What a difference an idea of service makes


I had a chat recently with a friend who works in the NSW Department of Customer Service (DCS). It is a public service agency whose customer base is the whole of the NSW community. My friend has a deep passion for accessibility, and he thinks about it in ways I find deeply inspirational.

Here are some reflections arising from our chat. I focus on inclusion rather than accessibility. You can’t have inclusion without accessibility – but you also can’t have accessibility without a spirit of inclusion.

Service means different things in different contexts

In one sense all public sector agencies serve their community. They are all services. But sometimes that service is fraught because the service users, or those upon whom the service is imposed, do not endear themselves to the service providers. In other cases, the services provided are more remote from the community. They make the other services possible.

What makes DCS different is that its customers/service users are generally seen in a positive and direct way. I have dealt with DCS often. Its commitment to customer service is sincere. You can explore what it does here – https://www.nsw.gov.au/departments-and-agencies/department-of-customer-service

Because of its different approach it has engaged its internal audit team to assess its services in terms of their accessibility. That’s a strong positive move which reflects confidence in DCS’s willingness to be held accountable.

This is in stark contrast with other agencies which provide services in areas which engage with community members in deeply problematic situations – like police, corrective services, child protection and housing and homelessness. Issues of accessibility and inclusion are no less relevant, but the complexity of these roles is such that it doesn’t lend itself readily to an internal audit assessment. This is not a criticism, just an observation. There are complex reasons why this is so, and its not a theme I can cover here.

In essence you can do some things with the idea of service in one context, but not another. This distinction is important because it tells us a great deal about how we understand what service is, and how we apply that understanding.

Accountability is a problem

Bullying and harassment of staff with disability is an ongoing issue in the public sector. It could, theoretically, be solved simply by having an effective reporting and response mechanism. Reality is different. Our psychology gets in the way of ideals all the time.

There is a huge difference between accountability in the delivery of accessible services in a positive spirit of service delivery and holding staff in leadership roles accountable for the mistreatment of subordinate staff. It should happen, but it mostly does not unless the offence transgresses against norms severely and cannot be downplayed.

In recent months I have been made aware that NSW public sector agencies have been obliged to develop and implement policies related to sexual harassment and bullying and harassment. This misconduct is clearly a breach of the sector’s code of conduct, but instead of strengthening response processes which affirm accountability, the policies are revised – as if the policy is the issue. It isn’t. It’s the failure to act effectively in response to complaints that is the problem.

Service and accountability on a personal level

DCS demonstrates that understanding service in a particular way can make a desire to be accountable a matter of pride. But we don’t see how an organisation operates as a form of service – more a kind of managing a mechanism. The messy business of managing how staff conduct themselves isn’t seen as a service. It is a necessity that is difficult to do well at the best of times. This attitude is changing among organisations who are committed to adopting the latest research-based thinking on how to attract and retain high quality staff.

There is a need to distinguish between managing how an organisation operates and what it does – but please do see that the idea of service applies in both cases. These days staff members are not mere cogs in the ‘machine’ of production but more like the tools (as intelligent moral agents) without whom the business of the organisation cannot be realised. Part of the function of managing staff is providing a service to them – giving guidance, ensuring safety, providing accessible working conditions and so on. 

While staff members may be subordinate in a necessary organisational hierarchy, they are not so when it comes to dignity, status, or value. In days gone by hierarchical inequity also embraced organisational and social status. In a way it still does in the sense that more power/responsibility usually means higher pay which can translate as opportunities to participate in specific social groups. But that seeming inequity is relative rather than absolute – as it used to be thought to be.

There is some interesting thinking on the idea of the ‘servant leader’ in which leadership is an act of service rather than the exercise of power. Please do google the idea. 

The wealth of work on leadership and service to be found does suggest that being a leader/manager is much harder than it used to be. The NSW Public Service Commission released a campaign to support employment of people with disability a few years ago. It included a manifesto which included the phrase: “Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy.” What the campaign lacked was guidance on how that might happen. 

Self-awareness and empathy are not attributes included in selection criteria for manager/leadership roles. It seems that we expect that people in those roles will spontaneously acquire those attributes simply because they are asserted to a good thing.

On a personal level, being self-reflective and self-critical can have limited appeal, unless one is self-motivated in that direction.  A job is generally taken to be a means toward self-fulfilment because of the income earned. It is not necessarily seen as an act of service in itself. This is an important distinction because if we see a job is a means to an end, we assume it to be the same for everyone else. The goal is to get by and get to the chance to be self-fulfilled outside of work.

This makes perfect sense, and in days gone by that was the pretty much rule. There were exceptions, of course, but they were exceptional. These were people who found fulfillment in their work as acts of service. The norm was that the staff member was essentially a ‘wetware’ component in the means of production – whatever the output was. Customer service was a thing that stood alone, externally focused. That was the only kind of service imagined.

Leading with self-awareness and empathy sounds nice. It is a form of service towards those who are led. But to suggest that it will naturally arise is to view how organisations work with great naivety. There will be some for whom such is a natural expression of who they are, but they are in the minority. To get to that quality of servant leadership there must be a cultural commitment to it at organisational level.

Things have changed

In the past few decades, organisations have recognised the need to treat their staff differently. This became pertinent when the idea of ‘knowledge work’ gained a foothold. What that meant was that apart from possessing certain knowledge staff had to be also able to exercise judgement, communicate effectively and be competent in interpersonal relations. The means of production shifted from processes to people in whom knowledge, skills and attributes of character are key requirements.

This change has arisen from changes in social values, reflected in the expectations of staff to be treated as a person of inherent worth and dignity. Disability inclusion has arisen as a theme because of this change – as have other DEI themes.

