Doing more with what we have

21 October 2014

This article was published in Issue 40, Oct-Dec 2014 of Public Administration Today.

Even in times of fiscal constraint, the community has high expectations for well-delivered, high-quality public services. Public Sector Commissioner, Mal Wauchope, – a featured speaker at IPAA’s 2014 International Conference in Perth – says it’s now more important than ever the public sector improves efficiencies and effectiveness through innovative practices and greater productivity – to do more with available resources.

The public sector operates in a dynamic environment. Across the nation governments are seeking savings to bring budgets into line. In Western Australia, it’s no different. In this climate, it is natural attention will turn to public sector salaries – after all, public sector employees often represent the highest cost to the bottom-line. Of course, public sector employees also represent government investment in the skills, talent and experience needed to deliver its priorities and services.

Investing in people

For me, as Public Sector Commissioner, a natural progression is identifying how this investment in people could be enhanced by renewing the focus on productivity and improving employee performance. The commission has a clear mandate to assist the public sector better understand and measure the productivity of individual agencies and the sector as a whole. This is particularly significant given the sector here employs some 138,000 people from the public purse.

Of the many levers that can improve productivity, it’s clear to me some of the most important are skills investment, employee engagement and performance management.

Increasing productivity and engagement

Over the last 19 years, the commission and its predecessors have examined, by survey, employee views on a range of workplace issues, including perceived job satisfaction. More recently, we’ve begun identifying the workplace factors that are strong drivers of employee motivation and commitment and which result in improved employee engagement. An ‘engagement index’, determined from several questions in this year’s survey will be compared across jurisdictions to benchmark our results.

For me, the real benefit of applying an employee engagement model is the identification of strengths and weaknesses within agencies and the sector more broadly. This enables the commission to provide more targeted support to agencies.

Part of improving overall performance is to ensure employees have access to ongoing professional development and opportunities to diversify knowledge, skills and experience. Building breadth and depth in the workforce will ultimately enhance the agency’s capacity to deliver quality services.

My conclusions on how to improve public sector productivity are to conduct regular and meaningful performance management to improve individual, team and organisational performance; create practices that engage employees and identify new ways of working; build leadership capability, across all levels of the organisation: and combine formal and on-the-job learning with opportunities to expand knowledge and skills.

Creating a new model

The commission has focused on supporting and fostering public sector capability and leadership development, with the establishment, earlier this year, of the Centre for Public Sector Excellence. It supports the ‘70:20:10’ principle of development and renews investment in whole-of-sector development priorities using practical, continuous and collaborative learning opportunities.

The centre’s structure and services were determined in consultation with a range of public sector stakeholders, with an advisory board that shapes development and delivery of core curricula. Over time, these sessions should assist in achieving better results for those who work in the delivery agencies.

Changing the emphasis

The future of the sector must be framed within the reality of fiscal constraints, the need to respond to complex policy and service delivery priorities and, increasingly, the need to manage interacting and overlapping waves of change. The sector needs to build on existing good practice, find opportunities for innovation and collaboration and develop consistent and evidence-based practices.

As such, I feel ‘doing more with less’ is a misnomer that understates the sector’s continuous drive for improvements in public administration and management and its ability to respond to current and emerging challenges. Better that we view current constraints as an opportunity to do more with what we have and the chance to do business differently.

Page last updated 3 November 2015