Why Public Sector Leaders Need to Loosen the Reins on Their Staff

25 May 2019

Most public sector managers are well aware of the importance of nurturing ‘boundary spanning’ skills. But, says Janine O’Flynn, they also need to trust their staff – and to relinquish control over their decision making.

The first issue of the Australian Journal of Public Administration, published in 1937, contained just two articles – one of which examined the role of the public service in representative democracies. Among the big questions posed in that article were questions of whether the public service had the capacity to undertake what citizens and government demanded of it at the time, and into the future. The author, Francis Bland, lamented that “far too little scientific study has been given to personnel problems in Australia, with the result that our present methods hardly provide us with the personnel demanded for the existing work of government, and would be quite unequal to the tasks of the future.”[i] Bland was also quick to note that he was not being critical of individual public servants – many of whom were his friends – but rather of “the system”.

Questions of whether our public services are ‘fit-for-purpose’ or ‘future-proof’, it seems, have a rather long history in public administration in Australia.

In Victoria, like in many parts of the world, there is ongoing talk about what the future of public service work will look like, and what that will mean for the types of skills and competencies for public servants. And while we might be at the precipice of the 4th industrial revolution, with a real lack of clarity of what is to come, these sorts of questions are likely to endure.

The focus on being ‘fit-for-purpose’ begs the question of what our purpose is, the broader question of the role of government, and what the future public service might look like. There is continued talk of the mix of technical and generalist skills, the need for a digital revolution, and a focus on the idea of ‘soft skills’ being critical (why we continue to call them ‘soft’ if they are so critical still eludes me). The mix, it seems, will matter.

A blend of new and old

In a recent book, Reimagining the Future Public Service Workforce,[ii] which brings together experts from practice and academic and from various parts of the world, editors Helen Dickinson, Catherine Needham, Catherine Mangan and Helen Sullivan take a deep dive into the future public service workforce. The big takeaway from this groundbreaking work is that our future workforce will need to cultivate new skills while nurturing the old, and that these will underpin new roles that will enable governments to deliver on their aspirations. The old roles – experts, regulators, engagers and reticulists – will blend with new roles – commissioners, curators, foresighters and storytellers. This combination of new and old matters; developing the new but allowing the old to deteriorate would undermine our ability to get the work of government done.

For some time now governments have been focused on how to work across boundaries more effectively. ‘Boundaries’ themselves are complicated and come in many forms – organisational, sectoral, knowledge, policy, group, cultures, jurisdictional, the list goes on. With my colleagues Fiona Buick and Eleanor Malbon, we describe the various types of boundaries in Reimagining the Future Public Service Workforce. We explore what sorts of boundaries are important, the driving imperatives for boundary-crossing work, and what organisations and leaders need to do to support this type of ‘boundary spanning’. And we make the important point that, in the end, all this talk about working across boundaries is actually all about people.

The idea of boundary spanners – those people and groups that navigate these boundaries – is critical to allow us to work more collaboratively, to join up within government and across sectors. But to date, we have not really focused enough on how we need to support boundary spanners to carry out their roles effectively.

Boundary spanners perform many roles as they move across boundaries. They transfer, filter and translate information, act as representatives of others in pursuing their interests, link groups together, broker and mediate, innovate and develop solutions to complex problems. To do all this, they need specific types of skills – interpersonal, cognitive, managerial, political and entrepreneurial.

At their best, boundary spanners make government tick. They navigate complexity to get the work of government done, developing and building the important relational capital that we draw down on, frequently, to overcome barriers to working together. The importance of this boundary crossing work, and the challenges of it, was highlighted in recent award-winning research by Jenny Stewart and James Warn, who showed Indigenous leaders often have to work between two worlds.[iii]

The way we arrange government tends to make boundary spanning tough. There is plenty of research, and plenty of professional experience, that has shown us that boundary spanners often get their work done despite the system – and that, over time, many burn out from the constant pressure of having to move between different worlds. But if we want to be able to work more effectively across boundaries, we need to build the supporting architecture for this kind of work.

