Blink and miss it: the modern public purpose workforce has just pivoted

10 Sep 2019

The social, economic and environmental world is rapidly evolving, and the public purpose workforce of the future must adapt to meet the challenge. Ben Schramm explores the thinking that will equip tomorrow’s public purpose professionals for success.

We have long known that today’s public purpose organisations are responding and adapting to a complex and changing world. The ‘megatrends’ of today are more than impressive labels; they’re the mountains we need to climb to create real and lasting public value in the next economy. And they’re big, imposing and tricky.

Smart cities; artificial intelligence; demographic and social transformation; urbanisation; the emergence of Asia and the developing world; proliferating chronic illness; declining trust in public institutions; climate change and scarcity of natural resources; global commercialisation and the sharing economy; participatory democracy… and we’re only just scratching the surface.

Success for tomorrow’s public purpose sector means embracing the paradox of these trends as both challenge and opportunity. They will demand new ways of thinking and doing business, but will also provide us with the tools and technologies to do so.

The question is: how?

Stepping off the hamster wheel

In 2018, IPAA Victoria and Cube Group embarked on a project to answer that question. We wanted to know what skills and attitudes the Victorian public purpose sector would need to succeed into the future, and we approached some of the biggest thinkers in our sector to answer it.

We engaged with thought leaders from Victoria’s public service departments and public entities – secretaries, deputy secretaries, CEOs and executive leaders – alongside a dynamic cohort of young public purpose professionals, and searched for answers through more than 20 one-on-one, small group and workshop conversations. As themes emerged, we brainstormed and prioritised them with IPAA Victoria’s Board and Programs Committee – always endeavouring to put the community at the centre of our thinking.

The outputs are enticing, and they focus around five ‘big ideas’.

Big idea 1: We need to level up our outcomes and evidence literacy

Our consultations were all anchored in a central theme – the essence of public purpose work is the creation of public value, and modern public purpose professionals are stewards of that value.

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The sentiment is unambiguous, but the way we describe these social, economic, environmental and cultural outcomes varies wildly. If we are to come together as a cohesive public purpose ecosystem, we need to be talking the same language. Modern partnerships start with a public value conversation – not services, structures or budgets. We align on purpose first.

But outcomes clarity and consistency are only one side of the coin. They need an available, valid and reliable evidence base behind them. Evidence about health and wellbeing. Evidence about community inclusion and cohesion. Evidence about economic vibrancy.  Evidence about sustainable development, and so much more.

When it comes to that evidence – our ability to generate, share and use it – the view communicated to us is that we’re patchy. Without confidence in the evidence we reach for, we won’t have confidence to address the megatrends of the world with bold, informed and timely decisions.

In climbing the evidence mountain, there’s a pressing supply and demand conundrum we need to keep front of mind. One deputy secretary described it succinctly: “The amount of data we have access to is increasing at a rate that exceeds our ability to analyse it.”

It raises an issue that’s sticky but not immutable: we need to get better at analysing data, but we need to be strategic and intentional about what data we choose to capture and interrogate. It’s a powerful sentiment – yes, we should climb the evidence mountain, but let’s make sure it’s the right mountain first.

Big idea 2: It’s time to link skill development to public purpose career events

A fascinating topic of our consultations related to the events that occur during a ‘typical’ public purpose career pathway, and our ability to target skill development around them.

Consider this. Many of the public services we seek and receive centre around significant personal events in our lives: going to a new school, getting married, having a baby, a family emergency, buying a new car or house, and so on.

What if we applied that thinking to career events? The first time you manage a team. The first time you have responsibility for a budget. The first time you brief a secretary or minister. The first project you run. The first steering committee you sit on. The first time you engage with the community.

There are many. And each requires a capability shift – but seldom do our professional development efforts equip our emerging leaders with the skills and insights they need to navigate that transition smoothly. As one public purpose leader put it: “We too often throw people into sink-or-swim scenarios.”

For example, we unreasonably expect policy ‘guns’ to be wonderful people managers and throw them over the top of a team of 10. Or we expect great operations managers to expertly navigate the minister’s office, and send them to deliver the briefing. It’s often a recipe for failure – and it doesn’t have to be.

As we turn our minds to the megatrends influencing our sector, the waters will only get choppier, and the stakes higher. It’s time to deepen our understanding of career events, and wrap our workforce planning and professional development strategies around them.

Big idea 3: To foster deep innovation, we need to step outside the ecosystem

Innovation is a pervasive but elusive idea that tantalises many public purpose leaders.

An interesting theme emerging from our discussions was the need to define and shift the ‘mindset’ of the modern public purpose professional from caution to courage, from status quo to new ways of working and leading change, and from service delivery to problem solving and solutions.

While these are admirable goals, our best ‘creative thinking’ intentions are so often frustrated by red tape, limited budgets, and arduous sign-off processes – not to mention constantly mounting day-to-day service delivery and ministerial reporting demands. Space, time, methods and practice are all conditions for innovation, but their presence is becoming increasingly rare in modern public purpose work settings.

