Generalists and specialists in the Australian public service. Why the ‘theory of empty spaces’ hurts public sector performance

By LAURIE PATTON | 19 April 2016

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-public servants, having held extremely high level executive roles. I enjoy hearing about their work experiences more now that they are unencumbered by ambition.

When I left university I briefly worked in the public service, before leaving to pursue a career that my friends euphemistically describe as ‘eclectic’. 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 was ‘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 appointments I was told.

Someone once described life in the public sector as akin to a game of checkers or draughts. In checkers, the aim is to get each ‘piece’ to the other side of the board as soon as possible. In the public service the aim is to move ever upwards, again as quickly as is logistically practical.

In checkers you use the empty spaces to progress. Likewise in the public service, where waiting to assume the role held currently by your ‘one-up’ is not a viable strategy for rapid upward mobility.

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 overly full of generalists.

I remain perplexed about the so-called ‘Pink Batts’ episode, where tragically a number of people died because they were allowed to operate unsafe working practices. Apparently nobody in the relevant department acted to ensure OH&S regulations were followed by the companies they were funding to undertake what was widely seen as a clever and worthwhile project – or if they did they clearly failed.

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 something as critical as this was under control and in someone’s eyesight? Preferably someone with directly 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 anyone with industrial relations knowledge. Where was the subject matter expertise on which the minister 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 seems to have pretty much ignored the last twenty years of public sector reform. It, too, is overly managed by generalists.

The public sector has undergone significant restructuring in recent years. But until the theory of empty spaces is no longer the preferred career plan there’s a limit to how much things can improve.

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 is the case.

In my opinion, we need to see much greater focus on people with relevant professional qualifications and subject matter expertise.

No more empty spaces please!

(This article, slightly updated, first appeared in John Menadue’s “Pearls and Irritations”.)