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Leading In Turbulent Times: The Challenge
by Dan Moss
Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk
With government increasingly unpredictable, the challenge is for agency heads to negotiate, be
resourceful and adapt at speed. Global thought leader Paul ’t Hart offers some important
advice. Australian governments are increasingly embroiled in a turbulent electoral cycle,
political and parliamentary. How a modern public service leader adapts to changing times, an
onerous public case and changing ideologies while maintaining their credibility is the question
for everyone facing these challenges.
Greece is undergoing its greatest political turnaround since the global financial crisis after the
election of a left-radical Syriza government. Syriza’s election led to bond market turbulence and
fears of a domino-effect of countries leaving the Eurozone, and has since been met with a
hardline approach from its creditors.
In western Europe, the political landscape is being fragmented as the ideological centre is
hollowed out and smaller parties are being elected in their place, according to Utrecht
University School of Governance Professor Paul ‘t Hart, who maintains that despite differences
in electoral systems it can happen in Australia. And to a degree it already has.
“Centrist, mainstream, majority parties are becoming an endangered species in European
politics, and I don’t see any a priori reason why that should not also occur in Australian politics,
regardless of the rules,” said ‘t Hart, who also leads the Australia and New Zealand School of
Government Towards Strategic Leadership Program.
In the past three years the Northern Territory has changed leaders three times and talk of a
fourth change is in the air, the federal government went from a long-term conservative
government under John Howard to a Kevin Rudd-led Labor leadership to a Julia Gillard-led
minority government to the Tony Abbott-led conservative regime, which has just survived a
leadership spill threat.
Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland have worked through groundswell changes of
leadership in their state parliaments and NSW is due for an election on March 28. Minority
views and agendas in parliaments are undoubtedly having an impact.
Public servants are being asked to manage through these times, at once educating new
officeholders on governance as well as guiding their contractors, suppliers, staff and higher
management through changing priorities. Paul ‘t Hart says public servants ascending through
the ranks are faced with day-to-day politics but must manage their areas strategically.
“The people who move up and who reach these kinds of positions have to deal with these
realities and that interface between the hurry and strife of day-to-day politics and what ideally
would be a more strategic process to running a government and addressing complex social
problems,” he said, speaking by phone from Utrecht, Netherlands.
“They have to constantly negotiate that interface in a way that on the one hand does justice to
the role that professional civil servants have in the democratic process where you’re supposed
to be responsive to the needs of the government of the day, and on the other hand the
requirements of an organisation of professionals that is the repository of certain values and
standards that could go beyond or even be at odds with the political imperatives of the day.
“You need people who are more resourceful than just being professional problem solvers in an
area of responsibility.”
Sometimes new governments announce major policy and organisational changes off hand. This
creates uncertainty in all directions outside the organisation and within. Public service leaders
then need to “manage down, manage up, and manage out” all at the same time, ‘t Hart says. “It
requires a lot of versatility, a lot of communication, a lot of listening skills to be that buffer and
remain credible,” he said.
The challenge is to be proactive and not just responsive. Modern public servants should
embody complexity, assertiveness and challenge old models of the public service, ‘t Hart
“We do encourage people to be a be more assertive, to be looking at themselves not just as
technocrats but also as guardians of public sector values that may well transcend the priorities
But in Hart’s model there is “no rulebook”; it requires debate and balance, and knowing when
to stop the debate. At stake is that politicians could attach themselves to a position that they
cannot retreat from, such as publicly announcing a project or making changes to departmental
structures in order to appear mobile and active.
“Not to play that game is risking irrelevance or invisibility, which is two sides of the same coin in
politics,” he said. But at the forefront the “ultimate rationale” for the political system is to
produce value for the community.
“Public servants are entitled to challenge politicians to make credible public value propositions
for the policies they propose. If there’s not a good public value case to be made then there’s a
big question mark over whether one should just buckle up and comply,” he said.
“At the end of the day, if the democratically elected government demands a certain thing to be
done it will have to be done, but in the end our challenge is to empower public servants to be
proactive, smart and astute in getting a seat at the tables where those discussions are being
had before they are cast into stone by ministers and their offices.”