Skip to main content

Future roles of the public sector

Chapter eight

As citizens in a democratic society, we empower government to invest collectively on our behalf, to represent the needs of a broad and diverse population, and to play a critical role in safeguarding our wellbeing. The public sector is a steward of our future, it has an inter-generational responsibility to build a positive future for Aotearoa. 

Narrow definitions of stewardship are founded on caretaking, stability, management, and control. Against the backdrop of complexity, uncertainty, and disruption, these notions will not be enough and may even limit us. There is a need for the public sector to take a bolder stance on stewardship – leaning into the challenges and opportunities we face – and working alongside communities, businesses and iwi to bring to life the seven strategic capabilities we have outlined.

Our recommendation is for the public sector to strengthen the four faces of stewardship: Strategist, Integrator, Sentinel, and Investor.

Role 1: The Strategist – Exploring the future

The kuaka have an advantage we don’t have – a known and consistent goal. Getting there, though, is arduous and unpredictable. Until recently, it was believed that kuaka follow coastal routes to make their migration from Alaska to Aotearoa. We have come to learn kuaka take the most direct route across the Pacific Ocean.73 Intriguingly, scientists are still baffled by how kuaka navigate. Common theories include solar and celestial navigation or the use of magnetic fields, but there are reasons the theories don’t necessarily stick when it comes to kuaka. Some have come to believe in an intrinsic sense of direction.74

The public sector will need to be strategic in its own choices and actions. But we also need a shared, long-term view of the opportunities and disruptions that creates a common frame of understanding and thereby the conditions for more integrated positioning and responses between communities, business, and the public sector. The public sector is uniquely placed to do this, operating at the intersection of communities, organisations, and systems and with access to the skills, data, and insight that other participants don’t have.

The steward as a Strategist uses strategic foresight to create a coherent, long-term view of the possible futures ahead. It uses analysis to reduce uncertainty where possible. Crucially, the strategist doesn’t lose sight of our existing learning and knowledge systems, it also draws from the past to help inform the future. By exploring what is possible for Aotearoa, the Strategist enables system participants and organisations to be better equipped to develop short and medium-term responses.

The Strategist role undertakes aspects of trend analysis, strategic foresight, and back-casting (working backwards from possible or desired future scenarios) in partnership with others. Partnering with iwi, communities, sectors, and regions will bring specialist knowledge and interests to bear strategic analysis and to share findings in consumable and actionable ways.

To be effective as the Strategist, the public sector needs to take an integrated and holistic approach to strategic foresight. The introduction of Long-Term Insight Briefings signals a move to strategic foresight; evolving these beyond the organisational bounds of individual Ministries would establish a more integrated approach to our possible futures. Joined-up strategic foresight will enable the public sector to shape and adapt responses and investments. We have a tough journey ahead. Siloed forecasting and ways of working will not get us far enough. Creating foresight as a public sector rather than individual agency assets is a shared endeavour for the benefit of many, and it will strengthen government-as-one ways of working.

The successful Strategist brings to life the capabilities of aligned and future-fit decision-making and bringing choices to life using new technologies.

Role 2: The Integrator – Shaping the future

We won’t be able to inch our way towards a vision for the future; we are going to need to make some big choices and be bold to hold to our outcomes. It will take agreement, compromise, and cooperation.

Kuaka succeed at their long-distance migration through collective, choreographed effort. By flying in formation, the birds can reduce expended energy by up to 20%. Other techniques include changing the altitude of flight to benefit from less dense air and using wind and wave pressure to their advantage.[iii]
Just as kuaka would not succeed at their migration alone, we aren’t likely to either.

Shaping our future requires a broad set of players and actions, and multi-levered changes, trade-offs and impacts that are economic and social, and government must play an Integrator role. The Integrator works to create consensus on outcomes and our pathways to get there – working with diverse perspectives to shape actions and help to guide focus and investments towards them.

