What is good governance and why is it essential in the public sector?

Australian parliament building

The Australian Public Service is entering a time of significant change as the Public Service Amendment Bill 2023 implements the Government’s Australian Public Service (APS) Reform agenda.

The reform's primary areas of focus include ensuring that the APS operates with integrity, places people and business at the centre of policy and service delivery and serves as a model employer able to perform its duties to the best of its capabilities.

In short, the Public Service Amendment Bill will strengthen the APS and support good governance, accountability and transparency.

But what exactly do we mean by good governance and why are its principles so essential for the public sector?

Here we look at how good governance intersects with rule of law standards to shape policymaking, protect rights, and prevent arbitrary governance as well as how it affects the public sector.

We’ll also consider the practical approaches, techniques and skills required to persuade and influence government decision makers so you can excel in your career as a public sector professional.

How does good governance connect to the rule of law?

In an interview with The Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), Associate Professor Tom Daly from the University of Melbourne points out that “The rule of law is not just a legal abstraction. Its principles of fairness and neutrality are a fundamental part of good public service practice, and a working knowledge of the rule of law can help public servants to do their jobs more effectively.”

A/Prof. Daly who teaches the online Melbourne MicroCert, Good Governance: Navigating law for public managers adds, “The rule of law is based on a long legacy of good government practice that should inform the daily work of public managers, and help them push back against a growing trend towards undemocratic actions by governments.”

What are the challenges public servants face in upholding the rule of law?


Public Sector employees upholding the rule of law will be embedded in the future of the public sector as it is a priority under the reform.

Outcome 1 under Priority 1 of the reform asserts that public sector employees must act with and champion integrity. “This will build public trust and strengthen standards of integrity in our federal government,” the reform states.

A/Prof. Daly says that while all governments overreach at times, and that the relationship between elected governments and public managers always has had a tension to it, there were long-term trends under governments from all sides of politics that were eroding the rule of law in Australia.

“There is a declining commitment to even basic legality. We have seen ministers taking actions beyond the powers provided to them by law, and there are instances where senior public managers have actually failed to call this out. Being elected doesn’t mean ministers can do whatever they want just because they are ministers, they can only do what they are authorised to by law,” he says.

“We need public managers who can identify these issues, who can troubleshoot or raise issues with lawyers in their departments if necessary, and who can hold the line.”

How can public servants contribute to good governance that focuses on the rule of law for effective democracy?

“Public managers are expected to be responsive to the government of the day, of course, but what we see happening in recent years is you can have ministers and political appointees pushing not just for responsiveness but for something closer to party loyalty, which is deeply problematic,” says A/Prof. Daly.  

“Having public services committed to the rule of law and their own independence would benefit elected governments in the long run.”

“If a public manager gives frank and fearless advice and says this policy could be problematic because it doesn’t comply with this law or this convention, and breaches these standards of fairness, they are not just protecting the rule of the law, they are helping that minister to produce policy that can be implemented that is less open to being challenged in the courts and is sustainable policy.”

The importance of persuasive communication skills to uphold good governance principles and practices


The ability to persuade and influence is essential for policymakers and public managers for effective public leadership.

“Persuasive communication can win hearts and minds, even in government,” says Maria Katsonis, Public Policy Fellow, Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne.  “For public service managers, it is an essential capability whether it’s persuading ministers, public sector decision makers, citizens or colleagues. Effective persuasion skills are needed when advocating a particular policy position or to justify the choices that are made.”

Ms Maria Katsonis teaches Persuasion for Policymakers, a Melbourne MicroCert designed to help public sector professionals understand how to persuade and influence government decision-makers and stakeholders through exploring concepts across social psychology, communication, storytelling and the art of rhetoric.

“Good communication skills contribute to maintaining positive relationships, especially with stakeholders and mobilising support for policy initiatives,” Katsonis says.

“Storytelling is a powerful approach to crafting persuasive and influential communication. Public managers can harness the power of stories to shape public policy and make decisions. Storytelling can also make complex concepts more relatable and memorable,” Katsonis adds.

Critical communication skills in public policy and governance

The Persuasion for Policymakers course explores the foundations of persuasion and examines the critical skills needed for effective communication both face to face and in writing, in the public sector and when working with contemporary policy making and public leadership.

This micro-credential explores practical strategies and theoretical concepts professionals need to craft effective communication.

“The policy brief is a standard communication tool used by public service managers when recommending a position to a minister or decision maker,” says Katsonis. “In this instance, the ability to express ideas clearly and concisely is fundamental especially as decision makers are time poor and don’t have the capacity to read reams of information.”

“My advice is always to make every word count and advocate no more than 13 words a sentence. This isn’t about dumbing down ideas but stripping them to their essence.”

Traits and skills to win hearts and minds

Successfully exerting influence on a decision maker requires a combination of traits and skills, says Katsonis.  “Decision makers are more likely to be influenced by individuals they trust and consider credible. This means developing a reputation for honesty and integrity.” Demonstrating a deep understanding of the issue related to the decision such as with evidence, data and research can enhance your credibility.

“Building rapport is essentially a relational skill. This involves the ability to form connections with other people and create an environment of shared trust and understanding.”

“At an individual level, being authentic and true to yourself helps rapport as does actively listening and genuinely understanding another person’s perspective.”

“When people feel heard, they are more likely to be open and receptive to your ideas,” Katsonis concludes.

This is a time of great change across the public sector.

By improving your understanding of good governance and honing the skills needed to influence, persuade and communicate effectively you will be able to play a key role in ensuring governments can respond effectively to the challenges communities face.

Ready to upskill your public sector career?


Melbourne MicroCerts are the University of Melbourne’s online micro-credentials — flexible short courses that help busy professionals quickly gain specific skills for their career.

The following Melbourne MicroCerts provide an opportunity for public sector employees to undertake rapid online upskilling, gaining new and vital skills. 

Course 1 - Good Governance: Navigating Law for Public Managers
Duration: 6-week course over 42 hours.
Want to better understand the principles of good governance? This Melbourne MicroCert explores the legal and political environments public sector professionals must navigate to ensure governments can respond effectively to challenges communities face.

Course 2 - Persuasion for Policymakers.
Duration: 6-week course over 42 hours.
Looking for the skills needed to persuade, influence, and communicate effectively with government decision makers and key stakeholders. Gain the concepts and techniques to structure arguments and write powerful public policy stories.

Course 3 - Government budget essentials
Duration 6-week course over 42 hours.
This course will deepen your knowledge of government budgets and public financial management.  Gain tools and techniques to better manage expenditure in public sector organisations. A good grasp of how governments are funded is critical for managers tackling our most important contemporary public policy challenges.

Want to sharpen your skills in public policymaking or gain skills to respond effectively to cyber threats and crisis situations? Take the next step with our range of micro-credentials.


By Janet Stone