Four big lessons for change

In our recent work on boundary spanning, we drew on decades of thinking in this area to sketch out some big lessons.

Big Lesson 1: Focus on culture not structure

Boundaries change, morph and move over time. And in Victoria big structural changes are fairly common, particularly when governments change. These disrupt boundaries and create new ones, transforming the public sector landscape. We spend too much time playing around with structures, and not enough cultivating the cultures that will support boundary spanning work. To develop these cultures, we need to invest in developing the supporting architecture for boundary spanners, and focusing on how we should go about leading and managing to embed the behaviours and values that matter. This means thinking differently about how we do everything from job design to sharing authority, and developing budget and performance systems that can enable joining up across boundaries.

These factors influence culture in very important ways, telling us what organisations and leaders really think is important. If culture is ‘the way we do things around here’ then we need to make sure that we create environments that support this boundary spanning work where we want it. Our research has shown that formal structures tell only part of the story. Culture matters enormously in setting behaviours and encouraging, or discouraging, more collaborative work across various boundaries.[iv]

Big Lesson 2: Build, nurture and protect the supporting architecture for success

We know that embedded ways often work against boundary spanning work. In many ways, boundary spanners become (positive) deviants in a world in which our sys tems are much more vertical and siloed. So, if we want them to flourish, and we need them to, we need to think differently about how to manage boundary spanners – and our human resource approaches need to match that. We need to invest in their skills and provide plenty of opportunity for them to exercise these. This means we need to move beyond telling people to work in this way to investing in their capability to do so. Our research found that failing to invest in the skills needed for joined up working meant that experiments didn’t really work.[v] We need to recognise and reward their positive contributions through our performance management approaches. We need to encourage peer learning and communities of practice that build recognition of these important roles and the unique skills that go with them.

The Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR) team at the 2018 IPAA Victoria Leadership in the Public Sector Awards.

The Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR) team at the 2018 IPAA Victoria Leadership in the Public Sector Awards.

One of the nominees for IPAA Victoria’s 2018 Leadership in the Public Sector Robust Governance Award, the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR), has demonstrated a particularly inclusive approach to such ‘people investment’. They sought to address a range of challenges that had emerged from internal boundaries – where their divisions managed integrity issues separately, and where a lack of boundary spanning behaviour was impacting on their ability to address risks. A recent organisation-wide focus on culture, structures and management helped the VCGLR to break down these internal boundaries, their divisions to work more effectively together, and their employees to play a more active role in identifying and measuring targets to build integrity into their work.

Big Lesson 3: Leadership sets the scene

More public sector leaders need to nurture these skills and help to build and develop their supporting architecture. Approaches to leading that emphasise trust, shared responsibility, inclusiveness, and high-quality communications clearly help to build relationships and organisational wins that promote success. Developing a clear purpose and ensuring that boundary spanners have the support of leaders in the organisation is critical to their success. On the other hand, talking about the importance of working across boundaries while creating and perpetuating environments that are hostile to it will undermine boundary spanning practice and the achievement of more joined up approaches to government.

In other words, leaders need to work hard to reset authority and accountability lines to make sure that boundary spanners don’t end up in situations where they get stuck in the middle with pressure pulling them back into silos. In research we carried out looking at experiments with joining up across government, we found these tensions made joining up hard to do in practice.[vi] Our fixation on programs, and the ways in which budgets and performance are tied so tightly to them, makes boundary spanning very hard work indeed. Leaders have important roles to play in rethinking budget models and connecting incentives to new ways of working. An important part of this will be in developing clear ‘rules of engagement’ for joined up approaches, which can help to develop the architecture needed for boundary spanners to shine.

Victorian public sector organisations that adopt such approaches are setting an important benchmark. The winner of IPAA Victoria’s latest Leading Employer Award at the 2018 Leadership in the Public Sector Awards, Westernport Water, has instilled remarkable transformational change by adopting a strong and inclusive plan for cultural change. Across a range of operational areas, leaders in the organisation have focused on articulating vision and purpose, building trust, improving the workplace – and staff engagement, unsurprisingly, has flourished. And Westernport’s leaders are setting the scene for working across different types of boundaries; one of the most powerful and poignant being with the community in leading the local It Had to End campaign with White Ribbon.