Government – through regulation, policy, public institutions, revenue, and funding – holds many levers and conditions for change that can shape and shift systems. But it does not hold all the levers. Working with the system requires the government to have robust system models to understand who is impacted and who can have influence by how the system behaves.

An Integrator works with the system to bring diverse views and experiences together to build an evidence base and consensus for choices and action. The objective is sustainable progress: by bringing people on the journey and working through many perspectives, our choices and actions are better informed and the resource and sponsorship for the outcomes is less vulnerable to disruption.

Through working with the private sector, iwi, Māori, and communities across Aotearoa can identify and make bold bets. Climate adaptation, tackling inequity to deliver a just transition, and realising the opportunity of the future of work are all ripe for making bold bets based on value. The Integrator also plays a role in converging and ‘farming’ many smaller bets – working with the system to bring together multi-point interventions, creating a ‘portfolio’ of action to deliver change and to learn from.

Government will play a role in these solutions. Directly investing and delivering, partnering, regulating, and incentivising. Through its actions, it delivers change directly and through the system, scaling promising behaviours within systems, shrinking legacy ones, and investing in the platforms and infrastructure that will enable others in the system to thrive and transform.

The public sector also holds a unique ability to hold and disseminate the knowledge and evidence gathered through working with the system – as well as from outside. The Integrator should actively collate data and knowledge on what is important to us – from what a good education system looks like to what works to address our biggest challenges – and make this available to decision-makers in the government and beyond.

The Integrator holds the key to making significant leaps in transformations. Developing bold and sustained actions through consensus clearly signals our direction of travel, paving the way for others to act. The orchestration across players increases our chances of successful co-delivery. We are behind on the eight ball, but a good Integrator can help us get ahead.

The successful Integrator brings to life the capabilities of aligned choices from diverse voices and sophisticated partnership and collective action.

Deloitte Partner, Adithi Pandit on the four roles for public service

Role 3: The Sentinel – Adapting to the future

Whatever their nature, the disruptions are likely to keep coming. Each shock uncovers and amplifies existing risks and introduces new ones. It tests the resilience of whānau, communities and organisations and exposes both our vulnerabilities and our buffers.

The survival rate of Kuaka is more than 90% on its migration to Aotearoa. Surprisingly, kuaka are known to make the journey from an early age, with some landing in Aotearoa as young as four months old.76 Kuaka understand the aerosphere they live in; they know when to leave for their flight and how high to fly on their journey to seek out advantageous weather patterns and avoid disastrous ones. Notably, kuaka aren’t born with the latter abilities – they make mistakes in their juvenile years.77 What enables their survival from such an early stage is their ability to learn and adapt.

In an environment of multiple and cumulative disruptions, and inequitably distributed risk and resilience, the public sector plays the role of a Sentinel. The Sentinel is vigilant, keeping watch for risk and harm, providing warning, and signalling where we need to focus our attention. The Sentinel intentionally builds our resilience and our capability to prepare, respond, recover, and thrive.

Communities who will be most affected by looming disruptions may also be least[BR1]  able to respond. This creates further inequity. While risks may land within certain groups, they can rapidly spill over into broader economic, social, health and environmental risks across the system. As the Sentinel, the government must analyse, test and learn to build an understanding of how risks are interconnected across risk domains and how they manifest across groups rather than viewing risk in the aggregate.

Through understanding our vulnerabilities to risk as a nation, the Sentinel gives us the ability to assess our resilience buffers – their sufficiency and their distribution. We can then move to invest in gaps across systems, particularly for communities with the least resilience and the most need. Actively investing in resilience is in tension with a traditional focus on efficiency – particularly in times of economic downturn. However, over time, we improve our ability to bounce back after shocks by addressing our underlying vulnerabilities as we go.

Of course, risk isn’t always purely a negative concept; risk and opportunity are intertwined. Enabling citizens and organisations to assess and balance risk creates the potential for change. The Sentinel finds ways to incentivise parts of the system to take risks at the same time as buffering and reducing risk elsewhere. In a public sector still roundly characterised as ‘risk averse’, this requires our public sector leaders to take an active, deliberate risk (and opportunity) stance and think about risks beyond current events and future issues.

