Applying the new Public Service Act in practice - the follow up

Back on August 5th we had a great panel talking about the opportunities presented by the Public Service Act 2020. We also got our audience to contribute ideas and commitments... so what's our take-home from it all?

The four presenters provided compelling and thought provoking ideas and stories to the forum. A huge thank you to our panelists! This was reflected in the excellent contributions from participants in the workshop.

Below is a brief overview some of the feedback contributed from the workshop public servant participants both in person and online. We condensed the answers from question 1 into categories for ease of reading (and to compare to the system barriers presented), but the rest is verbatim from some of the participants. 

1. What challenges do you see in your workplace/department, that create the greatest barriers to a great public service that provides true service to the community?

A range of system barriers and necessarily system settings for change were presented by some of our panel. 

  • Prioritisation issues: Foundational or transformational work that would deliver real impact never gets prioritised, due to too much of a focus on announceables rather than public value. Delivery restrictions are often specified by Ministers or legislation e.g. timelines, budgets, efficiency focuses, which misses opportunities to address evidence based needs, or to be good stewards for long term fundamental departmental responsibilities. These fundamentals often face resource challenges or underfunding, without a means to get prioritised.
  • Senior leadership barriers: The incentive of being "safe" has resulted in a barrier to institutional change. There is a lack of strategic direction and open communication. Middle and senior management often driven by self interest, with incentives that favour the individual rather than the collective, leading to behaviours that can create risk for communities and staff by minimising personal risk for leadership. Staff are delegated tasks without any decision making, and rarely drawn on for expertise, strategic or futures thinking. There is no consistency to leadership styles and very little staff empowerment, so teams become as disempowered as the worst case. 
  • Cultural barriers: being told to provide nice advice rather than frank advice. A disconnect between real world and people sitting behind the desks, attracting people that reflect the communities we service, eg. attracting kai Māori. Staff aren't encouraged enough to look across at what others are doing, provided no time or headspace for it. Cynicism and patch protection are a real problem, and how to transition to a “service culture”. A culture of pushing decisions up rather than empowering and delegating decision making down. Fear of getting anything wrong means fearful behaviours emerge.
  • System barriers: Not enough horizontal culture change to sustain (or make consistently applied) any change. Pockets of change do not enable system wide change. 
  • Departmental barriers: Constant restructures and a collection of fiefdoms created as part of culture, resulting in less cohesion or collaboration across the department. Different areas don't have a good understanding of what each other does. In some cases they don't even know that particular functions of the organisation exist.
  • Engagement barriers: engagement and external comms is controlled by set teams within our agency, meaning public servants can’t genuinely, easily or effectively engage with the public on service or policy design. We also struggle to communicate AoG initiatives internally.
  • Personal barriers: govt is often a tangled quagmire of incomprehensible and opaque process spaghetti, irrational and undocumented, burning out people's souls trying to understand it, let alone improve it.

2. What could you do in your workplace to apply the PSA2020 in your workplace, for better public outcomes and service to the community?

  • Commit to open work, giving free and frank advice
  • Voice the need for inclusive community engagement
  • We are building design thinking into all of our initiatives
  • Make sure the documents we produce are compliant with the PSA.
  • Discuss the interesting changes that the PSA makes in order to spread awareness of the PSA. 
  • Reading it through, and bringing it up in my team meeting to make sure that everyone is cognisant of it
  • Improving our Māori crown relationships. Increasing our capability to meaningfully engage with Māori
  • Challenge any overly risk averse thinking. Pour cold water on cynicism
  • Cross agency collaboration and contributing to communities of practice to share and align innovative solutions to pre-existing problems.
  • Mana aki, being open and honest, respecting peoples decision.
  • We need to better apply te Tiriti principles and make international conventions work for New Zealand.
  • Start including PSA compliance statements in programme initiation materials.
  • To highlight constructively when we observe the misuse of values
  • Look for good examples across my agency and promote them.
  • Block out 10% of my time for "playing"/ innovating.
  • Start to call out cynicism, patch protection and privilege. Need a new type of leadership that can cut through the toxic culture that grew out of NPM.
  • Gain an understanding and identify opportunities for application.
  • Talk about them! Visibly align team purpose and approach to the principles and values. Keep talking about them whenever we scope a new piece of work.
  • Like the sound of 10% exploration, innovation, experimentation, public engagement.
  • Find the sane people and somehow get them in charge
  • Try and build extra capacity in the roles of people to allow for innovation and incremental change

