CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

24 September, 1999

Mr Rob Whiddon,
Chief of Staff,
Office of the Premier

Thanks for your letter of 20 September, which pointed out that the strategic capability of the Public Service is an issue which the present Queensland Government takes very seriously.

I am pleased to hear of this, but (on the basis of over two decades experience trying to promote such a goal) I must caution that the challenge is difficult. I would also like to offer a number of suggestions.

It is hard to develop a strategic capability for several reasons

Firstly, a real strategic capability requires people with deep knowledge about an organization (or a social or economic system) and about its relevant environment, learnt through long practical experience. A strategic capability also demands the maturity to value leading the development of (say) an organization where the benefits lie in the organization's ability, in the medium to long term, to meet the requirements of changes in its environment. Acquiring such capabilities requires very many years of hard work, and personal dedication.

Secondly, Queensland has traditionally had very limited true strategic capability in its community. This deficiency reflects: our small business / branch office economy; the general absence of higher level business functions, and of capable business / public policy research institutions; and government economic strategies which basically relied on 'following orders' from foreign investors (so that a local strategic capability was not required, or appreciated).

Thirdly it is difficult for any single entity (eg government) to develop a real strategic capability in isolation, because others can not provide the reliable / advanced information needed, while interest groups do not tolerate capabilities which pressure them to perform better.

Fourthly, a real strategic capability is never possessed by the opportunists who rely on political connections for advancement. However experience shows that they are threatened by such capabilities, and will abuse their power to systematically eliminate them.

For example, real strategic capabilities which had struggled to emerge in the Public Service in the 1980s were (more or less) eliminated by the politically driven process of Public Service 'reform' in the 1990s - and do not appear to be re-emerging.

However, any expression of political interest in 'strategic capabilities' will make this topic 'flavour of the month' and bring forth hordes of pretenders - who will be more effective in political lobbying than those with real knowledge and experience. The pretenders' proposals will however contain fatal flaws which professionals can easily see (eg as the recent Smart State strategy appears to do), and will not achieve desired practical outcomes.

There is nothing to be gained (and much to be lost) by supposedly 'strategic' initiatives, which are trendy but unwise, or which are not achievable in practice due to the methods used.

None-the-less progress is possible

If the Government is really serious about developing the strategic capability of the Public Service, then the first requirement would be to reconstruct a competent professional Public Service by:

  1. protecting Public Service professionalism against politically driven 're-engineering'. A useful way to promote professionalism has recently been advanced by Professor Richard Mulgan (ANU) in 'Politicisation of Senior Appointments in the Australian Public Service' (Australian Journal of Public Administration, Sept 1998). An outline of his argument is included in an enclosed copy of my suggestions to Professor Mulgan.

  2. allowing for the effect of political 're-engineering' during the 1990s, when merit did not really have to be considered in CEO and SES appointments (and thus could not really be considered at other levels). The impact has been a general erosion of the Service's professionalism. Thus the ability of much of the Public Service to reliably judge others' professional capabilities is now seriously deficient. For this reason, any attempt to develop a useful strategic capability in the Public Service must take a LONG time (probably a decade at the minimum - being the time needed for relevant experience and knowledge to accumulate).

However, a second requirement for success (and a way to speed up the process) would be to stimulate the emergence of realistic strategic capabilities in other major Queensland institutions. Doing so would reinforce those emerging in government. Great subtlety would be needed to achieve this, as dominant interest groups would easily perceive the threat such a change would pose to themselves (ie it would probably give more power to persons with capabilities that the existing dominant interests could never possess). They could thus be expected to sabotage the process, while professing enthusiastic support - in the same way that political opportunists with 'senior' Public Service positions have done.

In conclusion

The fact that the present Government is concerned about the development of a strategic capability in the Public Service is impressive.

However, the challenge is not trivial, and if this Government really wants to succeed it needs to carefully consider why many past efforts to achieve this goal have not succeeded. Unfortunately, I have seen no evidence to date that current initiatives are likely to be more effective than those in the past.

[Signed John Craig]

25 September, 1999

Mr Rob Whiddon,
Chief of Staff,
Office of the Premier

A Real Strategic Capability in the Queensland Public Service

My letter of 24 September 1999 inadvertently presented an unbalanced emphasis only on the need for a solid practical foundation for a strategic capability. I should like to correct this.

The characteristics I described (ie deep knowledge based on experience, and maturity) are required if a strategic capability is to be real (ie to result in practical and constructive outcomes). However I was so concerned to emphasise this, that I failed to emphasise the need also to be well versed in leading edge trends and developments - which is vital if the capability is to be strategic (ie to result in changes which are likely to be valuable).

My previous letter only highlighted the danger from pretenders who follow leading edge trends and developments but have so little practical foundation, that they produce 'trendy' proposals which lack solid realism. Many of those who have achieved 'senior' Public Service roles in the 1990s by exploiting political connections fall into this category - presumably because Labor Ministers have tried to be progressive without understanding the need for experience.

However, there is a second class of pretender that emerges in large numbers whenever a 'strategic capability' becomes flavour-of-the-month. This involves persons with long practical experience, but little understanding of leading edge trends and developments. They start to claim to be taking a 'strategic' approach (though they don't understand what this means).

In a professional Public Service everyone knows who has capabilities which are both real and strategic. There are very few of them. Their careers tend to advance into senior positions (even when there is little political recognition of the need for a strategic capability), and people who don't have those capabilities don't pretend to (because no one would believe them).

But politically driven 're-engineering' of our Public Service in the 1990s created a different regime. Both types of pretenders emerged, sought political support, and then eliminated staff with real strategic capabilities (who threaten the credibility of the political opportunists). Labor Governments tend to have been victims of the trendy impractical pretenders (whose grand ideas impress the media but achieve nothing for the people - resulting in unexpected political reversals). The Coalition has suffered more from practical but out-of-date pretenders. In the 1980s Queensland's Public Service suffered defects. In the 1990s it was MUCH worse.

If the present Government genuinely wants a Public Service capability which is both strategic and realistic, then it is essential (as yesterday's letter argued) to protect Public Service professionals against pretenders who take advantage of political opportunities.

[Signed John Craig]