The Sentinel role means embedding and systematising some of the behaviours we practised during our Covid-19 response, such as risk intelligence and planning. Through clarifying risks at a national and community level across systems and our key vulnerabilities, the Sentinel creates a line of sight from interconnected risks through to the possible
future scenarios. This understanding supports active investment in resilience buffers and an integrated (and enduring) response to preparedness, response, recovery and thriving. Addressing our underlying vulnerabilities will prevent and reduce real harm and improve our ability to bounce back when the shocks hit.

The successful Sentinel brings to life the capabilities of networked responses to shocks and learning through choice and action.

Role 4: The Investor – Building reserves for the future

There is no question we need the resources and capacity to navigate the challenges ahead. In the context of the unexpected, money in the bank (literal and metaphorical) can be used to weather all storms. We need to act now to manage in the near term and to enable future generations. Kaitiakitanga, in this context, is about what we can invest in today that will benefit our descendants in the future – part of the role we must play in being a good ancestor.

Kuaka build energy stores that can be sustained over an incredible distance. The average kuaka weighs 300 grams, but before they take flight for their migration, their average weight jumps to 600 grams.78 They have developed the ability to sustain their energy once they take flight, too. It is believed the kuaka rest for approximately 42 minutes a day by putting half their brain to sleep for bursts of up to 12 seconds at intervals while in flight.79 Without these sorts of mechanisms, the kuaka would lack the capacity and resources to migrate altogether.

To be successful on our journey, we need the public sector to invest in human, social, natural, and financial resources across citizens, communities, businesses, and the public sector itself. This is the role of the Investor.

“We need to decide as a community what are the minimum things that every human being needs to get out of bed and function – we’re talking about a relatively small list: health, education, housing, and clothing. It’s not entirely unrealistic either – in Singapore, everyone has a house to live in since the Government owns 70% of housing stock. It’s not out of this world. If you decide there are some basic services, you can jointly fund it and make it happen.” Girol Karacaoglu – Adjunct Professor Wellington School of Business and Government, Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University Wellington.

In our research, we heard common themes of concern for our education, health, housing, and social cohesion. These are core to the public sector and domains that we cannot afford to do poorly in any context. In the environment we are in today they are imperative to our success; from seizing the opportunity of green-collar jobs to informed democratic participation, we must continue to invest in our human and social capital.

The private sector will play a vital role in our future. Investment in the right places to unlock greater productivity could be the key to bolstering our four capitals. Productivity in the private sector lags on average up to 45% behind that of high-performing small, advanced economies. While productivity in the public sector is not regularly measured, we know we have more productivity potential to unlock.80 To do this, we must set clearer expectations for productivity gains, build our capability to measure productivity, and report on core public service efficiency as the best ways to start.81 This requires focused innovation policy in areas of emerging economic strength and competitive advance, fostering of innovation ecosystems in high-potential industries, and collaboration with industry.82

The Investor actively brokers opportunities to attract sustainable finance and offshore investment to where it is needed. It also plays a role in encouraging investment in skills and competencies and attracting specialist knowledge to the sectors where it is needed.

Our public sector investment decision-making frameworks, such as the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework, enable us to make balanced investments across the four capitals. In that respect, we have been at the front of the pack. But we trail in the tables on educational outcomes, productivity, and several key economic indicators – particularly in relation to equity. These are symptoms of under-investment. The Investor has a role in building our resource and resilience across our four capitals, thereby enabling us to better withstand and bounce back from shocks. With the right discipline, the Investor has the potential to take us a step further than resilience to a place of antifragility, where we capitalise and thrive in times of chaos – able to build back better in the wake of significant shocks.

The successful Investor brings to life the capabilities of sophisticated partnerships and collective action and catalysing private and public investment streams.

Get in touch

Adithi Pandit

Partner – Strategy & Business Design

Cassandra Favager

Director - Strategy & Business Design