gain the skills and competence to exercise that agency, using the power that is in Empower to make good decisions and take effective action, and to disrupt the cycle of risk-averse senior officers taking on more and more of the decision-making and other work because they have bought into the myth that those down there can't be trusted or relied upon.
It is, of course, a major paradigm shift for the APS, but if it doesn't start now, then when?
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