“It’s not trite to say that public service is an honourable profession,” according to Mike Allen, the former head of Housing New South Wales, “because it’s about helping people, regardless of what part of government you are involved in.”
Allen (pictured) retired this year after more than 35 years involved in the provision of public housing, and got a “very unexpected and pleasant surprise” when the public service professional association awarded him its highest honour. He can now add the initials for Fellow of the Institute of Public Administration Australia after his name, joining Department of Finance secretary David Tune and the soon-to-depart head of Treasury, Martin Parkinson, on this year’s list. Last year’s featured his former boss, Department of Family and Community Services secretary Michael Coutts-Trotter.
The respect and admiration go both ways. Allen is more than happy to share his thoughts on the value of IPAA membership, both to the individual public servants it supports and the ultimate beneficiaries of that, the public.
“We’re all doing similar work across the state and across the country, and the opportunity that the IPAA provides — to hear from experts, to engage with other professionals across the public sector — those sort of enriching, learning opportunities are a very important way of dealing with the many challenges that the public sector now faces,” he told The Mandarin.
“It has to be far more flexible and nimble in the way that it operates, and the learning and knowledge base and opportunities that the IPAA provides, I think, are fundamental for the future of public servants, no matter what organisation or what state or territory they work in.”
The former agency head believes it is “incredibly important” that public servants actively influence the decisions that governments make, and they will be required to implement, though strong advice based on sound evidence and practical experience. Talking to whatever section of the public they are involved with, he adds, is not optional.
“I’ve always maintained a strong attitude that public servants should be always talking with their clients or customers,” Allen said. “Not assuming what their views might be on a range of issues, but actively seeking those views and being informed by them, I’ve always found, inevitably means that you are delivering not only more respectful but more appropriate services.”
From screen and stage to social equity
Allen started as a housing commission clerk in 1978. Remarkably, the organisation now known as Housing NSW is only his second employer, not including his obligatory time in “the family business” of managing movie cinemas. The first was the Sydney Opera House Trust, which is another part of the state government, he muses, making it technically the start of his public service career.
“I went there thinking it’d be something fun and interesting for six months, and I actually loved it so much I stayed five years and finished up being a stage supervisor,” he recalled. “It was a lot of fun, but then I had to get a proper job.”
A “proper job” meant one performed during the daylight hours that would allow him to spend more time with his wife, but he also wanted to do something “socially beneficial”. The housing commission was hiring for its engineering branch, and Allen saw it as a potential stepping stone to a rewarding career helping the battlers.“I had a strong interest in social work, and had done social work through my local church and other things …”
“I had a strong interest in social work, and had done social work through my local church and other things, but I had to work in engineer’s branch for a year before I could get an opportunity to [move into a different area],” he explained.
While he is firmly retired and does not want an “encore career”, Allen plans to pursue his passion for social work and apply his experience putting roofs over heads with charities that focus on social housing and homelessness. He’s keen to keep contributing to the community “in new and different ways … without the need to be paid for it” and thinks others like him should, too.
“I do think it’s important that people like myself who have retired but have had the opportunity and the benefit of working in senior positions in government continue to find ways to contribute socially, and I certainly look forward to continuing to contribute, to the non-government sector particularly,” he said.
Proud moments, keeping things interesting
Allen says working in one organisation for almost 40 years was not nearly as “narrow and limiting” as some might imagine. “I’ve had the opportunity of undertaking a wide variety of different roles over those decades in the one organisation,” he said. Along with engineers branch, he’s tasted service delivery, policy and head office work on the way to the top, and says moving around within the one organisation provided him with the variety to keep his work interesting.
“Also interesting — well, some people would find it interesting — is the change in the way government agencies have delivered service over those years, just through the use of technology, as one example,” he added, pointing out that when he started, fax machines were only on the cusp of widespread use.
One recent example Allen is particularly proud of is online publication of the public housing waiting lists for NSW, the first state or territory to do so. He says giving people information that helps them decide where to apply for a home, instead of only giving it out to those who ask, is an example of how technology can benefit clients through better service delivery, not just crank up efficiency to make the organisation look better on paper.
An even prouder moment from his tenure is the development and implementation of the national regulatory system for community housing, a complex process that was led by Housing NSW. That a new, red tape-cutting nationwide regulatory system was built in just over two years must be some kind of a record, Allen jokes.
“That will provide an incredibly positive foundation for the future, for community housing in our country,” he said.
“It was implemented particularly to establish a national market for community housing providers, so that providers wanting to work in more than one state didn’t have to comply with two separate or different regulatory regimes, and importantly, so that the banking and finance sector likewise didn’t have to, in lending to community housing providers [and] didn’t themselves have to understand and negotiate a number of different regulatory regimes.”