The cruel treatment that the Public Trustee of Queensland has delivered to its customers has been too long in hiding. Thanks to the ABC Four Corners team, there is now a public appreciation of the hurt it has caused to the most vulnerable in our society. What is most alarming is the statement made by Stephanie Zillman[i] that none of this is news. There have been numerous public reports highlighting these issues, yet nothing has been acted upon. However, one additional report that is not so well known also clarifies that the Public Trustee was a disaster waiting to happen. The latest results published for The Working For Queensland Survey[ii] shows that this fish was rotting from the head.
The Working For Queensland Survey is undertaken across the state public sector in September each year. On the associated website[iii], the survey is promoted as a tool to drive positive workforce change that supports the public sector values of:
· Customers first
· Ideas into action
· Be courageous
· Empower people
This did not appear to happen at the Public Trustee. I am not sure whether the survey results in 2019 were just ignored or whether any ensuing action was ineffective. Either way, the writing was on the wall. The agency was failing in key areas of
· Red tape
· Complaint Management
· Employee wellbeing
Let me show you how.
These results show that most staff did not have any faith in their leaders at the time. They did not believe they acted with integrity and did not model the behaviours expected from the rest of the staff. In addition, two-thirds of employees thought that the processes used to promote those to leadership positions were unfair.
If anyone had listened to the employees, they would have heard most telling you that they were hamstrung by too much red tape and that approval processes were excessive. These inefficiencies would have contributed to the justification of exorbitant fees charged to the clients. Sadly, these vulnerable people paid directly for public sector bureaucracy.
Analysis of the Public Trustee situation has raised concerns about a lack of transparency and accountability in the agency. These issues are evidenced in the survey results, which show clearly that most employees did not believe poor performance was addressed or that rewards were distributed fairly. Most alarmingly, well over half of employees believed that members of the organisation did not take any responsibility for their decisions. These results show a situation out of step with the desired value of Be Courageous.
While people could make complaints about systems, structure, competency and culture, there was very little trust that anything would be done about the concerns raised. Half of the respondents believed any complaint they made would not be taken seriously or acted upon. The same number expressed their belief that the leadership was closed-minded and hesitant to investigate or consider new working methods. These results directly contradict the professed public sector values of Empower People and Ideas into Action.
It is basic HR knowledge that an employee’s level of engagement directly correlates to their effort and performance on the job. Concerning the Public Trustee, they were struggling, with less than half of survey respondents feeling motivated, inspired or attached to the organisation. Only 33% felt that their work positively contributed to their quality of life.
Not only were the employees feeling disengaged and demotivated, but the work program and systems were also impacting their health. In 2019, over half reported being overloaded, 40% stated they were burnt out, and one in three stated they were experiencing negative health impacts from work.
Although, as highlighted before, most felt that complaining was a waste of time, with 2/3 of staff believing leaders did not care about their wellbeing anyway.
The Helicopter View
Looking at these results in their entirety, a bleak picture is presented. The leaders are struggling in their roles and have little confidence from their staff. They appear to be stuck, stagnant and tolerant of poor performance. Staff feel undervalued, uncared for, and most believe they are operating in an unfair and inequitable environment. Moreover, they feel that their voices cannot make any positive change for their colleagues or customers.
What we don’t have visibility of is whether this situation was improving. Further work is required to assess the change in survey results from previous years and any improvements made between 2019 and now. This latter comparison will not be possible until more recent survey results are published.
Leadership Is A Lead Indicator
The impact of these results may be seen better using a trusted business model. The Burke and Litwin Model of Organisational Performance is thirty years old this year but as relevant today as it was in its heyday of the 90s. It represents the pivotal effect that leadership has on the rest of the organisation. It influences strategy, structure, systems, and individual and organisational performance. The fact that 60% of employees at the Public Trustee believed that their leaders were not of high quality and did not provide a positive role model means that the demise of their engagement and wellbeing was just a matter of time.
I also wonder whether everyone has forgotten about The Balanced Scorecard. It may have lost its trendy status from the early 2000s, but just because people are not using it, it does not mean the theory is incorrect. As the Balanced Scorecard model shows, the value delivered by any organisation is founded upon its intangible assets, including its leadership skills, organisational culture and employee engagement.
If you don’t get these aspects of the human capital right, the organisation will find it impossible to embed effective and efficient processes, deliver real customer value, and be financially sustainable.
What is clear from the results of the Public Trustee survey is that the foundation of human capital was crumbling. Leadership skills, practices, and confidence were rotting, and the employees were being sickened by the smell.
Which Public Sector Agency Is Next?
I have prepared these results for the Public Trustee in a few hours from publicly available material. I can only hope that individual agencies and the Public Service Commission have done the same and that they have used them to paint a picture of what is working well, what is not working well, and what needs to change. More than that, I pray that they are taking effective action to ensure they have strong and positive leadership so that the public sector can deliver the best for their employees and customers. I would worry that the people of Queensland are being significantly short-changed if they are not.
Because I can tell you after looking at survey results for all 56 agencies for 2019, other agencies appear to be in even worse condition than the Public Trustee. From the information in front of me and knowing the predictive nature of organisational leadership, I could be bold enough to predict which agency is the next one to be publicly shamed. My only dilemma is whether I am willing to broadcast my hypothesis.
[i] Appearing on The Drum, ABC, 15th March 2022
[ii] The latest published results are from 2019