The end of the year is traditionally a time to reflect on the past twelve months and plan for the coming year. With the events of the last two years, I am sure we are all wary of making any predictions about what lies ahead in 2022.
Last year, many were optimistic that a new bright, cloudless horizon would dawn before us with the passing of the previous year. In fact, 2021 has continued to present stormy weather at every turn. As the new year draws closer, it may be more realistic to accept that challenges will arise and seek to prepare for the future.
I recently spoke on a panel with the theme “Reimagining Government and the Role of the Public Service”. It was exciting to explore this topic with Jennifer Moltisanti, Assistant Commissioner, Not for Profit Centre at the Australian Taxation Office and Jason Borton, Executive Branch Manager at the ACT Education Directorate. The facilitator, Michael Collins from HiPotential, asked the panel to name our top three emerging challenges for the next five years. The ensuing discussion was a fascinating assessment of trends that are highly relevant and applicable to the legal sector. Many thanks to Angus Tye, General Counsel of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, for suggesting this article to share the ideas from the session more widely.
Below is a summary of the top five trends that emerged from the discussion and how they apply to the legal environment for the Australian Government.
While we may have thought the pace of change was rapid pre-pandemic, the COVID response has accelerated change. We have seen this trend in need to alter our way of life in direct response to the health situation. It has also manifested in ongoing forces of social disruption, as the status quo in so many areas is questioned. It appears unlikely that we will see the rapidly moving environment we live in stabilising any time soon, and we need to be ready to address developments as they arise.
These changes have resulted in an increased demand for legal advice. Many lawyers are advising on automation and significant change programs for the Australian Government. The shift to online in all aspects of our lives has increased focus on regulating the digital world, online information and privacy. We have also seen enormous changes in our work environments with remote and digital options becoming embedded in our approach to work.
Although there has been an uptick in the demands placed upon the public sector, this generally has not been met with a commensurate level of resourcing for the sector. Public servants, particularly legal teams, are accustomed to expectations to do “more with less”. Many lawyers are working on projects to allow the Australian Government to provide services more efficiently through automation. Similarly, lawyers within the government may need to assess their internal processes to determine whether automation or risk-based approaches will allow them to address increasing calls on their services and how best to work with external legal services providers to meet demands.
The pandemic has accelerated existing trends around remote working, and the capacity to deal with complexity has become a core skill. The archetype of the strong leader with all the answers, keeping to a predetermined plan and leading a team of physically present workers has been turned on its head. Authenticity, dealing with a constantly changing situation, and management of remote and hybrid teams are now key to leadership. Effective leadership through this challenging period has required managers to review their approaches to ensure they have adapted to the new circumstances and their teams have come along on the journey.
Across the Australian Government, agencies have been assessing their approaches in the new COVID normal. With the immediate lockdown easing, they are again looking at changed work practices to support flexibility, while also ensuring business needs are met, and workplace health and safety obligations are satisfied. Employment law advice needs to be a key consideration in addressing these issues, given the complex legal environment which applies to employment in the public sector. The expected “Great Resignation” and increased competition for talent will be another source of pressure. High-quality leadership will be essential to address these issues and to retain talent.
The theme of decreased levels of trust in government and traditional sources of authority has been discussed for many years. This appears to have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In this climate, it is essential to build trust and relationships through positive and proactive communication on an ongoing basis.
The importance of communication can never be underestimated. This only increases where circumstances constantly evolve and expectations are high. Clear and regular provision of information is fundamental in an uncertain environment. In this way, there is a foundation of goodwill to build upon when addressing problems and developing solutions when issues arise.
These principles can be applied to legal work for the Australian Government. For example, engaging with clients and business areas on an ongoing basis can assist in establishing relationships so that any legal risks are identified early and legal problems are more easily resolved.
The pandemic fundamentally changed the way citizens interact with the government. Before the pandemic, interaction with the government was often seen as something in the background of people’s lives or having a supporting function, such as through social security payments, health and education. However, the pandemic brought about a new level of government intervention in people’s daily lives with changing rules to monitor and abide by.
With this growing level of engagement, public expectations of accountability for decision-making have correspondingly increased. Lawyers play an important role in ensuring actions taken by the government comply with legal requirements and all accountability requirements are satisfied. Lawyers can add particular value in this space.
By being aware of these trends, we can all be well-prepared to face the challenges of 2022.
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Author: Elizabeth Carroll
The information in this publication is of a general nature and is not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavour to provide accurate and timely information, we do not guarantee that the information in this article is accurate at the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future.