Winner of the IPAA WA 2018 Young Professional 'Expand Your Horizons' Scholarship, MsSamantha Kennedy, reviews her experience at the IPAA 2018 National Conference in Melbourne.

I attended the IPAA 2018 National Conference on 17 October 2018 as the recipient of the 2018 ‘Expand Your Horizons’ IPAA WA Young Professional Scholarship. The Conference, titled Fault Lines for the Future of the Public Sector, aimed to examine trends and issues with the potential to dramatically change the sector.  I welcomed the opportunity to hear from leading professionals on Conference themes – growing community expectations, changing methods of service delivery, complex intergovernmental relations, capability gaps and workforce change – as these challenges resonate with those faced by my team in the reform of the rural fire sector in Western Australia. We are also navigating through one of the key ‘public sector fault lines’ that was to be discussed at the Conference, ‘collapsing community trust in institutions’, in establishing sector leadership and in developing a truly shared approach to addressing bushfire risk in Western Australia.

The Conference commenced with a lively breakfast session ‘From Westeros to Westminster’, sharing Game of Thrones-inspired lessons for today’s public servants. Presenters Professor Catherine Althaus and David Threlfal from ANZSOG entertained with proposals that the dilemmas we face as contemporary public servants are shared with advisors in the fictional Westeros, namely the pressures of providing frank and fearless advice, the necessity of collecting evidence to support claims, the risks of giving poor advice, and the fate of being forced to fall on one’s sword. Illustrated through GoT plotlines, they concluded that public servants must become iterative and user-centric in their approach to policy and program development, and embrace traits of curiosity and disruption, or face dire (wolf?) consequences. Key messages for survival in a rapidly changing world (due to ice walkers or otherwise) included develop and maintain political nous, be dedicated to ‘evidence’, cooperate with your neighbours (states or agencies), be a positive risk taker, follow through with your delivery and don’t stop until it is done, and learn from your successes and failures.  

The 2018 Garran Oration was delivered by Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs, former President of the Human Rights Commission. Professor Triggs used examples from her career to reflect on current challenges to the ‘ideal’ of a public servant. Professor Triggs literally illustrated the ‘politicisation’ of her work by discussing cartoons that had been used to portray her in the media. A key message was the overemphasis of ‘balance’ in the advice provided by the public service, with Professor Triggs proposing that you should hunt for the truth and let that guide your advice.

The Conference was run as a series of interactive panel sessions, facilitated by Walkley Award-winning political journalist Tony Jones. To replicate the true ‘Q&A’ experience, the audience was encouraged to ask questions and contribute to discussions using the Slido platform.  The first panel ‘Professional Public Servants in a Hyper-Partisan World’ session expanded on themes from the Garran Oration.  Panellists included G.Edward DeSeve, Senior Fellow, Fels Institute of Government, University of Pennsylvania and former Special Advisor to President Obama, Jill Rutter, Director, Institute for Government, UK, and Professor Helen Sullivan, Director, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU. This session asked ‘what can we learn from the US, the UK and Asia about what it means to be a public sector professional in a hyper-partisan political world?’. Audience questions focused on the implications of the real and perceived disconnect of the public service from the public they serve, with panellists drawing examples from the ‘deep state conspiracies’ fuelling the ‘drain the swamp’ agenda in the US, and similar movements against public servants involved in negotiating Brexit arrangements in the UK. Panellists agreed on the need to be user-focused, individualise user experiences, and the importance of using inclusive language and messaging in government policies and programs.

Discussions then moved to ‘The Reality of the AI/Automation Revolution’ with panellists Professor Jeff Borland, Professor of Economics, University of Melbourne, Vaughan Klein, Director, Collaborations Australia and New Zealand, Cisco, and Ellen Broad, Head of Technical Delivery Data61, CSIRO. Speakers explored the question ‘what is the realistic potential for automation and artificial intelligence to reshape the forms and functions of public sector workplaces, workforces and service delivery?’. Discussions highlighted the importance of recognising the human element in the design of AI/automation, and the impact our inherent biases may have on the seemingly objective outcomes of these processes. Panel conversations also demonstrated the importance of being transparent with how AI/automation is being used by organisations and government agencies to ensure public trust is retained.

Professor Peter Shergold AC, IPAA National President, then presented findings of his recent research into the extent to which the public service in Australia is ‘fit for purpose’. The findings of the research, based on a survey of over 800 professionals working within or with the public service across Australia, were fairly sobering. The research assisted in quantifying the pressures on the public service as discussed by many of the panellists, and the impact that these pressures are having on the professional experiences of sector employees. Professor Shergold concluded that a narrative of purpose of the public service is needed – we need to be more vocal about the important role and contribution made by the public service in Australia.

Findings presented by Professor Shergold set the scene for the third session, ‘Consultants, Capabilities and the Public Sector – Finding the Balance’, with panellists Dr Paul Grimes PSM, Victorian Public Sector Commissioner, Emma Hogan, NSW Public Service Commissioner, Paul Low, National Leader, Infrastructure, Government and Healthcare at KPMG, Danielle Wood, Program Director, Grattan Institute, and Carolyn Curtis, CEO, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation. This session explored how the public sector can leverage consultants to achieve outcomes while continuing to develop capabilities within the public sector for longer-term success. Audience members and panellists questioned if the public service is over-reliant on consultants, with strong concerns emerging that an over-reliance may be contributing to the de-skilling of the public sector. This risk was illustrated by the experience of panellist Carolyn Curtis, who suggested that leaving her public service position had been necessary for her to be able influence significant change in her sector. Tony Jones probed panellists on appropriate use of consultants, with general agreement that consultants were appropriate where new or diverse thinking was required in a targeted area, and if arrangements could be put in place to ensure skills and knowledge were transferred to agency staff.   

The highlight of the day was the final Q&A style session ‘Navigating the Public Sector Fault Lines’. An all-star panel explored the future of the public sector, with insights from Terry Moran AC, former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Gordon de Brouwer PSM, former Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of the Environment and Energy, Gill Callister, Secretary of the Victorian Department of Education and Training, Simon Phemister, Deputy Secretary, Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, Cathryn Greville, Director, Office of the Auditor General WA, and Dr Jill Charker, Deputy Secretary, Australian Government Department of Jobs and Small Business. While discussions spanned a range of topics, two key messages stayed with me. Firstly, the key role of young professionals in bridging the perceived disconnect between the public sector and the public they serve, and in healing the growing crisis-of-confidence within the service. For this role to be fulfilled, agencies need to invest in active professional development of young professionals, including exposing them to community-facing roles. Secondly, ‘the future is co-design’. Inclusiveness is just as important as diversity, and we need to get better at giving people a voice in the design of government policies and programs.

I would like to sincerely thank IPAA WA and its members for supporting me to attend the 2018 IPAA National Conference. It was wonderful professional development opportunity, and provided many insights that I will apply to my work. I encourage all eligible young professionals to apply for the ‘Expand Your Horizons’ IPAA WA Young Professional Scholarship in 2019.

To find out more about applying for the 2019 IPAA Young Professional Scholarship - click here.