Purpose Matters

On the 8th August 2019, Robert Setter, IPAA Queensland President took to the stage to present his opening address at the Annual Forum: ‘Delivering Public Purpose Work in the Next Economy’. Below is a summary of his address, where he tackled the importance of purpose, and how collective action is needed in order to meet the evolving and diverse needs of the communities of Queensland.

We live and work in rapidly changing world. You know this, as everyday each one of us face the challenges of doing what we do. They seem ever more complex ever more difficult, and potentially even frustrating. The drivers of change are many. Being led to them is essential as we singularly and I think in contemporary terms collectively chart our course in public purpose work.

Hyper-government rules. Governments in western economies and at all levels in all settings are increasingly anxious. They’re anxious that their grip on power is ever more vulnerable. The coveted middle ground is narrowing as citizen’s views polarise.

Think of the leadership turmoil of the past 10 years in Australia and overseas. Think of Brexit and the rise of populist leaders, of civil unrest in Hong Kong, more in protest most recently in Sydney and even in Brisbane. Increasingly the call to action for public servants in particular is issue or crisis driven. Policy horizons have shortened to the point where long term thinking and strategy is overwhelmed by sorted short-termism and political tactics. 

It seems to me that ‘now’ matters certainly to the media and the political class. But we should not forget as public servants and practitioners in public purpose work that the ‘how’ matters that the ‘why’ matters.

In Australia we celebrated the unheralded and continued economic growth of our economy. It is acknowledged globally. Yet election results show, and survey data confirms, that increasingly citizens, that is our clients, and customers, are dissatisfied.  

They don’t see and feel the benefits of the supposed sustained growth. It hasn’t been equally shared in their view, and their futures and that of their children’s is increasingly precarious. 

These concerns will only be intensified against the backdrop of security and trade tensions between the major powers of China and the United States on which Australia’s prosperity depends. The result – dissatisfied and polarised communities, community groups, and individuals are expressing their dissatisfaction with the vote. They seek to get the attention of the political class.

Please hear me
Please see me
Please help me

The digital and connected nature of the world illuminates and exaggerates this mood as citizens talk to people who think and talk, like they think and talk.

Groups of citizens connect to curate their own worldview and it’s a world of absolutes; right and wrong, them and us, haves and have nots, regional and urban. I think ironically this is an unintended consequence because of the fantastic opportunity to access content and information from all over the world so cheaply and so easily, the internet provides, is actually narrowing views and perceptions for some.

Before the internet their reach was limited by how physically mobile they were. Today however, driven by increasing dissatisfaction and disillusionment and informed by the online connections they only blame the government, they distrust others who were different, who looked different who appeared to experience the world differently, and they too are to blame in terms of the cause of their own lot.

Social fragmentation in my view is ever more evident and I think there are increasing signs of social fracture. The fracture also has age and generational dimensions. Our aging population is drawing ever more heavily on public resources – think hospitals and health care. In Australian states, it is the demand driven frontline services of hospitals that is the most rapidly growing public service. The largest call on public resources by far. And, the sector is rapidly diversifying as providers of healthcare increase in specialty. Scientific advances increase our understanding and awareness of what impacts lifestyle and shortens life span, and we all look to benefit from that. 

In fact, we expect to be able to benefit from that.

Yet the public purse is finite.

And there is a seeming unwillingness and intended hostility to the idea of paying more tax. As a result governments must avert expenditure for other areas of service priority. The reality for each and every one of us is that we must do more with less. My sense is that this will continue.

These ideas will be explored when Professor Anne Tiernan and Annabel Crabb have a conversation after lunch. They’ll consider this intersection between politics, citizens, and public purpose.

As a result, all of us in public purpose are adapting to this scarcity in resources. Not only frontline government agencies, but importantly, in the purpose or the social sector, the tertiary sector, and private sector advisory organisations, and social enterprise resources by the private sector, by philanthropists grow as well as governments grow in value and importance.

Thomas King our keynote today will give us deeper insight into this rapidly growing and impactful movement.

The skills and capabilities of those of us involved in public purpose work are therefore by necessity, changing, and rapidly. Collaboration, citizen or human centred design, co-design, commissioning or shared distributed leadership – are increasingly commonplace, and for us old war horses of the public service they don’t come easily or naturally.

In fact, I believe they are essential, as we seek to ensure relevance to regrow satisfaction and ultimately to rebuild the disinterest and confidence. That is of course, that relevance matters, and of course it does. For me relevance is a product of purpose. Our shared and common purpose in public purpose work is making a difference – that is how we retain relevance.

Let me close with the heart of the matter, and the imperatives that I believe shape public purpose today. Firstly, collective action matters. The challenges are too complex, they are too entrenched and too damaging to tackle alone.

Until recently the public service has seen these challenges as ‘their’ business – not necessarily a collective or ‘our’ business or ‘our’ purpose – it is not. It cannot be the business of government agencies alone, and the message from the community, the social, the ‘for purpose’ sector, is that the public sector should either get out of the way or work better together. Not to merely contract the ‘for purpose’ sector to work for the government, but to actually commission and shape responses in partnership.

Local or place matters. A broad brush or singular view of how services can be delivered, even how they are designed, across our great state, is no longer fit for purpose. Just as the uniqueness and diversity of our many communities are a strength, increasingly promoted as a strength, so too must services recognise that uniqueness and diversity, and respond to that. We’ll hear examples today.

Individuals matter. Each and every one of us want to be seen and recognised in any number of ways, so too the most marginalised and disadvantaged. Citizens accessing our services from the public purpose sector must feel that they matter, that they are seen, that they are heard, and that they are helped.

Ultimately, purpose matters. And economic growth must be inclusive. We must not leave people behind. The public purpose sector, we work together, and that is essential.


What is your role in public purpose? And are you evolving your methods in making purpose happen based on the needs of the communities you serve?

To read more content like this, check out more articles on the IPAA Queensland Blog, or to watch Robert Setter’s presentation, join as a member and access the full back catalogue of IPAA Queensland event video recordings.