Strategy and Stewardship in a Time of Change: Conversations with Stephanie Foster and Sirpa Kekkonen

Speaking with ETHOS on two separate occasions, Australia’s Stephanie Foster and Finland’s Sirpa Kekkonen reflect on what their governments are doing to be adaptive for the future.

Strategy-stewardship (op)

1. How do you engage your public in thinking about the long term?

KEKKONEN: In Finland, our society and our government system is very open. We value transparency in government actions. For example, we have strong requirements for bills to be publicised in order to allow for discussions. It is a challenge to involve citizens and businesses in governance, but there is a very strong ethos of doing so in Finland.

Recently, we had a foresight exercise on new directions for the country. Ministries also conducted their own sector reviews. You have to design the process in a way that involves social partners, and organise all kind of events where people can participate. Nowadays, you can also have digital platforms. The whole of society has to be involved in taking a country in a new direction


The word we are accustomed to using when talking about the government is “machinery”. In Finland, we have started using the phrase “ecosystem preparation” or taking an “ecosystemic” approach. You take an ecosystemic approach when you try to find not just the solution but also the question, the problem. Because first you have to define the problem in the correct way, then find the solution. Hence, citizens, businesses and other stakeholders should be involved at the early stages of the design of the policies. If you’re an anticipatory and future-oriented government, you should listen for the signal of emerging questions early.

We have ecosystem forums where we call together people who work in government, academia, business, and so on. We design these so that people don’t come to these meetings wearing only their professional hats. They also bring their personal concerns and their own wishes. We don’t convene them to hear what the government should do, but to understand what’s really the problem. These have proved to be very fruitful. It’s like looking for solutions, looking for innovations together. This is co-creation, isn’t it?

You take an ecosystemic approach when you try to find not just the solution but also the question, the problem.

FOSTER: We still have work to do on really effective engagements with our other governments in Australia— with state, territory and local governments—who are in many cases much closer to businesses and communities. Australia’s size and the extreme diversity of our regions are further challenges. It makes the use of data to drive differentiation in our policies much more important. One exciting area we are working on is customisation. How do we design a plan for family needs that actually draws on all of the data that we know about family needs, rather than just focusing on one specific issue, such as getting a child into school?

One of the themes of a major ongoing review is for the public service to be a trusted engagement partner. This will have all sorts of spin-offs. One spin-off is about the sharing of data, and more seamless collaborations to solve policy problems which in the past was seen as the domain of the government. Our ability to develop a constituency for longer-term thinking will be enormously enhanced as we become better able to use the data that is available to us.

We have not yet tapped on the extraordinary expertise that exists across academia, the private sector, and the not-for-profit sector. I think this can enrich our policy thinking more broadly. There will also much greater buy-in for the kind of solutions we come up with. And this goes to the question of social licence and trust. Greater trust gives us a platform for reform and so it’s not just an esoteric issue: it’s critical.

If there’s no relationship, then there can be no trust. If we get stuck in Canberra, rather than genuinely engaging with a diverse range of people, then people won’t think that we understand their businesses, or what actually drives their decision making, what pressure points they have. Therefore, they won’t feel the policy changes we are making are actually informed, in a way which is about supporting them and driving change, even if they are.

Greater trust gives us a platform for reform.

KEKKONEN: People feeling that they are being heard is more important than what people are getting, how much they earn. There has been research done that shows that you have to create the feeling that people are involved, and are heard.

We come back to a very basic insight: our governance systems have been built on the basis of the needs of the system itself. In Singapore, you talk about citizen-centric government. And I think that that is the core of what government needs to be. But to do this, you have to understand the behaviour of people.

There are many examples of issues where, typically, there is a weak demand for data and information. However, if you keep this secret, you risk people creating a big hullabaloo, imagining that the government is hiding something and that we need some information. But as soon as you open access to information, you might end up with nobody being interested in that issue. So it seems that it is enough that people feel they are trusted and that if they wanted to, they could access information.

