Post COVID in the public service

Wellbeing: As you can see from the picture, everyone’s a winner.

I was asked to respond to this question by the Mandarin as part of their ‘select committee’ of worthies (note: the link is behind the ‘Premium’ pay-wall). 

After the year that we have had, what should be the public sector’s initial priorities once everyone returns next year following the shutdown? And how to implement them?

I wanted to avoid the usual advice which usually focuses on topics. So I wrote this:

Before she hit the big time as a novelist, Sally Rooney wrote this about her time as a competitive debater. “Participation in a game, any kind of game, gives you new ways of perceiving others. Victory only gives you new ways of perceiving yourself”. Australia’s relative success in handling the COVID crisis is of course a blessing, but it will also be a curse to the extent that it feeds the Great Australian Complacency. 

I spent some of my lockdown writing a long essay trying to anatomise the process by which, in the public sector, good intentions are so often transmuted into going through the motions Attractive sounding announcements are made and people try to deliver on them. But far from setting out on the difficult business of learning how to improve outcomes, when push comes to shove, the strongest imperatives relate to appearances rather than to performance. 

In some ways, public servants have no choice. They take their orders from politicians who in turn also go through the motions – as they must to navigate the political minefield looming before them. 

But if public servants are ever to escape this fate, they’ll do it in a thousand small acts of insight rather than acts of open rebellion. They’ll do it by finding simple and pragmatic ways to support the best intentions behind programs, while the accountability theatre rages up in the Gods.

Right now New Zealand’s public servants are implementing Jacinda Ardern’s Wellbeing Budgeting. But – tragically given how good both politicians’ and bureaucrats’ intentions have been – they’re mostly going through the motions. Why? Because they’re measuring wellbeing on the assumption that doing so will somehow naturally foster its improvement. 

But it’s perfectly possible to build a sophisticated system that enables you to read off the level of Indigenous wellbeing in Rotorua without it telling you much if anything about how to improve it. This is a classic case of knowing what substituting for knowing how. There’s lots of work to be done in the office – excursions into the academic literature and snazzy dashboards. But no-one goes straight at the problem by building systems that can tell those within them how what they’re doing is affecting wellbeing in the field. Only then do they have the right tools to deliver measured improvements in wellbeing. 

So rather than growing roots in a community that can see and contribute to its impact, in five years or so, Wellbeing Budgeting will be replaced by the next fad that rolls off the assembly line from Wellington.

But there is an alternative. The high profile of Wellbeing Budgeting in New Zealand creates the perfect opportunity for anyone who’d like to improve wellbeing in Rotorua or anywhere else, to help build the knowhow to do so – in a measurable, transparent and dependable way. And sell it – to those involved in the relevant programs, to their community and further up the line in the bureaucracy and the politicians. That way a little insight and some practical skill can help us escape the do-loop of going through the motions and do what public servants started their careers to do. Make the world a little better each day. 

But that’s just one example. You’ve probably noticed lots of changes going on and many more being considered as we try to reorient ourselves for a post COVID world. Chances are, as you’re reading this, some similar opportunity, however small, is sitting right under your nose. 

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