As one CEO described it: “Sometimes the forces within the ecosystem are so strong, that you need to step outside them to see and think clearly.” That’s not necessarily a failing of our sector, but the reality of modern innovation.  

This line of thinking surfaces several pressing questions. Will our leaders be willing to create and truly invest in arms-length ‘safe spaces’ for public purpose innovation? What might they look like: innovation labs, collaboration platforms, mixed-use service/solution centres or pop-up problem-solving hubs?

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Must they always exist outside public purpose organisations, or can they become an integral part of our future departments, public entities, councils and community service organisations? How will they stimulate the best collaboration, thinking and transformational problem solving? And, perhaps most importantly, how will we re-integrate outcomes back into our workplaces so they ‘stick’ and strengthen public value?

These are questions we need to answer soon if we are to shift away from short-term, urgent response rhythms, to anticipatory planning and long-term strategic thinking that transcends budget and ‘MOG’ cycles. As it turns out, sometimes ‘leaning out’ is better than ‘leaning in’.

Big idea 4: It’s time to get serious about institutional memory and workforce mobility

The fluidity of today’s public purpose workforce was consistently identified as one of our greatest future challenges and opportunities, and shaping a core understanding of what it means to be a modern public purpose professional was seen as a foundational question. 

Almost all the big thinkers we consulted believe the public purpose professional of the future will be more mobile than ever, deploying their skills and experience across not only their teams and organisations, but their broader portfolio and ultimately the entire cross-sector ecosystem.  

This brings with it the crucial need for our sector to facilitate this mobility by creating pathways for talent movement, sharing and transitions. Our next generation of leaders are seeking and expecting less linear career progression, and a strong appetite exists for experience pathways that shift focus in and out of role, portfolio and sector – it’s a wave we can, and should, ride. OneVPS reforms are already taking some exciting steps in that direction. 

Mobility can help us tackle another key issue raised during our consultations – unlocking institutional memory. Several of the leaders and young professionals we spoke with were alarmed that we reinvent, reprosecute and reinvest in paths we have walked before – without drawing on our reflections and lessons from those experiences.  

While the collective lessons of our sector should keep an elephant’s memory busy, our constant pace of change, lack of reflective practice, and underinvestment in sector-wide knowledge management is more akin to a goldfish; we deliver, move on, and the memory vanishes.

Being a modern, innovative and agile public purpose workforce can and should sit comfortably alongside learning and leveraging the lessons of the past. 

Big idea 5: ‘The art of getting things done’ requires a new set of skills and attitudes

The ‘art of getting things done’ was a key topic of our consultations, and focused on the need for public purpose professionals to navigate role, team, organisation, community, the public purpose ecosystem, and ultimately the public value ecosystem, where actors from all sectors of the economy play an important role.

We heard that solving problems within and across these systems will require public purpose professionals to grasp complexities at micro and macro levels, recognise and respond to internal and external perspectives, think on their feet, and broker, negotiate and build relationships with diverse stakeholders. Many leaders highlighted that strong public purpose partnerships are forged by a willingness to “step into the shared space” and that building trust requires a willingness to “show vulnerability and go first”.

The sentiment from our big thinkers was unequivocal: single-portfolio thinking is going the way of the dodo. We must join up, connect and collaborate more than ever before, and to do that will require a powerful mindset shift towards new and innovative models of partnership and collaboration, supported by skills and methods that span the boundaries.

Some wonderful articles on The Hub, by Adrian Robb, Thilini Madusanka and Janine O’Flynn, further explore some of these partnerships and collaborative models, and how we can bring them to life.

Ideas to action: the IPAA Victoria Public Purpose Capability Framework

So where to from here?

IPAA Victoria has been pondering that question, and has taken a key step towards translating these insights into action. The IPAA Victoria Public Purpose Capability Framework distils the ideas we heard through our consultations and grafts them with the wonderful NESTA Competency Framework for Experimenting & Public Problem Solving (2017). This model explores the key skills, attitudes and behaviours that public sector innovators combine in order to solve public problems, and formed the foundation of our capability framework. Check out NESTA’s framework (along with other terrific resources) here.

The IPAA Victoria Public Purpose Capability Framework is a platform that can guide the way we think about the strategic development of Victoria’s public purpose workforce. It’s a central theme for some exciting IPAA Victoria initiatives that will use this framework as a springboard. Read, use, and watch this space!

The framework underpins IPAA Victoria’s Programs Strategy 2019-2023. This strategy is set to revolutionise IPAA Victoria’s professional learning and development opportunities, from the way they’re delivered to the topics and transitions they explore. More information can be found here.  

Ben Schramm is the founder and Managing Partner of Cube Group, a purpose-driven management consultancy working with public purpose organisations throughout Australia. Cube works at the centre of positive change, supporting clients with strategic planning, policy development, organisation design, business case development, service planning, and program evaluation.