2. What can strategy units do to support governments as they set strategic directions after consultation and engagement?

FOSTER: You need to be in the same space as the government that you are serving. In order to influence the direction of policy in strategic thinking, first of all you have got to build confidence in your competence, and alignment in your understanding of the sitting government’s agenda. Hand-in-hand with that, you have to be responsive. You have to have your longer-term thinking and strategy so that you can plug into the frame of the government you serve. You can focus on the outcomes that both you and they think are important. And then work out the pathways to deliver that.

In Australia, we’ve had the opportunity every few years to reset our thinking about strategy and the policy context. A change in government or Prime Minister involves more than the process of providing a brief to a new leadership. It’s a time in which we stop as a public service, look back critically at what we have achieved over the past term, and with those lessons learned in mind think about how best to advise the government to achieve its platform.

While we are doing that thinking, of course the government is campaigning. It’s announcing all sorts of things that it wants to do. It’s a fine art to bring those two things together, but a marvellous opportunity. It really sharpens your thinking about the long term for health, the economy, our social system. But we need to do so while keeping the frame that often there could be two quite different lenses to these issues. And so there’s always an element of making strategy on the run, because of the need to be responsive to the elected government as well as be a steward for the national longer term.

In fact, you don’t get the license to contribute to the longer-term planning if you are not also meeting immediate needs. You need to satisfy immediate needs for people to be able to focus on something else. The Public Service can put up advice. If we are achieving for political leaders in the short term, then the level of receptiveness to our longer term ideas would be much greater. It gives us license to have a discussion about why we think this would work and that won’t.

KEKKONEN: To me, there are two main elements of being strategic. First, it means that you differentiate between the big or most important questions, and the minor questions. It means that the government makes choices: it prioritises its policies, its reforms and anything else it does. The second element to being strategic is taking the longer term view. You have to see what is around the corner. Strategy units also have to support designing policies, as well as support the governance system in implementing the government's strategies.

To be clear, strategy units do not really prioritise, because we are civil servants. Instead, we are there to develop processes and systems for strategic policy making and implementation. The role of the civil servants and ministry experts—which strategy units try to coordinate—is to provide the government and the political leaders with a proper information base, including policy options and foresight, on which they can make their decisions. Politicians bring values to the decision making, and they decide. Civil servants provide them with data, good management practices, and instruments for strategic policy making.

The best value that strategy units can create for government is to help decision-makers see the bigger picture, and how things are interconnected.

3. How should we be thinking about the implementation of strategy, in a world of uncertainty and rapid change?

KEKKONEN: If the government has priorities, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the machinery works. But it gives you much better possibilities because you have a map.

One of the guiding principles that we have in government in Finland has been what we call a “Single Government Approach”. It is a challenge to make different actors work together. But that's where collective leadership comes in.

Developing the government machinery has to be a constant process. We try to learn from past earlier experiences, build on what we have achieved, try to correct the things which are not good, and overcome handicaps.

It is a challenge to make different actors work together; but that's where collective leadership comes in.

For a long time, there has been a notion that social questions and other problems on the table are “wicked” problems, where there are many interconnections between various issues, and considerations for the short-term and long-term are more complicated. There is strong awareness, in Finland, that we just cannot aim at final solutions to these wicked problems.

But we can still manage or address these problems. And we have choices to make. And well, let’s experiment. If we come up with a solution, great, if it doesn’t lead us anywhere or if it seems to be the wrong path, we just admit it. Which is not traditionally the mindset of public governance.

Experimenting requires a certain kind of philosophy. In a way it makes life much easier, because you don’t have to succeed in everything.

One problem is that, during this period of change, the media may not have internalised the culture of experimentation: they still demand perfect solutions or perfect decisions from the government politicians. That’s why building a culture of experimentation is a challenging and delicate thing.

Experimenting requires a certain kind of philosophy: it makes life much easier, because you don’t have to succeed in everything.

FOSTER: We have all seen loads of examples where we have a strategy that sits over there, divorced from the real world. It looks good for a while, and it throws up exciting possibilities, but is it really making an impact on the system? Often, the answer is no: the system continues to do what it always does.

