Conference Report

By Dr Paul Crookall

Common Threads

To this observer, some common threads were woven throughout the 2014 Biennial Conference that are worth highlighting.
  1. The principles of good public management remain the same. The practices vary, depending on the circumstances. Among several speakers who articulated this model, Daniel Watson (Chief Human Resource Officer, Government of Canada) shared how on the Canadian prairie, where he grew up, the principles of farming had always been the same: prepare the soil, select the seed, ensure moisture and nutrition, remove the weeds, and then, and only then, harvest the crop. Those are the same principles as when land was first cultivated there in the 1880s, and the same principles apply to farming in all 53 Commonwealth countries. For example, on the Canadian prairie, a main tool is a huge, multiple-wheel drive tractor, with a six-speaker sound system, a cooler for drinks, and a twenty-bottom plough. It does a hectare in minutes. In Thailand, a main tool is the “iron ox,” a small, walk-behind motorized one-bottom plough. Each tool is used for the same principle: to prepare the soil. But the huge Canadian tractor would soon bog down in the rice paddies of Thailand; the iron ox would take forever to break sod on huge Canadian farms. Same principles, differing good practices. Analysis is needed, as we share good practices, to understand the underlying principles and apply the tools appropriately to the situation.
  2. Government is where the tough problems come to be addressed. Like Alice and the Red Queen, we need to learn to transform our organizations and our approaches to deal with future challenges.
  3. Silos need to be broken down. Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin stated: “the silo mentality needs to be broken down and organisations have to learn to work in unison like the fingers of the hand. Structures and procedures need to be streamlined so that public servants can network with one another.” Many other speakers repeated this sentiment. Much of the innovation in governance has been around task forces and teams, new governance structures outside the silos. But many speakers called for destruction of the silos, and creating of new collaborative structures, rather than “work-arounds” such as task forces and poking holes in the silos.
  4. An internal locus of control. Some public servants feel overwhelmed; they feel pressured to “do more with less” or to become “more like the private sector.” But the leaders speaking at the conference had a more positive focus, which was that they were in control and were committed to “providing better service at lower cost.” Many exchanged techniques and tools to do that. It is not enough to have a mandate to improve; the desire to improve must be embraced by all. Public service should be seen as an exciting opportunity to be innovative and improve service while reducing costs. People need to be empowered more than pushed. They need to be provided with better tools. 
  5. Honesty and courage. “Speaking truth to power” is sometimes honoured more in the saying than the doing. At this conference, there was, among some speakers, a remarkable degree of candour. Participants especially appreciated those speakers who showed honesty and courage: for example by providing the objectives, doing a gap analysis between the current state and the desired state that is not necessarily flattering, followed however by a plan on how the gaps would be closed. Without honest self-assessment and reflection, it is very difficult to improve, but it is also sometimes difficult to publicly state that reality. As one participant observed: “I haven’t seen this type of presentation in a long time.” It takes courage and insight. Greater use of those behaviours is part of the new conversation on transformation.
  6. Empowerment. Give people the freedom to do better.
  7. Public-Private Partnerships. Many saw PPPs as a solution, while others noted some failures and the need for vigilance in their management.

From The CAPAM Putrajaya Conference Statement 2014

At the conclusion of the Conference, CAPAM issued a Statement summarizing what delegates had just experienced. In part, the Statement declared: 

Shaping the Future Together
The conference reaffirmed the importance of the “people” aspect of transformation, highlighting the critical importance of active engagement both with citizens and within the public service itself. Commonwealth public service leaders understood that the prevailing public service models needed to change in order to deliver citizen-centred services. 

Celebrating our contributions to society is important.

The conference focused on the emerging trend of employers’ strategies to motivate employees and increase workplace engagement. The willingness of politicians and public service executives to engage their workforce throughout the transformation process, of “humanizing” the workplace, will be crucial. Recruiting and retaining intrinsically motivated public servants is important. As is removing impediments to them doing a good job. Extrinsic rewards help as well.

