Putting the 'Public' Back into 'Public Service': What Works?

Nicole Moore

Research Fellow, Democracy 2025 - bridging the trust divide

The 1999 Public Service Act established an “apolitical public service” with the aim of being “efficient and effective in serving the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public” and working “collaboratively to achieve the best results for the Australian community and the Government”.

The focus here on serving the public provides the Australian Public Service with its core purpose. While it is true that public service agencies have an obligation to serve the government of the day and a range of obligations as administrators, managers, and stewards of public funds, at the heart of it all is a moral imperative to improve the lives of the citizenry. 

Given that it is almost impossible to conceive of a public policy problem that doesn’t require co-producing solutions with citizens; involving the public in service design and delivery is critical to ensuring the right solutions are designed and delivered to meet real world needs. Involving the public also enhances the legitimacy of public service decisions as citizens are seen as democratic agents rather than passive service recipients.

The lofty ideal that the public have both a right and responsibility to engage in public decisions is not something new. Public service agencies have for several decades strived to achieve this ideal, however understanding what it is that makes public engagements work can be challenging in practice.

New research by Democracy 2025 into two methods of public engagement – co-design and deliberative engagements – reveals six ingredients that may well hold the key to their success. This research involved a systematic review of 33 case studies and 36 theoretical studies across both approaches. The six ingredients for success are:

  1. Inclusive representation of affected people and professionals.It’s not possible to involve all people in every decision-making process. What is important is to ensure that those most affected by the issue, along with those who will ultimately be responsible for implementing solutions, are represented in the process. Affected people and professionals offer unique insights that collectively ensure solutions respond to the real-world contexts in which issues arise.
  2. Autonomy and equality of participants. The freedom to form and transform views on a particular issue is an indication that participants are engaging with autonomy and not constrained by fixed ideas or coerced by higher power interests. Without autonomy, participants can’t genuinely consider the viewpoints of others in order to be open to new possibilities. Autonomy and equality go hand in hand since power imbalances must be addressed and participants must feel listened to and respected to contribute equally to engagement processes.
  3. Plurality of viewpoints and engagement methods. It is important to ensure a range of viewpoints are considered when making decisions on matters of public interest.  Modern societies, however, are diverse and not everyone will engage in the same way. Offering multiple engagement methods can increase the range of perspectives that contribute to public sector decisions and enhance the quality of potential solutions.
  4. Quality process design and facilitation. High quality engagements recognise that participants are experts in their own experiences with valuable insights to share. This requires a shift in thinking from being the experts on a particular topic to being facilitators with expertise shared between participants. Public engagements must carefully balance the need for respectful collaboration between diverse ‘experts’ with the ability to provoke different opinions in order to enable innovation. Often this involves mixed methods that allow people to contribute individually, in small groups, and in large group discussions.
  5. Transmission of citizen engagement outcomes to formal decision-making bodies. Engagement processes usually occur in informal public spaces rather than through formally constituted decision-making bodies, hence requiring some form of transmission to take effect. Transmission can, however, be impacted by whether or not citizen generated recommendations are transferred indirectly via other stakeholder groups, or directly, to those with the power to make decisions. When recommendations are transferred via stakeholder groups, it is important to ensure the original intent of the recommendations are retained.
  6. Citizen participation as an accepted democratic value. Political support for citizen participation has the power to increase the legitimacy and acceptance of public sector decisions. Committing to accepting, at least in-principle, the solutions offered by citizens recognises the value that their participation makes to identifying workable solutions. While it is likely unfeasible (and perhaps unwise) to agree in full to solutions before knowing what they are, the level of commitment should be made known before citizens agree to give up their time to participate in the first place. This includes making clear the boundaries and constraints that are not open to discussion and providing a clear remit or guiding question to focus their involvement.

As public service organisations increasingly strive to enhance public trust and improve the legitimacy of decision-making, effective engagement that represents those most affected by those decisions is crucial. It is not sufficient that public sector organisations seek the views of those most vocal in their communities (the “noisy minority”). Representation must be inclusive, equal, and diverse and give voice to the “quiet Australians”. 

Participants must be autonomous and supported by quality processes that allow them to be active contributors.  And both governments and public sector organisations must value the input of citizens as democratic agents, and commit to integrating their views and recommendations in decision-making.

For more details about Democacy 2025, and access to full reports, please see: https://www.democracy2025.gov.au/

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