Westernport Water won the Leading Employer award at the 2018 IPAA Victoria Leadership in the Public Sector Awards.

Westernport Water won the Leading Employer award at the 2018 IPAA Victoria Leadership in the Public Sector Awards.

Big Lesson 4: Middle managers matter

While executive leaders ultimately drive change, middle managers hold the keys to individual employees’ ability to work across boundaries. Middle managers help to create the supporting architecture for success, and work with boundary spanners to develop the skills and relationships that enable these roles. This means investing in training and development and crafting appropriate performance plans and evaluation approaches. Our research showed that underinvesting in training and development constrained how much could be achieved through joining up.[vii]

Middle managers are often the organisational touchstone for boundary spanners; how they manage and empower individual employees really matters. Without the support of middle managers, boundary spanning efforts often fall over. In research we did looking at attempts by government organisations to join up across boundaries, we found it was very important for middle managers to be clear on lines of authority for those working across boundaries – and, even more so, to ensure that they have both vertical and horizontal accountabilities. Asking people to work across boundaries while hardwiring vertical reporting lines makes the practice of boundary spanning extremely challenging.

We also know that developing cultures that enable boundary spanners means giving permission to boundary spanners to act. Our research found that building trust is very important to successful boundary work. And an important part of that is ensuring that staff have the resources and responsibilities to get things done – and that managers reduce their tendency to control everything. One of the great challenges for boundary spanning in practice is the tendency for managers to reduce discretion over time and bring decision making back into the centre.[viii] This undermines the work of boundary spanners and reduces the effectiveness of joined up approaches. If we want people to work differently, we need to support them to be able to do it and we need to resist the temptation to try and control everything. This, we know, stifles our ability to achieve the very outcomes we want from working across boundaries. Encouraging staff to challenge the status quo, for example, was key to successful joined up experiments we saw in practice.[ix] This is a broader cultural value that many are advocating as critical to the next generation of government – #NextGenGov is a great example showcasing this in practice.[x]

Boundary spanners work across a multitude of boundaries and navigate pretty complex terrain to join up various parts of the puzzle we need to get the work of government done. Mostly we create hostile environments for this activity rather than building the supporting architecture for its success. To realise the true potential of more collaborative, joined-up ways of working we can’t rely on individuals who have the fortitude, patience and stamina to keep going despite the system. We need to build it for them.

Janine O’Flynn is Professor of Public Management at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government and the University of Melbourne, and is a Fellow of IPAA Victoria. Follow her on Twitter @JanineOFlynn.

[i] F.A. Bland (1937) The Role of the Public Service: Its Role in a System of Representative Democracy, Australian Journal of Public Administration, A1(1): 19-32. Read the article online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8500.1937.tb02123.x

[ii] H. Dickinson, C. Needham, C. Mangan, and H. Sullivan (2018) Reimagining the Future Public Service Workforce, Springer.

[iii] J. Stewart and J. Warn (2017) Between Two Worlds: Indigenous Leaders Exercising Influence and Working Across Boundaries, Australian Journal of Public Administration, 76(1):3-17. This article won the prestigious Same Richardson Award for the most influential paper published in the AJPA. Online at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-8500.12218

[iv] J. O’Flynn, F. Buick, D. Blackman, and J. Halligan (2011) You Win Some, You Lose Some: Experiments with Joined-Up Government, International Journal of Public Administration, 43(4): 244-254.

[v] J. O’Flynn et al (2011).

[vi] J. O’Flynn et al (2011).

[vii] J. O’Flynn et al (2011).

[viii] J. O’Flynn et al (2011).

[ix] J. O’Flynn et al (2011).

[x] A great article on #NextGenGov and the need to challenge established ways of doing things is featured in Apolitical online at: https://apolitical.co/solution_article/how-to-make-governance-fit-for-the-future-7-lessons-from-innovators/