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What makes a high performance agency in a complex world?

What makes a high performance agency?

Empowering adaptive cultures against government's traditional rule-bound practices is now emerging as critical to the ability of the public sector to confidently seize opportunities to transform. Kathy Hilyard, Partner, Management Consulting, KPMG, spoke to The Mandarin to share her insights into how to build a high performing agency in a world of change.


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The very understanding of what a high performance staff and culture looks like is changing dramatically, says Kathy Hilyard, KPMG’s experienced public sector partner. The speed, volatility, complexity and ambiguity of the modern world is challenging all professions, meaning “even the nature of trying to define high performance is changing”.

With so much change, empowering adaptive cultures against governments’ traditional rule-bound practices is now emerging as critical to the public sector confidently seizing opportunities of transformation.

These opportunities are across all domains of government, and include redesigning services around key life cycle events, applying data analytics to design precision programs focused on the most needy, exploiting artificial intelligence to empower frontline health and human services staff, and building powerful ecosystems to support new areas of the economy, such as the internet of things.

After a 6-month study, APS Review member and CEO of Amatil-Coca Cola, Alison Watkins, recently called out adaptability as integral to public sector future relevance over the next decade: “I think the most important attribute will be a willingness and ability to adapt. That might mean taking more considered risks (which will involve making some mistakes) and having a more flexible approach to resource allocation.”

So, how do public sector leaders change their approach to create a high performing culture to exploit the opportunities that come from rapid global, societal and technological change?

This time the answers are far less clear in terms of what high performance is. So this needs to be brought back to the teams we work with. “We need the courage to start conversations about what the future of the workplace – and high performance – looks like,” Hilyard says.

“If we are trying to build high-performing, adaptive organisations, the notion of performance management also must be adaptive, and performance management processes must encourage adaptive behaviour.”

Within the APS, this approach is underway but needs to be accelerated. It needs to be less formal and move towards a ‘constructive conversations’ model — one that genuinely fuels engagement and rewards collaboration.

Constructive conversations

This model sees APS leaders engage their people with the organisation’s purpose, which promotes results, inspires high performance and enables the achievement of outcomes amidst complex challenges. Challenges that are highly likely to keep changing as the public sector itself is profoundly transformed by the same forces driving broader societal changes.

Hilyard says this makes traditional formal performance review less useful. Hilyard believes the model of annual goal setting can quickly become irrelevant, as priorities shift and agencies rapidly adapt to new political and societal realities. A ‘constructive conversations’ model means a richer, continuous and authentic engagement with staff that gives them a line of sight to the fundamental purpose of the agency and how to get there.

As with many sectors, technology is challenging government leaders to think deeply about the value and mandate of their agencies. Leaders must explore hard questions with staff, such as what is needed to be effective in this citizen-empowered world.

“There almost certainly needs to be less hierarchy and formal reporting structures, more mixed leaders and multiple teams aligned around a common purpose,” Hilyard says. 

Embracing this model also means trusting staff to get it right; being more open about the processes that do and don’t work; leading authentic interactions between managers and teams; and developing a more organic approach to achieving high performing outcomes that are relevant to the domain the agency operates in. Public safety and security have different risk profiles compared to industry departments or cultural institutions.

Engagement in the core purpose and permission to strongly participate in that transformation fuels ownership and performance. This, in turn creates a powerful ongoing adaptive culture. As with sport, it is those teams that continuously adapt to the reality of their playing conditions that will win.

Leading by example

The APS has made strong strides in this direction and is already seeing the rewards in agencies like the ATO, IP Australia and the ABS. In each case, these results have been driven by empowered and engaged leadership.

“The heavy lifting, in terms of creating a high-performance culture, needs to be done by leaders and managers at all levels. As the world gets more challenging, every leader needs to be asking, ‘How do I create an environment where people can do their best work?’, says Hilyard.

Traditionally, managers reviewed and assessed performance on a semi-regular basis. To lead a high-performing workforce in the new digital paradigm, however, leaders need to behave differently and bring the notion of high performance to the centre of their day-to-day leadership actions.

Leaders can create an environment where people perform and achieve by regularly and diagnostically considering factors in the performance environment that are helping or hindering people to do their best work. It’s then they are in a position to lead conversations, design and implement strategies to remove barriers, and leverage group and contextual strengths.

Hilyard believes changing the notion of performance management needs to occur on two levels. First, the very system the APS is premised on needs to adapt to today’s complex world. Leaders need to see transformation as a positive. They need to see that it opens major opportunities to improve the value of the public sector to the community. Second, government is inexorably shifting to a more personalised world, offering huge opportunities to provide better services and design programs that focus on the real drivers of well-being and social harmony.

This implies a much stronger capability around engagement and human-centred design, which means what is recognised and cultivated in staff has to change to reflect the times.

Performance management transformed

Like many social institutions, the public service is being fundamentally challenged to embrace the new ways of the world. Hilyard says this means performance management can no longer be seen as an “HR thing”, and needs to move to the centre and be driven by the business heart of organisations. In turn, these business units need to take ownership of their own transformation, rather than delegating to operational staff to work out solutions.

The history of digital change has confirmed the importance of embracing with confidence the forces at play and the transformational changes on offer. The companies that have succeeded are consistently those that have set strong strategic direction and empowered staff to adapt to these new priorities.

“We cannot take up the task to reinvent the APS and leave performance management the way it is now,” Hilyard emphasises.

This new performance management model allows individuals and teams to collectively engage in the pursuit of their best work in a modernised and people-centric APS. This can be an APS that is highly adept at coping with rapid and long-term change.

The APS Review provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to think radically about the constructs underpinning high performance in the APS and ask these questions:

  • What does high performance look like?
  • Who is responsible for leading high performance?
  • How does the APS transform systems to better reflect the contemporary and emergent workplace?
  • What would a performance framework look like if we were purpose building it now for the future? 
  • How do you equip your leaders at all levels (not hierarchical managers) to lead for high performance in new and different ways?

This article first appeared in The Mandarin.

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