January 27, 2017

Will the diverse values of a modern public sector please stand up?

A light bulb moment.

Something interesting happened to me recently.

I was sitting in the Board room of a Victorian public entity, facilitating a strategic planning session. The CEO and executive team were all in attendance, caffeinated and energised.

The ideas were flowing, and they were good. I’d even say the emerging strategy had the hint of a ‘swagger’. The session then turned to the culture of the organisation, and something interesting happened.

The body language of the room changed. Energy dropped. Eyes wandered. Pensive faces appeared.

What the heck was going on here, I thought to myself? I had worked with the organisation long enough to know they had a positive and dynamic culture. Something was up.

At that point my eyes were drawn to the floor to ceiling glass walls of the boardroom. On them were displayed the values of the organisation, such as:

  • Integrity

  • Professionalism

  • Collaboration

  • Accountability

And the penny dropped. The organisation’s values weren’t connecting.

Did they exhibit those values? Of course. But, were they deeply representative of the heart-beat of the organisation, what made them unique and interesting, and inspired them to succeed together?

Not even close.

Some weeks later we went away for an off-site workshop and tackled the task of re-defining their culture. What emerged was an organisation that valued creativity and an enterprising spirit, authenticity, embracing diversity, thinking differently, seizing opportunities and dynamic partnerships.

Their culture was recast and the swagger was back.

The value gap.

The outcome was great, but something was still bugging me. Was this a one off, or a window into a broader challenge of values definition in the public sector?

The public sector is evolving. Innovation is part of our daily dialogue, and the digital economy is being embraced. Wonderful strides are being made in diversity and flexible working arrangements, and we are reimagining integrated and place based service delivery and private sector partnerships. Every time we check our LinkedIn feeds it’s a cavalcade of progress towards a truly modern and agile public sector.

So, surely the values of the organisations achieving that progress are equally inspiring, right….?

Well, not really. There’s a much bigger pattern than my little board room experience.

Let’s take a look at the values of Public Sector Departments around Australia to illustrate the point. From a sample of 45 departments in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia:

  • 27 Departments list ‘Integrity’ as a core value;

  • 23 Departments list ‘Accountability’

  • 16 list ‘Collaboration’; and

  • 13 list ‘Respect’.

In fact, the values of every Department in NSW are identical and reflect the core values outlined in the ethical framework for the government sector; Integrity, Trust, Service and Accountability.

Some quick desktop research reveals these core values are repeated again and again by hundreds of departments, local governments and public entities in all our States and Territories.

Are these values important? Of course. They are non-negotiable community expectations and it makes perfect sense for them to be core, underlying sector-wide principles.

But we shouldn’t simply adopt the values of an entire sector and place them on our Board room walls. Public sector departments, entities and councils aren’t vanilla, they are diverse, colourful and vibrant. Their values should represent the one-of-a-kind DNA that makes them different. They should tell a story about the business they do, and the way they do business. They should raise an easy smile from people who are proud to be part of it, and raise a cheeky eyebrow from those who suddenly want to be.

Diversity matters.

It’s time for the sector to embrace values diversity .

We know that diversity is a precondition for innovation.  Let’s encourage public sector departments, entities and local councils to craft cultures that surface the voice, personality and points of difference of the organisation, and create a sense of belonging amongst their people and stakeholders. Let’s not replicate sector-wide codes of ethics, but instead use them as a foundation to build on.

Here’s an example of an organisation that is leading by example.  The South Australian Department of Environment, Water & Natural Resources define their culture as follows:

“Guided by the values shared across government, and the public sector code of ethics, we have chosen to emphasise and pursue four values that shape how we work as an organisation.” They ‘believe people matter’, ‘believe in teamwork’, ‘participate and learn from doing’ and ‘get the right things done.’

Fan-tas-tic. The organisation embraces and commits to sector wide values and ethics, and then builds on that foundation with a culture that they, and only they, own.

Here’s a four-question framework to help your organisation adopt this thinking:

  • Distinctive – do your values capture your uniqueness and not replicate sector-wide values and codes of ethics?

  • Meaningful – is there strong line of sight between your values and the vision/mission of your organisation?

  • Contemporary – do your organisation’s values embrace the spirit of a modern and agile public sector?

  • Liveable – can your people live these values from the town hall to the board room?

Some quick examples that tick these boxes?

How about the Queensland Departments of Premier and Cabinet and Treasury & Finance, whose values include putting “ideas into action”, “unleashing potential”, “being courageous” and “empowering people”.

Or how about Life without Barriers in the community services sector, who have built a culture of being ‘people people’, ‘open to new ideas and ways of doing things’ and ‘standing up for what they believe in’.

And my favourite, the Transport Accident Commission, who ‘value life’, ‘make every conversation count’, ‘find a better way, today’ and ‘make the complicated simple.’

Ralph Waldo Emerson is on message: “to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment”. The same could be said for many public sector organisations today. We can break that trend and let the personalities of our organisations shine if we embrace values diversity in the public sector.

Let’s make it happen.

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