The foundations are there. The Public Service Act shifted the dial, set the tone, offered a springboard. It provided the beginnings of what may be profound change. But good foundations and promising beginnings have trumpeted transformational change many times in the public service. Enabling legislative frameworks, new initiatives, and fresh advisory groups proliferate, but few things change unless there is relentless urgency to implement what is promised.
I have received feedback from respected and capable leaders from outside government who worry that the public sector will not really change; indeed, they assert that it does not want to fundamentally change. Agencies restructure and people churn from one organisation to another, making long-term partnerships difficult. Great ideas from outside are stopped in their tracks. People see so many great initiatives championed by wonderful public servants. But they see less mainstreaming of all of this excellence, so that the system itself rarely shifts at its core.
The seismic shock that was COVID pushed many public servants out of their comfort zones and released a productive, collaborative capacity and an agility that could not have been imagined before. It illustrated the strengths of top down and bottom up, with science, evidence, and rapid centralised decision making at one end and devolved power with decision rights to community groups at the other. A unified public service is not a one-size-fits-all service.
COVID facilitated a dramatic demonstration of community capability. Māori were reachable through Māori channels, which had never been achieved before by the public service. It must have opened public servants’ eyes to entirely new models of service delivery. How radically changed are our service delivery models? In fact, perhaps service delivery is the wrong term. More a partnership with people who have the lived experience, supporting capability building and engaging in building active citizenship. Can this transformation, especially for Māori, be accelerated through system change?
IPANZ is an independent voice and highly committed to championing the public administration system and supporting its members – public servants. IPANZ has been described as a critical friend. But as I depart, I wish I had found a way to bring a stronger impetus for systemic transformation from all that I have heard from outside, and often from within, the public service. The comments I have heard are not intended to undermine public servants, although they can be critical. They are intended to shine a light on the potential for doing so much better, and this can release the creativity of public servants – creating an authorising environment that encourages risk taking and rewards innovation.