Leadership remains fundamental. But many will need to learn a new style of leadership in order to be effective. Leaders who focus on establishing a compelling sense of purpose, building trust in public institutions, and serving citizens, will be more effective. 

One of the most remarkable areas of transformation within the public service is the shift in the style of management and methods of service delivery. Public Service Organizations are being called upon to place citizens at the centre of policy-making, not merely as recipients of services but rather as active participants who can bring ideas and insights to ensure effective delivery in accordance with citizen needs.  In this regard, “crowdsourcing,” “co-creation,” and “co-production” have emerged as models of collaboration between governments and citizens.

Towards a Better Future
There is a continued need to employ appropriate “mechanisms/tools/processes” in the transformation of the public service, including business process re-engineering, new technologies in service delivery and new methodologies in policy formulation. The public service should take advantage of emerging technologies, stay abreast with good practices, and sustain a culture of continuous change 
in the work place. Rather than relying on an external expert to tell organizations what to do, they need to reflect on their situation, analyze the gaps, and move to improve, using the tools discussed, which are adapted to their situation.

While information and communications technologies are a key tool, managers should not rely exclusively on ICT to drive transformation. The IT tools are, however, very important to improve service while reducing costs.

Building Global Resilience
A highlight of the conference, that will have an ongoing impact, was the signing of letters of intent to establish a new Public Private Partnership (PPP) Commonwealth Centre of Excellence, a collaboration between CAPAM and Malaysia. The Centre will facilitate the exchange of information on PPP projects and share best practices and capacity building in this area. The conference highlighted the positive impacts of PPPs and noted the challenges faced which need to be managed. 

It was agreed that improving service does not necessarily mean increasing costs. Public Service is affected by the economic challenges of the day and is responsible for contributing to deficit reduction. 

Gender equality in the public sector is an important pillar of human development and economic growth. In several sessions, mixed success was reported – some countries have done well in achieving equality, but others have not. Speakers shared their experiences in advancing and empowering women as equal partners in the public service. Getting the numbers right is the foundation for effective accountability and is critical to ensure that public sector financial reform achieves the desired outcomes. 

Going Forward

One of the over-arching themes raised was that empowered people can better provide excellent service. Participants agreed to enhance public sector transformation by sharing and applying the knowledge, good practices and experiences gleaned from “the new conversation” stimulated by this conference.   Comments from participants can be seen as a call to action to: 
  • work together in the future,
  • share our frameworks for and experience with public service transformation,
  • implement the letter of understanding on the centre of excellence for public private partnerships, and
  • the importance of meeting again at the 2016 Biennial Conference.

Conference Evaluation

The conference was seen as exceeding expectations. Our hosts, the Malaysian government, invested a lot of thought, effort, and funding into making this a highly productive conference. This was very much appreciated. For the inevitable adjustments, there were crews from CAPAM and Malaysia responding, working together, and making it seem like a swan’s trip across the lake: regal, calm, and placid; but propelled by hard paddling underneath the surface.

One person remarked: “I usually come for the networking. But this conference, the content was great as well. The presentations were so interesting that, even with the time change, I didn’t fall asleep in a single session.” Another wrote: “The conference was spot on based on pragmatism and on-the-ground reality. I haven’t seen this type of presentation in a long time.” The level of honest self-reflection, compared to self-accolades, was up considerably. “Thank you so much for an outstanding conference that was rich in contributions and ensuring we experienced as much of Malaysia as possible in such a short time.” Another wrote: “MAMPU was a phenomenal host. The hospitality contributed to an unforgettable experience.”

The substantive message was: “Thank you very much for a well-organized conference. We look forward to continuing the conversation.”

The conversation will be continued, through CAPAM Regional events, bilateral and multilateral connections, and the 2016 Biennial Conference. Be sure to network, contribute, and learn.

Download the full report originally published in the November 2014 Commonwealth Innovations Review