The work of the Australian Public Service (APS) has never been more complex.
The policy, program and service challenges that define our times – like overcoming entrenched disadvantage, the ageing population, Indigenous policy, education, immigration, cities, energy and climate change – are daunting. They require grappling with adaptive and wicked problems. Many will become intractable without difficult trade-offs, and balancing competing interests and values. Often government cannot solve them alone, and roles and responsibilities for action have to be shared with others.
This complexity is compounded by declining trust in government. This is a worry. Trust is a basic indicator of our democracy’s health.
For public servants, it is especially concerning. Trust is our ‘reform currency’. We rely on it to make and implement tough decisions. Even the most elegant policy or program may fail if people fundamentally don’t trust it, or the people rolling it out.
Government has long used engagement and participation to earn trust and overcome complexity.
The APS Framework for engagement and participation builds on that tradition. It spells out the principles and standards that underpin effective engagement, and will help consolidate and improve existing practice.
But it also sets a vision, charting a course for engagement to help meet the APS’ challenges in the 21st century.
It emphasises that engagements should not focus solely on ‘managing’ citizens and stakeholders and their expectations, and looking to minimise opposition. Rather, public servants should see the public as a source of expertise, and that engaging with them can forge a partnership to overcome complexity.
Its ‘ways to engage’ divides engagements into four categories: share, consult, deliberate, and collaborate.
Its message is simple: It asks public servants to reflect on what expertise they require for the problem at hand, and what engagement will best obtain it, in their circumstances.
Public servants will be familiar with ‘share’ and ‘consult’ engagements. They have been our traditional ways to engage, and will remain important into the future.
‘Deliberate’ and ‘collaborate’ engagements are less familiar, but potentially transformative. They offer a pathway forward for those complex problems that require adaptive thinking; balancing values, interests and priorities; and shared action built on public trust and support.
Both the government and public servants recognise engagement is key to working openly and meaningfully with people, and that this framework can help achieve this. In December 2019, the Secretaries Board endorsed the framework as part of the government’s response to the Independent Review of the APS. Endorsement of the framework included an instruction for the APS to apply the framework across all departments and agencies as its official engagement approach.
Applying the framework and aspiring towards its vision will not always be easy. A range of supporting tools have been developed under the framework to assist. These include a guide to the right engagement and a series of papers on how to do ‘deliberate’ engagements.
At a minimum, we hope the framework and its supporting tools can change public servants’ mindsets towards valuing the expertise outside government; choosing the right way to engage and gather that expertise for the problem at hand; and doing so with a thought to the person that comes after you.