So we have a project office whose mandate is to take difficult problems that cross boundaries and run small sharp projects, and do it with all of the agencies that are contributing. The idea is to start a seed or spark for a different way of doing business rather than be the deliverer of the key outcomes or products. It’s too early to really say what impact it is having on the system. And as with all of these things, it will have to evolve. You can’t put one thing in place and say that’s going to serve us as the world changes around us.

We need to instil in all of our officers the idea that longer term thinking is a part of everybody’s job. And unless everyone who is designing policies is thinking about implementation, we will still end up with disconnects and less good outcomes for government and for people.

We need to instil in all of our officers the idea that longer term thinking is a part of everybody’s job.

4. What kind of workforce competencies will the public sector need to meet the demands of the future?

KEKKONEN: In Finland, people who are recruited to the civil service usually come at an early stage, they are recruited to a particular field: there is no big rotation between the sectors. This means Finnish civil servants develop deep expertise in their own sectors.

However, collective leadership requires more than sectoral specialists. It demands new skills such as the ability to cooperate, or the ability to build teams. The workforce of the future requires enterprise skills.

This is particularly pertinent for the public service where we have tended to value, in the very broad sense of word, technical expertise in particular policy areas. That is still very highly regarded and rewarded in our system. But I also look for people who can see the big picture, and the interconnectedness of things.

Of course, if you are in a strategy unit in the prime minister’s office, you need to understand the relationship between the politics and the machinery that helps in the design of the policies and their implementation.

At the same time, I'm also looking for people who aren't just book-smart, but who can also talk to large numbers of people. I want our unit's approach to be one of service, rather than of commanding or ordering others about. I don’t want us to be seen in the ministries as somebody who comes and tells you how things are.

Coordination can also be service.

Coordination can also be service. People in different sectors and agencies may be willing to cooperate, but are unable to for various reasons. So we are there to develop and offer frameworks for people in different sectors to work together.

The workforce of the future requires enterprise skills—effective communication, collaboration, relationship building, digital savviness, and understanding data and analytics.

FOSTER: I think, more and more, it’s not enough to be sitting at your desk being clever—because the world is so complex and so interlinked. Fifteen years ago it was probably more possible to work in that way than it is now.

We are now seeing our staff putting much more emphasis on who they engage with in the development of things, building constituencies for moving things forward. They think about what their elevator pitch is, how things will play out in social media, and what our response to that is.

And those sort of skills are the enterprise skills you read about: effective communication, collaboration, relationship building, digital savviness, and understanding data and analytics.

One of our challenges is not only to recruit for and develop those skills but to genuinely value them over the very, very smart person who knows more about macroeconomic policy in a particular area than anybody else does. That’s quite a significant transition for any organisation.

The person who can combine all of these skills will be elite. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. There will be people who have the capacity to be the unifiers, the conveners. They are just going to be different kind of people from those who have risen to the top before. And we should be investing and developing them.

What I think keeps organisations alive is the injection of new thinking, and diversity of experience and thinking. We talk a lot about diversity in all our organisations in the sense of demographic diversity. It is important, but what I think is more important is genuine diversity of perspective and thinking.

What keeps organisations alive is the injection of new thinking, and diversity of experience and thinking.

And we are not very good at fostering that in organisations like ours. In part because the demands of democratic government drive a lot of focus on the immediate term. The more pressurised environment you are in, the more you need that diversity, and the harder it is to genuinely embrace it.

We have done a lot of research with policy officers across our system, and one of the things they say to us is if we had more time, if we didn’t have all this pressure, we will be able to think longer term. And we are trying to turn it back on them and say, how you use your time is something that you can have more control over. All of our jobs needs to be balancing the short term and the long term.

The key is the incentives; we will get what we reward.

The key to it, from my perspective, is the incentives. We will get what we reward. And if we continue to reward the person who produces the fabulous thing in 12 hours with no collaboration, no consultation, then people will keep doing that.


Stephanie Foster is Deputy Secretary of Governance at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia.

Sirpa Kekkonen is Head of Government Strategy Secretariat at the Prime Minister’s Office, Finland.

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