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Why public servants need to be constant and deliberate learners

Public servants and the learning curve

We are hearing more about a 'VUCA world' where public managers have to operate in an environment characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. KPMG Partner Lauren Jackson talked to The Mandarin about the skills that managers need to lead in this environment.


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Public servants and the learning curve

Probably the most important skill adults need now is ‘learning to learn’. Most of us will have completed formal education and some will have some sort of professional qualification or post graduate accreditation. Many of us have forgotten how to acquire new skills and keep ourselves current in the workplace. The increasing pace of change and innovation in technology means we have to keep up to date and reinvent ourselves many times over in our professional lives.

Earlier in this series Kathy Hilyard and Dr Jane Gunn – both partners at KPMG – focused on how public sector leaders are better placed to lead organisational and institutional reform when they consciously embrace the need to adapt to a changing situation. This means building new skills, mindsets and harnessing the capacity to lead.

How can the public sector embrace the VUCA world?

Leaders need to cultivate the ability to create the space in which to think and ask the right questions when presented with complex issues. They need the confidence to empower decision making to the right level so they don’t need to be across all issues.

This means a critical role for line managers and recognising they also need support. When I was in the UK, I led a KPMG project for the British Civil Service to strengthen support to first time managers. We delivered a management fundamentals initiative to thousands of staff which raised the importance of skills such as managing performance and leading a team.

What is the role for government?

Government needs to be ambitious in hiring, developing and retaining the best staff. This is reflected in the APS Review Priorities for Change report which puts a premium on capability and talent development. Building and maintaining skills is seen as essential to an APS that is fit for the future and fit for delivering the right services to the Australian public. In fact David Thodey, Chair of the Review, said any change to the APS will not endure unless the APS workforce itself is prioritised. This includes boosting its leadership, capability and diversity. 

Dr Jane Gunn from KPMG says: “We support public sector organisations to build the skills and capabilities for the future of public sector work. Central to building capability is the ability of HR and learning functions to partner with the business and identify the future skills needed. The focus is then on building efficient, technology enabled learning that is embedded in the work of being a public servant.”

While in the UK, Jackson led a KPMG project to redesign the provision of core skills learning in the Civil Service. It involved working with departments to co-create high quality learning for over 400,000 civil servants. What was the starting point?

The project came during the height of deep austerity in the UK. There was a realisation that the financial crisis was not going away and there was need for fundamental change. Provision of learning was identified as one of the areas that had to transform and the workforce needed to develop the skills to deal with increasing complexity and change against a backdrop of no ‘new money’.

We started with the existing learning offer, in the order of 6000 pieces of legacy content that was largely generic, with old case studies and material not relevant to the government’s workforce. It was out of date and out of touch with what civil servants needed to deliver to citizens and communities. So the starting point was to redesign this from the ground up with the Civil Service, and a consortium of leading organisations, and industrialise the development of the new approach to scale to reach the workforce.

What did KPMG do differently?

KPMG designed a digitally enabled offering and all courses had a digital component. While face to face interaction in a classroom remains important, we wanted to reinvent the digital component and for that to be central to the learning process.

It was as much about creating a digital offering as also driving culture change within the Civil Service about the benefits on digital delivery – anytime, anywhere, any device – was a very new concept to most civil servants, and there was a strong focus on raising awareness of the shorter, sharper, ‘just in time’ learning design approach.

What are the key learnings from the UK?

The APS recognises leadership is needed at all levels to embed not just a new approach but one that stays the course as benefits realisation takes time. Our approach to learning design is that interventions are delivered in bite size, cost efficient chunks undertaken in a dynamic environment. This means a critical role for evaluation in the APS to continue to evolve the offer and to demonstrate progress.

For the Civil Service, KPMG manages not just the learning design, but the whole back-end learning operation, which importantly includes the evaluation and analytics. Through this, we now know that 50 percent of the new learning offer is undertaken digitally, from a very low base prior to this. This can very well be translated to the Australian public sector approach.

We’ve also had to adapt, evolve and refresh to meet new challenges. When the Brexit vote happened, we were able to respond quickly, in a matter of a few months, to deliver trade and negotiation skills learning modules using our co-designed approach and leveraging a deep supply chain of experts.

In Australia – the challenge is also to ensure any digital platform takes into account the unique place-based solutions across rural, regional and remote communities. We need a digital learning platform fit for purpose to capture this diversity.

How do you best 'future proof' skills and abilities

It is important to consider what the implications of emerging technologies, geopolitical issues and megatrends might be for the public service as a whole and for a public manager’s role, for your role. It isn’t about having all the answers, but starting to cultivate a point of view and awareness of your potential blind spots and gaps in capability.

Future-proofing your skills also means adopting a learning mindset and an attitude of lifelong learning. A good practice is the ‘5-hour rule’ which is spending 5 hours a week, or 1 hour a day, reading, curating insights and connecting with thought leaders in your network. This isn’t a new idea, but one which is now gaining ground with famous advocates such as Bill Gates and Barack Obama citing that the time invested in deliberate and personal learning as core to their success.

This article first appeared in The Mandarin

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