24 September 2021

Public vs private sector: let’s co-create rather alienate!

Why do we alienate?
Last month, Kate Hawkesby said on Early Edition, “Isn’t it interesting how much lower the bar is for bureaucrats than the private sector?” when talking about the Director General of Health – Ashley Bloomfield (here’s the whole transcript).

Her headline-grabbing opinion prompted me to think of views like this that I have heard before, and the significance of why is it that the private sector generally takes a smack at public servants? I’m not sure I have ever heard the critique focussed back in the other direction…?

The comments I hear are things like, “the private sector works harder, smarter, longer…” and “we are the backbone of the nation.” Or, “If only the bureaucrats were as switched on as us” and, “They have no idea what they’re doing.” I wonder if this attitude has been passed down from the colonial settler-battlers of a bygone era responding to early governance from Wellington? Hmm?

Then, I reflected upon a memory that I too used to hold the same view as Hawkesby (about 10 years ago). “The bloody bureaucrats were numpties! I could show them a thing or two!” Maybe watching Gliding On, that wonderful 80s TV comedy depicting public servants as being a bit dull and incompetent, influenced my views? But then, that would be like comparing Fred Dagg to real farmers, right? More hmmm-ing.

What have I learned?
Fortunately, at Collective Intelligence I have had the privilege to work with both public and private sector people drawn from a huge range of industries and professions – hence my desire to get some thoughts on this subject out there to add to the mix.

What I have discovered, is that when viewed from the outside you have little to no idea, just how complex the work-world of public servants is. Add to that the public scrutiny they come under, and the pressure they face can be extraordinary. The other aspect is that when they do their job well, nobody notices. But when there’s a cock-up all hell breaks loose, often when the mistake is not even theirs.

At times, the private sector gets surprised by new policies and compliance put in place by bureaucrats from central and local government. This seems to cause much gnashing of teeth as their autonomy is challenged. There is a definite need for public servants to be able to communicate in a language that the private sector can hear, and respond to, in a way that they feel heard.

Recently mental health advocate, Mike King, called out the Ministry of Health over a wide range of issues. That’s his right, and he has a track record of being a very passionate voice for improving mental health outcomes.

But did he consider the impact he was having on mental health workers on the front line, as he went about making his point? I did wonder about this – on the impact he was having and what sort of demotivating effect it might have had on our already over-stretched mental health staff? I get that he is frustrated, and fair enough, but it seems to me that pointing the finger never helps. It just makes things worse in such a small country as ours, as blame gets personal very, very quickly.

People behave in ways that make sense to them, and struggle with understanding behaviour that doesn’t make sense to them. Sounds simple enough – but it trips us all up, and often. Seeing the perspectives of others can be a very elusive skill, let alone practicing empathy.

Recently I listened to the Director General of DoC, Lou Sanson, being interviewed by Kim Hill on Radio NZ. A smart, passionate, well-informed, self-deprecating, knowledgeable and humble civil servant was who I heard. In many countries he would be held in far-greater esteem than here. I have learnt this on my journey with Collective Intelligence. Public service is not appreciated here nearly as much as it is in the UK for example. Why’s that I wonder? Colonial battler syndrome again?

Public servants generally know what to do, personally and collectively and are highly motivated, but their ministers can be a handbrake. Public servants can be there for years and years accumulating deep knowledge, yet a minister is often only there for three frenetic years, or less.

These Ministers and politicians get no professional development; they are generally stretched, and then need to trade with their caucus members to get resources and time allocated – such is politics. Every one of these politicians and bureaucrats wants to do a good job, so what needs to happen for that to occur? Possibly a lengthening of the election cycle to 4 years.

Let’s co-create!
What I’m really interested in is how we go about developing the skills and attitude, where public and private entities can co-create new initiatives. One of the best examples I’ve seen is the co-designed New Zealand Food Network set up by the founder of Kiwi Harvest, Deb Manning in conjunction with the Ministry of Social Development. It was developed in response to the food shortage brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. The initiative is a total success, and neither party could have created it without the other. There was enough focus here to combine the might of the public sector, and the savvy of the private.

We need to create more of these collaborations, and the only way to do that is to understand each other’s perspectives, not point the finger.

Just think – what else could we co-create across these sectors if we started to understand each other’s reality?

Human psychology tells us that the social groups you hang out with have a huge impact on your world views. They are more powerful than your family in determining your opinions. Just by connecting with great people from different backgrounds you will become less set in your views, and more inquisitive as to what else might be going on!

That’s our work every day here at Collective Intelligence – so, go on – get curious and come see what we’re all about.

Ian Harvey (Harv)


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