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11 April 2024

The future of leadership in the public sector – balancing expectations

Performing leadership roles in the Australian Public Service is uniquely complex. Here we consider what type of leaders this sector needs to navigate current and future challenges.


At a glance:

  • The need for strong, diverse and experienced leadership in the public sector has never been greater.
  • Trust and integrity are essential for building a high-performing public service, but the current public perception is that it lacks in these areas.
  • To restore confidence, future leaders need the grit to withstand scrutiny, and the skills, experience tenacity to deliver on what is expected.

Performing leadership roles in any sector is challenging, but as a leader in the State or Federal Australian Public Service your role is uniquely complex.

“Public sector leaders have experienced some difficulty in recent times, ranging from PR and policy disasters to major integrity issues – some of which have featured quite prominently in our news feeds,” explains Jennifer Grove, a Partner for Gerard Daniels in Perth. “To address these and many other challenges, future public sector leaders must be able to drive wide-ranging reform as required by their political leaders; collaborate and build better partnerships with communities and across industry; and continue to restore trust and integrity in the public service.”

The need for strong, diverse and experienced talent to lead the public sector and deliver on this has never been greater. But despite these challenges, there is still a lot to entice people to begin or continue to grow their public sector careers.

“Being a purpose-driven environment has wide appeal, particularly for people that want to use their experience to make a difference, and have an impact on their community,” Jennifer continues. “And when the time and opportunity are right, moving into the public service can be a great way to both broaden, and further your career.”

Restoring integrity

Trust and integrity are essential building blocks for a high-performing public service. Yet, in light of recent issues like the failed Robodebt Scheme – widely considered to be the most catastrophic policy failure in the Australian Government’s history – restoring and upholding the integrity of the public service will be challenging for future public sector leaders.

“In the wake of failures like these, public sector leaders will face growing scrutiny over their decisions, performance and the impact of their work,” says Jennifer. “To restore confidence, leaders will need the grit to withstand this scrutiny, and the skills, experience and tenacity to deliver on what is expected.”

While trust and integrity are critical, this issue is as much about perception as reality – sentiment backed up by the most recent State of the Service report. “Over 80% of respondents describe their immediate manager as honest, open and accountable, which suggests this issue largely rests on public perception,” says Jennifer. “While hiring future leaders with a high degree of integrity is important, that’s not to say this quality is significantly lacking in current public sector leaders and their teams.”

To move through this issue, the leaders that come through the system must understand that their role is to enable the government to deliver on its policies and commitments, but to do so in a way that helps people to understand what is required of the public service from a policy and regulatory perspective. “There will always be fast moving pressure in Government and in the public service. Healthy discussion around what is and isn’t possible therefore becomes critical in establishing trust and integrity on both sides,” Jennifer continues.

Navigating political influence on public sector performance

As a public sector leader, you are responsible for delivering on the agenda for an active government – a task that gets progressively harder as the perception of the political cycles shortens.

“The political cycle is three years for federal government and three or four years at state level, but the environment that politicians now operate in is shaped by social media and a news cycle with a much shorter attention span. This makes it much harder to project long-term vision, as I’m sure most politicians would like to,” says Jennifer. “This pace has also shortened the turnaround time for enacting public policy, which, given the bureaucracy and rate of change in the public sector, makes leadership increasingly challenging.”

The fast pace of politics also affects the public service, and its ability to shape and dictate policy to deliver on the government agenda. “Both sides are operating in a rapidly changing landscape, often dictated by factors that no one can control,” Jennifer continues. “Public sector leaders have most value to add by continuing to advise on longer term thinking, even when it’s difficult for the political class.”

Building diverse talent pipelines to address future challenges

Building a pipeline of future leaders with diversity of thought and experience inside and outside of the public sector has also become increasingly challenging. As has finding leaders that are frank and fearless in getting things done – despite the bureaucracy that naturally exists within the public sector.

“To ensure talented leaders continue to come through, it’s important to focus on moving the right talent into and through the public service,” says Jennifer. “This not only applies to graduate level public servants entering and moving up through the ranks, but also to middle managers looking to grow their career in the public sector for the first time, or returning having spent time gaining private sector experience.”

“The public sector does not exist in a vacuum, so it is best served by learnings and perspective from the entire environment,” Jennifer continues. “To future proof its leadership, there needs to be movement both into and out of the public sector. The more time that public and private sector leaders spend on both sides of the fence, the easier it will be to develop systems and processes that deliver on government agenda, align with the needs of the private sector, and adequately serve the Australian public.”

Future leadership skills

Some additional skills and attributes can set future public sector leaders up for success.

“As a public sector leader, you must be concise and articulate. It also helps to combine a passion for delivering services to the public, with a healthy streak of pragmatism,” Jennifer reflects. “To manage the complexity of working in this environment, you also need to be a master delegator, because you can’t manage everything. This makes the ability to collaborate and build relationships across diverse stakeholders highly valuable.”

Do you have what it takes to make a difference as a leader in the public sector? To find out, connect with Jennifer or reach out to your local Gerard Daniels team.

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