Gill Callister on ethics, female leadership and how to manage a department through a messy public corruption scandal


Gill Callister, secretary of the Victorian Department of Education and Training.

Gill Callister is the former secretary of Victoria’s Department of Education and Training. Here she talks to David Donaldson about the perils of an “ethically neutral” organisational culture, her new job, and backsliding on women in leadership

It was 2015. The Victorian Department of Education was besieged by a public investigation into corruption by departmental officials …

“All the press were down there every day, people were assigned to cover it, because it was just sensation, every single day. But when you’re back in the office you think, what am I going to do about that? We had to stand down principals, we had to sack executives, every other integrity body in Victoria came down on us like a ton of bricks, the auditor general, the ombudsman, it was like, ‘okay somehow you’ve gotten away from us so now we’re going to look at you under a microscope’. And the morale was terrible. And it was kind of, what do you tackle first?”

Callister decided building a better culture was central to getting her department back on track …

“One of the things I really focused on was first how we respond and what do we do to rebuild the organisation, but then how do you build ethically proactive cultures which are more protective, that are healthier, that are better places to work, but also are more protective. You’ll never stop someone who really wants to do the wrong thing, things will happen, but you can create organisations where people won’t walk past it.”

And although the organisation she inherited was not “systemically corrupt”, that didn’t prevent corruption effectively …

“So not corrupt to the core, but ethically neutral in a way that poor behaviour becomes corrupt behaviour, that ultimately became allegedly criminal behaviour — because a lot of the criminal matters are still before the courts — that those things can flourish and there’s nothing to counter them.”

But, she argues, something as big as a major corruption scandal can’t just be separated from the mainstream work of the organisation …

“Connect it to your everyday work, connect it to the core mission of the organisation, don’t make it a separate set of recommendations that have to be fulfilled and ticked off by some other group in your organisation, that your overall group don’t have ownership and are part of.”

… and as the leader, you have to own it …

“I did early on decide I would be the face of the communication of it, because you really can’t head up an organisation like that and not own it, so I did quite a lot of videos that went out to school leaders, saying this is unacceptable, this is appalling, the education system is Victoria deserves better, we won’t tolerate this. Strong messages that we’re going to own it.”

… and bring your staff inside the tent …

“I encouraged the staff to talk about it. Because there were a lot of people who had worked there for a long time and felt they had either tried to speak out about it, some of the cultural stuff, or felt that they’d just gone on and done their job and now they were tarred with that regime, and [wondering] were they going to be punished.”

Like many other senior public servants, she admits she was sceptical about the value of an anti-corruption commission when the idea was being debated a decade ago …

“I was relatively new, I was probably in my second year as a secretary of human services, and certainly I got huge amounts of attention from the ombudsman. So I, from that point of view, probably wondered what an IBAC could add. But I think, reflecting on that, I think we were at best complacent and at worst maybe a bit arrogant — without wanting to criticise any of my colleagues.”

It’s an “accident of history” that she came to be known for her work on integrity and ethics

“By becoming secretary of the Department of Education in 2015, only a couple of months before the IBAC hearings started into the corruption in the department, one of the things I have spent the last few years focused on is the body of practice in running ethically proactive organisations and government departments”.

She is proud of her role in a department that served a government that was keen to make progress on NAPLAN and improve funding for early childhood services …

“There is one thing I feel, which for most people is small in educational terms, but because I’ve spent so much of my career in social services, I’ve tried many times from different levels and in different ways, to find a more structured way for kids in out of home care to get to school. I’m incredibly proud that in the first year the government funded lookout centres, which are virtual schools, to have attention to every single child in out of home care, and getting them enrolled in a school. It shouldn’t be really that hard when the government is your parent to get you to school, but it is. And if your family fail you and the education system fails you, that’s like a life sentence. It really is. And they are very forgotten, those kids.”

She left the department last November and is now associate dean at ANZSOG (Australia and New Zealand School of Government), where a lot of her new job has been telling “not just on the war story of what happened in Education, but then what we did about it” …

“Because there is quite a bit of academic literature, but it’s not practical enough to help someone like what I was faced with. We’re sitting one kilometre away from literally thousands of public servants who are making public policy right now, and most of them, 85% or 90% of them, have not read all those books on that shelf that have the words ‘public policy’ or ‘government’ in the title.”

And she’s enjoying taking on a new challenge in a very different organisation …

“It’s an interesting reversal of having all your time organised for you to having more time for you to organise your thoughts. It’s interesting how much, when your time is highly structured for you, you think in short bursts, whereas being able to use your brain to think in different ways is quite an interesting change.”

As for advancing women in leadership positions, she believes there is still a “cultural blindness” in parts of the public service …

“When I started as a secretary I think there were four women around the table. There were more departments, not a lot more, a few more. Progressively over the next few years every time a woman left she was replaced with a man. I found myself on the secretaries board for quite a while as the only woman.”

Today the numbers have improved — in the VPS there are three women and five men in charge of departments — but Callister is concerned that the improvements are not irreversible …

“What women often talk about to me, and I have to agree, is you can get progress and then it can regress. It seems hard to sustain progress. I think it has to be more strongly embraced. So I said to myself quite a while ago now, after that experience when no-one else called it out that we didn’t have equity in that senior group, that I won’t walk past it anymore. One way or another, either diplomatically or politely or carefully, refer to it and say we need to do something about this.”

Her advice to younger women aspiring to leadership positions is to find mentors. And “use your voice” is her other piece of advice …

“We all have that moment where we think what we’re going to say is really stupid. Women just have that more than men, but we all have that. I say to people, use your judgement but use your voice. Next time you think you’re not going to say something you think is important because you think it’ll sound stupid, just use your judgment, but say it. Find a way to say it. Make yourself heard and noticed.”

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