But what has changed more slowly than the social values has been the capacity of organisations to adapt. They are still locked into the habits of how things have been done since way back when. Staff are still seen as subject to organisational control rather than care. The cobwebs of the command and control mentality still linger in our workplaces and exert their dragging influence.

In a control mentality causing harm to a staff member as a component of the means of production is no big deal, because they can be replaced. With a care mentality causing harm invokes a sense of empathic concern which triggers action to ameliorate the harm and address the cause.

For many organisations this transition is slow. The control mindset is so entrenched and pervasive it is difficult to dislodge. Back in late 2020 or early 2021, before I quit fulltime work, my employer released a new policy on grievances/complaints handling. I was astonished and dismayed to see references to ‘managers’ and ‘workers’. Such out of date language is possible only if the old mindset still endures. I thought the policy persisted in the same old quasi-legal adversarial mentality that forced a separation between the interests of the organisation and the interests of staff. Staff injured by misconduct (for that is the cause of so many injurious consequences) are seen not as people needing care and empathy, but as risks to the leadership ingroup to be managed. It’s the old ‘them and us’thinking and not the ‘we’ of shared care and responsibility that mark emotional and psychological maturity.

The watershed moment

We are in a transitional phase at the level of organisational culture – moving from component thinking to real caring. Our legislation and policy champion caring but our management and leadership recruitment practices still echo component thinking. How do we hit the top of the ridge into a new watershed territory?

Typically, we are dominated by prevailing mentalities which resist the new. We resist investing in the emergent insights because they devalue old authority, and the cost is seen as an impost rather than an investment. We naturally resist change, and the object of organisational leadership should be to work through that resistance, not reinforce it. 

Leadership guides are clear here – you must model the change you want others to adopt. If you want inclusivity, behave inclusively. If you want accessibility, make it a priority in your own conduct. If you want accountability, allow yourself to be held to account.

Businesses live and die by their vision and capacity to adapt and embrace the new. Kodak, once the definitive name in photography, missed out on the digital revolution. It didn’t make it to the top of the ridge.

The public sector has no such imperative to adapt to survive. The worst it may face is limitation in funding and be subject to political guidance of variable merit. As such adaptation to the emergent paradigms about valuing the dignity of staff is patchy – uneven in distribution and quality.

What I love about DCS is that it is modelling the idea of service as a discipline governed by principles and standards. True, this has a primary external focus, but it must have an internal reflection as well. True, this might have an initial focus on accessibility, but accessibility benefits all because it is inherently inclusive. Its something that could infect the whole culture.

DCS also has a cultural steering committee. This is an idea new to me, and one I will explore and write on. In essence such a committee intentionally influences the organisation’s culture. At some stage the culture must shift into care-centric territory in a way that will steadily accelerate the rate of evolution toward workplaces that are inclusive, equitable and diverse – and compassionate, caring and kind.

You can’t be outwardly caring while remaining internally locked into component thinking. It’s been tried and it doesn’t work. Authenticity is necessary – if only we could see that at every level of our organisations.


Shifting from a control mindset to a service mindset is a stage along the evolutionary pathway, and what we can do to move it along is important. 

A friend, Ernesto Sirolli, the pioneer of enterprise facilitation in the 1980s, wrote of the importance of doing enterprise facilitation as if “people really matter.” (see https://sirolli.com/philosophy) That was my first encounter with a formal idea of a methodology for doing anything in which the individual mattered most. The enterprise facilitator served the client. It wasn’t a case of an expert delivering instruction and information. It was a relationship of care.

These days there is abundant evidence that staff who are cared for work better and harder than those who are not. A diverse and inclusive workforce isn’t just nice to have because legislation and policies say we must. It is more productive and more stable. The cost of making this happen is an investment.

That cost isn’t just money. It is time and attention. There’s an intellectual, emotional, and cognitive effort required. There’s also a philosophical shift that is necessary.

There is one thing that is blindingly apparent in organisational development over the past few decades, and in management and leadership in particular. It is that there is an expectation of higher levels of psychological maturity as a necessity among knowledge workers. This includes emotional intelligence. We are not going to see such qualities predominant in our workforces unless leaders and managers embody them and model them. 

We will get leadership that is routinely self-aware and empathic only when those attributes are intentionally sought in recruitment and fostered development practices by leaders who already possess them.

We are disposed to be biased toward those who are like us. That can cause problems for how we realise our ideals for diversity at times, but it also gives us insight into why bullying and harassment of staff with disability remains a problem despite all the fine words about how such conduct “will not be tolerated.” It may also explain accessibility is still not assured in procurement practices. But bias can have positive outcomes when the right people are the decision-makers.

It is time to reimagine the idea of service as something that applies to every aspect of public sector employment and not just in engagement with external customers/service users. Leadership as service, not control, is more grown up, more emotionally mature.

Finally, organisational workplaces are communities in which intense human relationships are formed. A relationship between a leader and a subordinate staff member is more complex than we mostly understand. There’s an imbalance of power often between social equals expressed in ways that are emotionally stilted. When that power imbalance is inexpertly handled it can trigger biases that lead to exclusion and conflict and eventually unintended psychological harm.

The idea that the ‘higher’ serves the ‘lower’ is alien to many – and yet it is fundamental to our best ideas on leadership. The experience of exclusion, bullying and the persistence of inaccessibility familiar to many staff with disability wouldn’t be a thing in a servant leadership culture.

This week I was obliged to pay $1135 for a major ‘service’ on my car – a 2012 Toyota Aurion. I paid it gladly despite the pain. I have deep affection for the car, gratitude for its performance and reliability, and pleasure in driving it. It is ‘serviced’ regularly. The cost of servicing the car is an investment in my ability to be mobile. I look after it in a pragmatic respectful way. I make sure it performs well and is safe to drive. Now if I could treat people as well as I treat my car… 

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