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Lessons from the hill: Steven Kennedy’s ‘secret list’ of questions to ask yourself during a briefing

Steven Kennedy

Dr Steven Kennedy, one of Australia’s most senior public servants, has twice been seconded to the Prime Minister’s Office — picking up a few tricks on the hill that have come in handy in his new role as departmental secretary.

Now as he heads the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, leading more than 800 staff, Kennedy says he’s able to use that hill perspective to watch out for behaviours that public servants can sometimes adopt.

Addressing the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s ACT annual conference this month, Kennedy revealed his ‘secret list’ of things to ask himself while being given a briefing by public servants.

While framed via a worst-case perspective, they weren’t intended as a literal assessment, but rather how an insight into how he might need to steer public servants in his department as they provide him with advice.

“Some of them are prejudices, but some of them are behaviours that we’ve tended to implement,” Kennedy explained. “They’re not about institution, they’re just about how we behave.”

1. Are we in catch-up on the issue?

“How far behind are we on the issue? Because we are often slow to appreciate the change or the thing that’s coming down the track.”

2. Have we looked at the context?

“The second thing I’m thinking is have they got any context in which the change is happening and I’m trying to test that.”

3. Is our solution driven by rules or outcomes?

“I’m pretty certain that all this is being done in a way that’s quite aloof from society and broader community — this isn’t a criticism of us, these are the things I’m thinking about because of how things will roll — I’m tending to think this solution is probably going to be rules-driven and I have to take us back to outcomes.”

4. Did we ask what outside groups think?

“We’re probably going to be a little bit arrogant about our assessment of the issue at hand. We probably haven’t asked anybody else for a view, particularly people outside the public service as we roll through that answer.”

5. Do we have the right expertise in the room?

“I’m going to check the level of expertise of the people who are briefing me on this, and sometimes it’s not there.”

6. Are we thinking about the impact on others?

“We’re going to be a little bit dismissive of the concerns of others and the change that’s about to be made.”

7. Have we forgotten the rest of government?

“We’re going to be pursing our own agenda. We’re probably not going to be very well connected to the rest of the public service and I may have to ask the person to go ring a few people in other departments just to check that we’ve connected it up.”

8. Are we only considering the risk-averse options?

“Lastly, the solution is probably one that’s on the risk-averse end.”

Watch the full session below, or visit the IPAA ACT website for the other sessions from the IPAA ACT 2018 conference.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.