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Article Article May 25th, 2021
Justice • Innovation • Legitimacy

What do public servants need to work in ways that centre relationships, care and complexity?

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.@CPI_foundation & @SydneyPolicyLab interviewed public servants across different levels of govt in Australia who are placing relationships, care & complexity at the heart of what they do

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What are the enablers & barriers to public servants working in new ways? What support is needed to challenge norms? @theasnow @davmurik & Louise Beehag explore

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.@CPI_foundation & @SydneyPolicyLab are working to design & deliver a bespoke program of work for public servants in Australia. Would you like to be involved?

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Imagine being a public servant in a large government department. You’re trying to work more closely with the communities your department serves - really listening, and building deep relationships. But this new way of working isn’t supported by the people around you. The work is tiring without that support, and there’s no one at work you can reach out to - you feel alone. One day, you have a chance encounter online with a public servant in Canberra, doing similar work. Just based on the hunch that they ‘get it’ - you drive all the way to Canberra - almost 300 kilometres away - to meet this person, simply hoping to find someone to talk to. 

This is one of the many stories we were told of the realities facing public servants working in more relational ways. The work often happens below the radar, and the risk of burnout and loneliness is high.

The Centre for Public Impact and the Sydney Policy Lab interviewed public servants across different levels of government in Australia, who are placing relationships, care and complexity at the heart of what they do. 

All over the world, societies constantly grapple with complex problems - from homelessness to obesity to climate change. Across Australia, governments are spending billions of dollars trying to “fix” these problems, but the current approach isn’t working.

Our models of government were designed to address symptoms; not causes. Government is designed and incentivised to think in terms of narrow portfolios, rather than systems. 

This calls for a new vision for government; one which places relationships, care and complexity at its core. We need to move to a model of government which recognises that the only way to build and sustain healthy systems is by attending to the quality of relationships within those systems. We need to move to a model of government which sees its role as being to enable people to live good lives.

So, through our interviews, we wanted to better understand both the enablers and barriers to public servants working in new ways, as well as the support they might need to persevere in their attempts to challenge norms, and work differently.


Often it is communities and people with lived experience who are best placed to provide insights into how to effectively tackle the complex challenges around them. Whilst it is often very difficult and slow work for a range of reasons, many of those we interviewed identified that working closely with, and being led by, community is a source of constant inspiration. The strength of community-led storytelling can foster deeper relationships and knowledge, and underpin better solutions.

We also heard that having a diverse, capable and aligned team is an enabler, as it allows teams to focus on getting deeper into complex problems, instead of rewriting work and having to focus energy on “ensuring the day-to-day hums and goes smoothly”. Public servants with diverse life experiences, cultural backgrounds and skill sets bring varied perspectives and approaches, which can assist when building relationships with communities.

Crucially, for every public servant we spoke to having the backing of a supportive and trusting leadership was a key enabler. Working in complexity requires continuous learning, and it’s up to leaders to enable that - removing the fear of failure, and explicitly carving out time and space for experimentation and learning. 


While it can be easy to talk about systems change work and complexity in theory, applying it in practice is hard! The theory often doesn’t take into account the very real and rigid structural barriers that public servants face when trying to implement new ways of working, and offers very little in terms of how to address these barriers, leaving what can feel like a significant gap between rhetoric and reality. 

Risk aversion within government is another critical barrier to new ways of working. Embracing complexity necessarily means making mistakes (and learning from them!). However, governments are notoriously risk averse, meaning that the tolerance for mistakes is very low. 

A lack of continuity across people, funding and strategic priorities was also identified as a barrier. This makes it hard for public servants wanting to push boundaries to gain trust and build strong relationships with decision-makers. Senior leadership might trust and support you - but could leave at any moment - your role and work might change completely. 

The people we spoke to also identified burnout as being a key challenge. It is often a lot of individual, discretionary effort to push new ways of working forward. It’s also hard to overcome the inertia in government - the structural risk aversion and fear of failure. It can feel like the system of government is trying to protect itself, and is not open to change. This is tiring. Working relationally can also be lonely - many people we spoke to said it was difficult to find people in their organisations they could discuss these issues with.

Support needed

Despite some of the barriers that public servants face, there is still a lot of optimism, and a conviction that with the right support, working in ways which centre care, relationships and complexity could really flourish.

Through these consultations, we identified a number of key features for a program of support:

  • Advocacy to ensure new ways of working are elevated and appreciated, and that time is carved out for learning and training.

  • Learning networks, to share reflections and relevant materials.

  • A safe space for challenging conversations with people of different perspectives.

  • The time and space to invest in big picture thinking, and feel inspired - something hard to do in the day-to-day.

  • Training on self care, and offering psychological support, to address burnout.

  • Training on communicating with decision-makers, and producing evidence and data which captures new ways of working, but will also be valued by authorising environments.

  • Methods of ensuring people engaging in new ways of working are more diverse, and able to harness diversity better (e.g. learning from Indigenous knowledge systems).

We want to support those in government who are reimagining what it means to be a great public servant. We envision doing this by designing a unique program of work, co-delivered by the Centre for Public Impact and the Sydney Policy Lab, which would provide public servants in Australia with the support they’ve been asking for, and build and strengthen a community of public sector changemakers.

Community of Changemakers

To provide public servants in Australia with support, and strengthen a community of public sector changemakers, we're working with the Sydney Policy Lab at The University of Sydney to design and deliver a bespoke program of work.

If you would like to be involved as participants, co-designers or funders of a program, we would be delighted to hear your thoughts.

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