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Skills and mindsets for the new abnormal

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20 November 2020

From bushfires and pandemics, to economic and social aftershocks, the public sector is also having to come to grips with a new normal that is anything but.

So what are the skills and mindsets that you will need to be able to help? How does the public sector need to change to get ahead of an ever-changing world?

We invited four public sector innovation thought leaders to discuss what we need to learn and how we need to think to help with the new abnormal. The event was part of the OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) Government After Shock program. This 2 day program of events investigated how COVID-19 responses have changed public sectors around the world.

The members of our panel have been thinking about the need for public sector realignment for some time.

Professor Beth Noveck and Professor Rod Glover are global thought leaders in public sector innovation, and co-authored ANZOG’s report Today’s Problems, Yesterday’s Toolkit  in 2019.

Will Story and Sam Hannah-Rankin have a long history of helping public servants think differently about work. They are executives in the Federal and Victorian public sectors, respectively.

Key innovation principles

  • Look at the macro, micro and everything in between when dealing with a problem
  • Motivate with a shared purpose

We’re not the only people changing

The pandemic is changing how the world works. The public, private and community sectors are undergoing change at the same time and this leads to a big societal shift, according to Rod.

‘All sectors have had to pivot and move online,’ says Rod. ‘Businesses have innovated, community organisations have changed how they provide support, and government has learned to partner with others quickly because it acknowledges that it can’t solve problems alone.’

‘We’re stronger together,’ agrees Beth. She points to a US state government example of rapid collaboration with the private sector. They built a COVID-19 portal in 3 days that 16 million of 18 million citizens in the state are using.

There a plenty of Australian examples of cooperation during the pandemic and Will wants these partnerships to carry forward. ‘This hyper level of collaboration needs to become normal,’ he says.

Sam recommends taking advantage of the opportunity to build on the trusted relationships that have formed. And to keep the ‘level playing field’ and inclusiveness that the virtual environment has offered.

Crises bring shared purpose – build on that

Working differently is driven by the shared purpose of dealing with a crisis. We now know that changing practices isn’t as difficult as it might have seemed.

‘This crisis has not only given us a clarity of purpose but has also given us licence to change how we’ve operated in the past,’ says Will.

Building on this, Sam feels that a profound change came with a problem that has affected everyone.

‘There was a fundamental behavioural shift. The pandemic introduced a common vulnerability at an unprecedented scale. There was personal engagement with policy.’

Will agrees, ‘We’re being more accountable. We’re no longer believing that it’s someone else’s responsibility, not our own.’

Harder needs better, faster, stronger capacity

We can think about the pandemic at macro and micro levels. But it’s not just in a crisis that we need to be thinking broadly and narrowly.

‘We need to be able to zoom into a problem and out to the broader context so we can see where the problem leads,’ says Rod. ‘There needs to be the capacity to have systems thinking and operational work streams running in parallel.’

Beth and Will advocate for a public service that is able to speedily research and respond to problems as they arise.

‘We need to develop the capability to do “rapid evidence synthesis”. Fast research involving talking to people, scanning to see what has worked already, and looking at academic studies,’ Beth says.

Will points to an upcoming APS workforce strategy that will quickly provide surge capacity for future crises and easier mechanisms for rapid collaboration.

The new skills aren’t intuitive, but are learnable

Building on the Today’s Problems, Yesterday’s Toolkit report, Beth and her team at GovLab have been surveying public servants from around the world, including Australia. They’re asking what people know about the ‘new’ skills that are needed and what they actually use.

The survey asks questions about 6 key innovation skills:

  • problem definition
  • human-centred design
  • data analytical thinking
  • open innovation
  • behavioural insights
  • lean-Agile methods

(As an aside, the survey is still open, so go help out the effort).

Beth says the results show that, while awareness of the skills is growing, there is a need for both training in how to use the skills and, vitally, coaching in actually applying the skills at work.

She says these skillsets are not intuitive. To deal with the complexity of the problems we face, we need to be able to apply a combination of them, not just one.

In an effort to start this cross-disciplinary learning, GovLab is designing an online training course solvingpublicproblems.org. They’re  planning to bring it to Australia.

Recent conversations have called for the public service to adapt. Recent crises have shown us that the public sector is capable of that change. This conversation points us to where we should go next. Let’s go.

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See also

The Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) was an Australian government network helping public servants understand and apply innovation in their daily work. PSIN ceased on 8 January 2021.

See more PSIN resources or read about PSIN on the National Library of Australia Trove archive.