Laurie Patton. Generalists and specialists in the Australian public service.

Apr 19, 2016

Why the ‘theory of empty spaces’ hurts public sector performance 

The other day I was talking to a friend who recently retired from the public service. After a career lifetime of studied discretion he now wears as a badge of honour his entitlement to express independent views. Many of these are critical of the processes that played a pivotal part in his rise to a very senior posting. I have a number of colleagues who are now “ex-job”, having also held extremely high level public service roles. I enjoy hearing about their work experiences more now that they are unencumbered by ambition than was ever possible as they climbed the greasy pole.

When I left university I briefly worked in the public service, before leaving to pursue a career that my friends euphemistically describe as ‘eclectic’. However, in a number of roles over the years I have had the opportunity to observe close-hand how public sector management operates.

The first piece of valuable advice I was given as a junior public servant what “keep moving”. Never stay too long in the one role, even if you love what you are doing. Upward progress requires continuous lateral movement. Apart from avoiding or evading responsibility when, from time to time, things inevitably go wrong constant movement allows you to gain a broad range of policy development skills. Policy skills generally outweigh any other consideration in the minds of selection panels for senior appointment I’ve since learned.

Someone once described life in the public sector as akin to a game of checkers. In checkers the aim is to get your ‘piece’ to the other side of the board as fast as possible. In the public service it is to move ever upwards towards the top, again as fast as is logistically practical.

In checkers the shortest route is straight ahead. However, the quickest route usually involves sideways movement. Waiting for the space ahead to become vacant, like waiting to assume the role held currently by your ‘one-up’ is not a viable strategy.

Constant movement from division to division, from department to department provides public servants with a wide exposure to issues and the ability to refine their policy making skills. More importantly, it enables them to maximise career progression. What is also does, sadly, is deliver an executive structure full of generalist. People who having never stayed anywhere long enough to become experts in any particular field themselves, invariably have limited respect for those with deep subject matter expertise.

I remain perplexed about the so-called ‘pink bats’ episode, where tragically a number of people died because they were allowed to operate unsafe working practices. Apparently nobody in the relevant department thought to ensure that OH&S regulations were followed by the companies they were funding to undertake what was widely seen a clever and worthwhile project. The first thing to note is that OH&S is largely a state responsibility anyway. But more to the point, how is an accomplished musician-turned-politician supposed to know to inquire about something as basic as workplace safety? Surely Peter Garrett was entitled to assume that this was under control and in someone’s eyesight? Someone with direct and relevant experience.

But the real flaw in the process, in my opinion, was presuming that anyone in a department that was otherwise primarily concerned with lofty issues like climate change and the like would necessarily  have had any experience in industrial relations. Where was the subject matter expertise on which the minster was surely entitled to rely?

The impetus for this essay was the recent news that the federal public service has apparently enlisted the assistance of senior Telstra executives to help improve management performance. Having worked at Telstra along the way I found this mildly amusing. Telstra, like a certain university with which I had a close association a while back, seems to have pretty much ignored the last twenty years of public sector reform.

The public sector has undergone significant restructuring and re-assessed its management practices in recent years. It is arguably much leaner and more efficient at senior levels than it once was. But until the theory of empty spaces is no longer a viable career plan there’s a limit to how much better things can get.

In conversation with my erstwhile mandarin friend the other day I posed this question. Is it a given that a public sector organisation can never be as efficiently run as a comparable private business? We both refused to accept that this was the case. No more empty spaces please.


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