Public servants are expected to serve the government of the day, and at the same time, keep the public good at the core of their work. Our most recent Work with Purpose guests – social scientist Dr Millie Rooney and public policy professor Dr Russell Ayres – explore how to strike this balance through collaboration between the public sector and civil society.
While serving the public good is the core mission of public servants, they must also create a balance between responding to the needs of the government and remaining apolitical and impartial.
Maintaining it is not easy, but it is something that public servants should strive for. Dr Millie Rooney, social scientist and co-director at Australia reMADE, and Dr Russell Ayres, associate professor at the University of Canberra, discuss how collaboration with civil society can achieve this balance.
After surveying Australians in 2020, Millie shares that people define public good as “the ability to connect with people and place[s], to care and be cared for, and to contribute.”
“People saw the public good, at least in part, as being able to contribute both locally and nationally to the bigger story we have of who we are as a nation.”
Russell points out that the public good can be more complicated in the context of public service because of the dynamic between public servants and the government.
“What's important for public servants is who defines what public good is and who determines how public servants respond to it. The relationship between public servants and elected politicians is significant because both groups are there to serve the public good.”
While demands in the public sector can be difficult to manage, Russell says that public servants can keep conversations about the public good by first focusing on themselves.
“When I used to lead teams, I talked about the importance of people being connected to their own values, history, and perspective, then broadening out from that base to talk about the people they're serving,” he says.
“It’s about finding ways to overcome bias about whatever it might be and try to imaginatively enter into the lives of the people you're trying to develop good policy for and deliver good services to.”
He adds, “when [public servants] focus only on the government of the day, they can lose sight of that broader perspectives that this concept of the public good can give them.”
Looking from a societal perspective, Millie emphasises people’s eagerness to participate.
“With everything that's going on in the public service and the opportunity for reform, I feel like there's a whole group in civil society ready to say, ‘Let us help you. How do we do this together?’.”
There is a call for the public sector to partner with the community, and Russell underscores that “it’s not just a nice-to-have to partner with people in the community. It's crucial to respond to complex issues.”
He says that public servants can bring their strengths around delivery and expertise as they collaborate with civil society.
“If they bring those capacities to an open discussion with civil society and local communities at all levels, then they can augment what the local community has, rather than thinking that government, in particular the public service, has every answer every time.”
Millie also says that civil society can offer expertise aside from their enthusiasm to participate. She challenges everyone to look at the government and the people in a collaborative team, finding ways to build trust to work together and surfacing shared values and purpose.
Both panellists are optimistic about more genuine conversations and collaboration between the public sector and communities in the future.
For Millie, there’s a big opportunity with people being keen to reach common ground and acknowledging what needs to be improved.
As for Russell, he is confident in the enthusiasm and commitment of younger public servants, and the nation’s capacity to learn and develop over time.
“We've done a lot of great things as a nation and we can build on those, and maybe change some things as we're having national conversations about things like the Voice to Parliament. That's got to happen through partnership with government. In this case, it's public service representatives on the one hand and the community at large on the other.”
He concludes by highlighting humility and mutual trust for effective collaboration.
“It will require a public service that knows its strengths and brings those to the table, but also knows its limitations and has that instinct for collaboration and openness. It'll require the courage to say to the community, ‘I don't know. What do you reckon?’”