3. What is holding you back personally from being the best public service you can imagine, or being more collaborative, transparent and outcomes focused?

  • Recognition of the change required from leadership
  • I am lucky to have a manager that devolves decision making to the team, we do get caught out by some of the wider org processes though.  Resilience working in the public service is a must, I see so many people spin out within 2 years it's just to hard for them they get jaded with the 'red tape' that exists, how do we just do
  • The senior leaders at my organisation - my ability to do my own thinking on projects is considerably strained. I’m told how to do something so that it will be approved, rather than thinking about how the project might be the most effective can be. Perhaps it could be coined as ‘approval culture’.
  • Lack of knowledge about the system and not necessarily knowing where to start
  • Organisation culture inhibits robust discussions, no clear decision making process
  • Nothing. I am the best I can be and use other networks and resources to connect, collaborate and navigate outside the system
  • The culture that we have within the public service that drives change from the top that doesn't seem to filter down, particularly to the operational teams that desperately need empowerment.
  • It's pretty good where I am actually. Don't perceive too many barriers at my level. But I see lots for managers, and for colleagues who work in ICT
  • Institutionalised helplessness constantly coming up against institutional resistance to change
  • Lack of clear direction, politics between people leaders which flows down to the team culture and stops you from achieving.
  • Sector complexity means that public servants are often not closely involved in delivering to members to the public i.e. public servants are often supporting sector participants e.g. a software provider, who may be 1-2 steps away from directly serving the public. This can make improving public services difficult and slow.
  • Not authentic display of leadership and respect of people’s ability
  • Initiatives under the PSA will be considered as extra noise outside of my BAU work and other strategies which require my time.
  • Lack of sleep. Having too many areas of focus competing for prioritisation.
  • Nothing.
  • I am a new hire :-) The converse of that of course is that I don't have many preconceived notions…
  • Time
  • Clear vision and direction, stopping low value activity.
  • Gatekeeping of information and decision flows by people who benefit from or are comfortable with the status quo
  • The will to change. Everyone I know is stretched, no room for anything else.
  • Difficulty in collaborating across government. Support to work on change itself.

4. What will you do this week to do your part to improve things?

  • Champion public service values, with free and frank advice
  • Creating space that 10% for experimenting thinking differently
  • Ask more questions about how we engage with community and low engagement groups / end users and look for information about how this is being done effectively elsewhere
  • Discuss approval culture with my manager and how we might combat it.
  • Discuss this session and share the pre reading with colleagues - those who are cynical and those who are not
  • Add 10% of innovative creative thinking to my week
  • My job at the moment is trying to improve things and drive change. So I intend to keep bugging my management team in driving that change.
  • Help run this forum!
  • Open korero about the act with my colleagues
  • Bring my full self to work and do your very best every day.
  • Share the learning from this session with my colleagues and executives to start a conversation that could result in real change.
  • Let my team know more about the PSA 2020!
  • Read through the public service act and look for opportunities to start some conversations around it within my team.
  • Keep asking open and future focussed questions. Keep checking my privilege. Keep asking myself what outcomes are we chasing, and how can we achieve them WITH the affected/impact community.
  • I'm here!
  • Share that I attended this meeting with my team and talk about things we can do together
  • Stop asking permission
  • Share ideas from this workshop with visionaries in my organisation
  • Read PSA2020

You can access Hugo's slides here.
You can access Pia's slides here.
You can access Nadia & Michelle's slides here.
You can access a recording on the event here.