Vale Kerry Kennedy, a gently spoken champion of excellence in public administration

By Carmel McGregor

May 16, 2019

Kerry Kennedy, 1949-2019

Kerry Kennedy — Public Administrator, family man, Shiny Bum Singer and Brumbies tragic (1949-2019)

Kerry Kennedy — who died recently in Canberra aged 69 — was a quiet champion of excellence in public administration, a committed family man and a fine baritone who performed with Canberra’s own tongue-in-cheek Shiny Bum Singers for many years.

I first met Kerry in the early 2000s when he was a Business Analyst and Project Manager with the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations — a tall, genial man with a rolling, velvety voice.

IPAA ACT launched the Prime Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management in 2002. Kerry was part of the original cohort of assessors who evaluated and provided feedback to the 39 organisations which nominated. The inaugural winners that year — joint winners in fact — were Centrelink and the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

Within a few years, Kerry was actively involved in the organisation and coordination of the awards, later becoming the Chair of the IPAA ACT Awards Steering Committee and the Awards Coordinator.

With Kerry’s background in business improvement, his oversight of the exacting awards process was invaluable — both for the smooth running of the awards process for IPAA and in providing thoughtful, considered feedback to the nominating departments and agencies.

Kerry was the consummate public administrator. He served in executive level roles within Defence, Veterans’ Affairs, the ACT Government, Education, Employment and Workplace Relations before finishing his 40-year public sector career in 2012 with the Australian Electoral Commission. He also turned his hand to consulting in the private sector from time-to-time.

Kerry was passionate about the profession of public administration, committed to driving excellence in the Australian public sector and in helping teams to improve and sustain their success so that they delivered excellent service to the Australian public.

And he was passionate about IPAA, serving as an active member of the IPAA ACT Council and bringing a wealth of corporate knowledge to the organisation.

Kerry is the only person to have read every single nomination to the PMs Awards — more than 370 over a 16-year period. His favourite nominations were those from small organisations who had rolled out big initiatives. Often, they didn’t quite meet all the awards stringent criteria in the depth required to make it through the assessment process, but it was their ambition and success that enthused him.

He delighted the assessors at the end of each years’ nomination process by whipping out his own list of those he thought would be finalists — only to discover that he sometimes got it wrong! This reminded the four-person panel that a robust assessment process required multiple perspectives to weigh up the relative merits of the nominations effectively.

Kerry’s dedication and outstanding contribution to the PMs Awards — often foregoing overseas travel and holidays during ‘Awards Season’ — led to him being awarded a Life Membership of IPAA ACT in 2012. After his retirement, Kerry continued to manage the Awards on an entirely voluntary basis, because he cared about it so much.

Kerry was someone who strived for excellence in all he did.

He brought gentle good humour to bear on solving pesky problems. His patience and calm demeanour helped other award assessors to keep their cool and collaborate in positive ways. A naturally well-organised person himself, he helped keep everything on track across the annual awards cycle.

But Kerry wasn’t satisfied with just repeating the same process year after year — he drove innovation and sought continual improvement in the award process. Under his watchful eye, the 2018 PMs Awards attracted 41 nominations from across the Australian Public Service and State and Territory governments with the prestigious Gold Award taken out by the Queensland Police Service.

When Frankie — Kerry’s wife — decided to stand for Parliament in the 2016 Federal Election, Kerry stepped up as her campaign manager. Frankie will always describe him as the ‘world’s best campaign manager’: he focused on getting the process right, giving her the freedom to focus exclusively on the campaign content.

His daughters told a story at Kerry’s funeral that reveals another facet of Kerry’s character.

When they were young, two of his three daughters wanted to be fashion designers. So, Kerry scoured the papers, found a shop in Sydney that was closing and headed up the Federal Highway one Saturday morning. He delighted in his daughters’ joy on his return with a trailer-load of mannequins to help them on their way. Kerry wasn’t interested in fashion, but he wanted to give his girls every chance to follow their dreams.

Similarly, his long-time friend Chris Clarke — who worked with Kerry and eventually persuaded him to be a member of the Shiny Bum Singers despite his belief that he couldn’t sing — told another insightful story.

On one occasion Kerry was working as a manager in a department when he became aware that his counterparts were dealing with a corrosive management issue relating to an under-performing staff member. Watching a steady flow of emails that revealed how the process was unravelling, Kerry stepped in and stopped it with five simple words: ‘Let him work for me’. Wisely Kerry’s counterparts accepted his offer: the staff member moved into his team, and the under-performance issue was relegated to the dustbin of history.

His death came as a shock to all who knew him.

The contribution he made to the PM’s Awards and to IPAA was enormous. IPAA ACT will honour his memory with the launch of a ‘Kennedy Award’ later this year as part of the awards program.

Kerry’s energy and enthusiasm will be sorely missed. He helped promote the good work being done across government by providing an annual opportunity to celebrate excellence in public sector management which enabled public servants to learn from different teams’ examples. Through their learning from others of what’s possible, and their application of these lessons to their own policies, programs and projects, the public sector is better able to provide Australians with excellent service.

That’s what Kerry always wanted.

Kerry Kennedy is survived by wife Frankie and children Alison, Meredith and Tegan.

I thank Frankie, Chris Clarke and Fiona Oliver for their contribution to this obituary.

Nominations for the 17th Prime Ministers’ Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management close on 30 May 2019. Visit the IPAA ACT website for more information.

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