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Decision making in an uncertain environment

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by Kerri Hartland
Proximity Principal Advisor

Having returned to the private sector after almost 30 years in the public sector, the differences in risk appetite, ambiguity and independence are marked.

Decision making can be tough in the public sector with a need not only to ensure value for taxpayer money but also because of an aversion to getting things wrong for fear of reputational and political risk and repercussions. This inevitably has an impact on the way you work. So how do you try to bring certainty into the uncertain environment?

Here are my top tops to help bring certainty in an uncertain environment.

1

Know your legal parameters

So often in the APS I found people who had no idea of the legislative base in which they worked. Government exists to provide the rules and governance under which we operate, it’s our friend in guiding what we can and can’t do.


2

Be clear on expectations

Ensure that your manager has clearly articulated what you are there to do and why. This of course, will change, but sitting down on day one and getting a clear understanding of your manager’s expectations will provide some certainty.


3

Open communication

This is important across the board, with staff managers, and where applicable, ministerial office staff. The ‘no surprises policy’ is important and it helps everyone to understand context.


4

Develop trust

Developing a relationship takes time and sometimes you may not have the luxury of time. Learning about the people you work with and work to (not just their work habits) will help you have transparent conversations and develop trust. While it may not always create greater certainty, developing trust does help with ensuring everyone is on the same page and has the same outcomes in mind.


5

Be flexible

A good idea one day, may not be a good idea the next. You won’t always know the full picture of why a decision is being made, but once it is, as a public servant you need to deliver on that idea rather than re prosecuting. There’s a time for debate and putting forward the good evidence but then once decided, that time has passed.


6

Know your role

You are highly likely to have to implement things in your career that you don’t consider good policy. As above, if you have provided the good advice and evidence and it is well documented, but a different route has been agreed, then so be it. I’ve been in a few situations where public servants have decided that they can’t implement a policy – most notably a situation where ethical issues of embryonic stem cell research were being considered. Having some ethical frameworks to understand and put some certainty around decision making is helpful.


7

Remember that people adopt and adapt to change differently

People respond to change in different ways over different timeframes and sometimes not at all. Whether you are an innovator, pragmatist, or traditionalist, know how you and others around you respond to change. Be respectful of it and work through the strategies you need to make the change happen.


8

Partnerships are all important

Partnerships are key in making uncertainty work. Rarely can things be done without others. At a minimum, having others to bounce ideas off will result in a better outcome.


9

Know your experts and your expertise

You don’t have to be the expert in everything, just be aware of the areas in which your knowledge is deep. There’s an art in knowing how much information to carry in your head and how much you can rely on others to know. Seek out expertise where you don’t have it and remember that if you can’t add value to the conversation then you aren’t needed.


10

Make the hard calls on uncertain situations

When you are in leadership positions, you are being paid to make the hard calls, whether that be staffing,
policy or delivery. Nothing destroys morale more than those who are hesitant or won’t act – especially on staffing issues!

Enjoyed this article?

Listen to our recent podcast with Kerri Hartland, where we discuss everything from change management to COVID-19, national security to duck risotto!

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