Understand the context and motivations behind the minister’s request, recommends Gillard CoS Ben Hubbard — and don’t be an ‘adviser denier’

Ben Hubbard. Photo by Kym Smith

Ben Hubbard twice worked as chief of staff to Julia Gillard — in separate stints as deputy prime minister and PM.

He was CEO of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, coordinating recovery efforts after the Black Saturday fires. He also worked for Victorian premiers John Brumby and Steve Bracks.

He discusses public servants working with the minister’s office, how to be a CoS, and fixing the staffer system.

Public servants and ministerial offices don’t always see eye to eye, but a better understanding of each other’s motives can help bridge the gap, says Ben Hubbard.

“I think trust is always a critical element,” he tells The Mandarin.

This doesn’t mean full transparency — but each side should nonetheless be able to explain its position. And differences in opinion don’t have to be a bad thing, either.

“You need to be prepared to offer up contestable advice — and then the minister’s accountable and they’ll make a decision,” he says.

“Getting that tension between the private office and the department is really important. You can’t have one extreme, where it’s a Yes Minister parody, but you can’t have the other extreme where it’s just Malcolm Tucker screaming instructions at people around Whitehall. To use those popular culture references, you need a balance between the two.”

Regular communication is key.

“When I was in Canberra, in both the deputy PM’s office and the PM’s office, you would talk to the head of the department multiple times each day, and you would regularly see them in the diary for a face to face as well.

“You would be really clear about priorities, particularly having that longer view — but you talk them through, they wouldn’t be carved in stone on a tablet.

“And you’d be frank but respectful about performance, about what worked well and what didn’t, and not reflecting on the latter but just getting on with it and how it’s going to improve next year.”

Private offices will have different levels of involvement depending on the issue. He recommends public servants ensure they “understand the context of a request, and understand the motivations that go with that request.”

And there should be a more formal arrangement for how to handle public servants moving through ministerial offices, he believes — as well as a bipartisan commitment to see it as part of career development, rather than assuming it reveals personal political views.

“We had a very good public servant come back to PM&C as a FAS who had worked in a very senior role for John Howard. The secretary of PM&C rang me and said do you have a problem? And I said no, if you reckon he’s the best person for the job, you employ him.

“He was fantastic. You couldn’t have got a better public servant, because he knew the demands you were under in the PMO, and what was required and when. He was a fantastic public servant even though he worked for Howard. I think he actually worked for Abbott too.”

Life as a chief of staff

Running a ministerial or shadow office is tough work, says Hubbard — but rewarding.

“Don’t underestimate the demands and the pace of the work, but conversely, they are profoundly interesting and dynamic roles that are unlike anything else in the wider public sector.”

You should be well-rounded, with a strong understanding of both politics and policy, and be able work well with others, he says.

“And you need the capacity to think long, but move quickly. You need the medium-term strategic view, but you also need to understand how to turn things around quickly when media or stakeholder deadlines require it.”

In his own time as CoS, Hubbard says he was “very strong on deliberate routines, clear expectations, contestability of advice … treating people with respect, acting with integrity, setting really clear standards of behaviour for people.”

One difficulty among the upheaval of the Gillard years was inculcating a “sense of mission” in staff. “That was challenging,” he says.

In terms of your own conduct, “a bit of it is having that capacity to add value where you need to, rather than feeling obliged to speak all the time, or to be the expert on everything,” he explains.

“In a chief of staff role, particularly the PM’s chief of staff, you’re doing a few things at once. You’re traffic cop, you’re the editor-in-chief, you’ve got the red pen out, checking things. You’re a strategist and adviser, and you’re a confidante. So you’ve got to do all those different things at the same time.”

And never forget you’re not the one who needs to face the voters.

“In the end you’re part of the hired help, for wont of a better term.”

Rebuilding after Black Saturday

In between stints working for Gillard, Hubbard headed up the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority.

“I think in many ways that was probably the professional highlight of my life so far,” he says.

“What was extraordinary about it was partly the event you had to respond to in relation to the loss of life and damage to property and consequences. But also there was no handbook. Usually in public administration and policy work someone has done something before you or someone else down the road has done something similar. But there was no contemporary model for the rebuilding and recovery exercise after Black Saturday.

“So we got to spend a lot of time on design, and a lot of time on evaluation. We had the permission from the two governments at the time to try things that wouldn’t necessarily work but were responsive to community needs, and finding a way through.

“In that role we did things like set up villages, we opened a petrol station, we got a supermarket open. We had about 7 million donated items. This was uncharted territory in many ways for a western government.”

As CEO Hubbard placed deep importance on the team around him.

“It was a really complex, challenging job, and the community members you dealt with all had a different story to tell, and you had to be really conscious of avoiding one size fits all responses.

“I took my time to employ really capable people in the substantive roles, so the senior staff cohort were highly capable, and because the brief was so wide there was no way you could be across the technical aspects of all parts of the operation. So having that strong, wide senior leadership team was critical.

“I was really lucky because I had [former Victoria Police commissioner] Christine Nixon as chair, so she’d seen it all and done it all, and notwithstanding some of the challenges with the royal commission [into Black Saturday], she enjoyed the VBRA role — but she wasn’t trying to be CEO either. So I had a chair and mentor down the hallway who was very, very supportive and very helpful as I found my way as being a chief executive.”

Fixing the staffer system

There is plenty of room for improvement to how the staffer system operates, Hubbard argues — but there’s no point wishing they’d disappear altogether.

“I think there’s a slight hysteria from some quarters about ministerial staff. You’d call them ‘adviser deniers’ — those who think the simplest way to deal with the excesses of ministerial advisers, the advisory cohort, is to effectively abolish them,” he says.

“That is not a realistic proposition. I think a far healthier conversation is to think about the structures and processes you can put in place to ensure consistency and invest in people and ensure the arrangements are contemporary.”

The staffer model is based on legislation from 1984 — known as the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act — “that hasn’t changed a lot since”, he notes.

“For instance, there’s no HR function on the MoPS side,” Hubbard explains.

“You’ll have a bare minimum of staff who will support government staffing processes, but there’s no formal induction process, there’s no training programs, there’s no pastoral support. There’s none of the things which a 2019 people and culture function would have.

“… Governments could excise three or four of the 450 staff positions available to them to set up an ongoing people and culture function within the ministerial staff to support these people better.”

The system is behind in other ways — Hubbard points out there’s currently no flexibility for parents returning to work full time after having a baby.

There is currently no formal setup for inducting new staffers, either. Instead, new advisers typically learn directly from those who’ve been around longer, leading to methods and processes being passed down — for better or worse.

Given the lack of a formal structure, induction is “a completely ordinary but radical idea”, he says.

“If you think about a change in government you have 400 new staff. But even a reelected government, there’ll be 150 new staff coming in,” he explains.

“There are things that go to conduct and integrity settings, workplace health and safety, internal routines and expectations, the values and culture of that group, which people should be briefed on and be able to ask questions about. But there’s not a structure there to ensure that happens as a matter of course.”

Clearer role definition for staffers would help too — Australia could adapt the United Kingdom’s approach, which draws a much less ambiguous line between the civil service and special advisers.

But while many complain about the party hacks who take up staffer roles, Hubbard says it’s more important to look for skills when governing.

“You have good public servants who go through those roles because they want to understand what ministers need and how ministerial offices work, and add some value from there.

“The office is big enough that you don’t need a large number of highly political people, you need people who have policy and program insights, who can direct advise the minister on how things work.

“I think by and large the people who do those roles are motivated by the right things and that as individuals they typically bring a highly professional approach to it.”

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