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Government Risk: The Balancing Act of Leading an Apolitical Organisation in a Political Environment

· Steve Cusworth,Government Risk,Public Sector,Analysis

One of the constant challenges in the public sector is navigating the complexities of the overlaying political environment within which we all operate without being blown off course or forced into a chaotic, reactive operating stance. 

In a modern world of instant communication, heightened community expectations and (at the end of the day) being part of a vibrant democracy, it is no longer an option that the professional civil service can isolate itself from these political impacts in the interests of discharging its official duties – but this of course does not mean public servants should be dragged into the chaos that creates. 

This chaos manifests in many ways and ultimately increases risk – risk to the ability of a public sector organisation to get on with their mission or risk that a project or reform can be derailed at a moments notice, undoing months or even years of work. 

Whilst some of these risk factors are quite rightly difficult to anticipate and even harder to mitigate, the majority of them can be assessed and managed as there is a surprising degree of commonality and consistency across a range of risk categories. 

These ‘government risk’ categories, and a series of indicators under each category, provide a framework for the dispassionate assessment of an organisation or specific project – which then provides a foundation for what to do about it. 

For example, a new statutory authority in Victoria was established with a specific remit to secure change across the Victorian Government for built asset renewal with hard deadlines. Undertaking an Organisational Risk Review identified many barriers to success including community concern elevating Reputational Risk potentially causing political stakeholders to lose their appetite for reform and significant Compliance Risk due to potential lethargy from cross departmental stakeholders who did not have the same sense of urgency. This context provided a platform to consider and proactively manage such anticipated threats. 

Another agency was facing complex community and political headwinds to a relatively routine land disposal project due to an upcoming election and the project team was concerned they did not have the expertise to manage this complexity. A Project Risk Review helped flush out the range of risk indicators in play and provided the team both the tool and the confidence to manage the associated issues. 

Leaders of public sector units and agencies often have an instinctive knowledge of these risk factors and how to manage them. The limited capacity to directly manage these risks and ensuring your team has the tools at their fingertips to support you as well as to build their capability to take a proactive approach over time is the challenge.

Steve Cusworth is Managing Director of FPL Advisory.

FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change.