Retiring ASIO head Duncan Lewis says the Australian Public Service “could do better” by offering a lot more education and training to prepare its leaders, particularly to hold their ground when ministers push them too far towards the political.
Lewis finds it “passing odd” there is no official “APS college” offering world-leading training to public servants. “We have schools and universities to be sure that cater for public sector training and education but we do not have a highly credentialed, renowned, respected, dedicated public service college for one of the largest workforces in the country,” he told colleagues in his valedictory address to the Institute of Public Administration Australia.
The former special forces commander reached the rank of major-general before moving to the public service as the federal government’s first designated national security adviser in 2008, and later became secretary of the Department of Defence but lasted little more than a year in the role. Lewis said that soon after making the switch he realised that whilst in the Defence Force he had been “lavished with a level and degree of training that was not always possible in the APS. This realisation often worried me.”
“This is no reflection whatsoever on current APS training systems or training staff, but I must conclude that we could do better. I had, in the military, nine years on the public purse being either educated or trained in the most expensive mediums and courses. Now in the APS, in the last 15 years, I’ve had two three-day courses, and one of those, interestingly, was on leadership.”
He does not think the APS could or should replicate the military education and training system, but thinks its leaders definitely need more training in the nuance and complexity of the job.
“Perhaps in the finest tradition of the ancient Chinese, we might think about developing our humble public servants in a more deliberate way. I think this sort of training may support public service leaders in better managing the attempted politicisation which we all face from time to time.”
An apolitical public service “doesn’t just happen, it needs to be nurtured and defended” in the ASIO chief’s view.
“This is a complex and sometimes highly nuanced matter and we need to be specifically schooled and prepared to hold our ground. An apolitical public service is a precious jewel and it must be a treasure that is preserved.”
The problem with ‘upward management’
Lewis says leadership is “doing the right thing” while management is “doing the thing right” and there is a particular breed of public service leader he despises: experts in “upward management”.
“It is my view that our [APS] community needs to pay far more attention to a group of leaders who make upward management an artform. They are worryingly common and not routinely called out. They progress beyond where they should and cause a great deal of stress and staff anxiety wherever they operate. They typically get the job done, but at what cost?
“This genre of leader doesn’t invest in their organisation; they draw down on the available credit and leave a diminished organisational balance sheet for their successors.”
He also made an intriguing comment on his sudden departure as Defence secretary in 2012, before taking on several senior diplomatic posts and returning as head of ASIO in 2014: “… I concluded with great difficulty that my integrity was more important than staying in the top of the tree,” he said, offering no further details.
At the time, he denied he was at odds with the Gillard government and rejected the idea that he was stepping down “for any reason” other than to accept a posting as Ambassador to the European Union, NATO, Belgium and Luxembourg, which was seen as a demotion or at least an odd move. Now he says he agreed it was best for the department and the Defence Force for him to get out of the centre of government for a while.
Lewis said joining the Army was the best career decision he ever made and it prepared him well for senior roles in the public service. “The motto of this part of my story is that education and learning is never wasted, and it can often lead to the most unexpected pieces in life.”
One thing he learned about leadership in the military was that “you must know yourself and know your people” and he has an interesting view about the line between the personal and the professional.
“There’s a lesson in that for all of us in the APS context here and I frequently see young, and indeed sometimes not-so-young, leaders who do not make an effort to know their people. Sure, they may know them at work, but consider their private lives off-limits. Now, I don’t buy this.”
The former commander of the Special Air Service Regiment said young Army leaders were told to write down “all of the personal details [they] could garner” about individual members of their platoons. He doesn’t think middle managers in the APS should do this but does believe all leaders should know their staff on a personal level, and vice-versa.
“A second great lesson that I learned as a young leader was that you must give a lot of your private self to those in your team.”