Space Agency chief Dr Megan Clark on providing influential advice to government: tell them what the public really thinks

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday November 20, 2019

The Milky Way over outback Queensland. Getty Images

In this year’s Williams Oration, Australian Space Agency chief executive Dr Megan Clark offered to explain the thinking behind foundational decisions taken in the agency’s establishment, for the benefit of her fellow public sector leaders. She hopes the agency can maintain an early groundswell of community support through lots of open, honest dialogue with stakeholders and a commitment to stick its word.

Australia’s new space agency is quickly finding its place in a burgeoning global industry by carefully building relationships with the big players, and it has been lucky to generate plenty of public interest and support across the political spectrum.

This dream run as a new agency is largely in thanks to robust advice that guided its establishment in July 2018, based on strong public consultation and engagement through a review process led by Dr Megan Clark, who then became the ASA’s inaugural CEO. Clark learned a thing or two about the value of enduring community support to a government agency, and the risk of taking it for granted, when she was head of the CSIRO. She has come to appreciate the power of public engagement even more in her new role.

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“We often think … in public service, that our job is to convince government of the merits of our policies and strategies,” said Clark, delivering the second annual Williams Oration, hosted by the Institute of Public Administration ACT Division.

“You have to be in the kitchens and lounge rooms of the nation.”

“But actually, I think, if you want longevity of what it is you’re doing, you have to be in the kitchens and lounge rooms of the nation. Because if the nation is not behind you, how on earth can you expect government to be so?”

She made sure “engaging the nation” was a top priority for the ASA, and much of its first year was spent going out and talking directly with citizens, boffins, and stakeholders all over the country. Clark is determined to make it a truly national body, and to make sure the nation knows that.

In a discussion after the speech, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science deputy secretary Elizabeth Kelly observed this heavy focus on engagement was “a very un-public-servicey thing to do” in general and asked how Clark had become so committed to the idea.

During her time leading CSIRO, she explained, survey results showed lots of people saw it as a worthy recipient of their tax dollars, but few could recall much about what exactly made it so special. The science agency was worried its community backing might erode if it didn’t work to actively re-establish a more meaningful connection to the public. An early attempt at getting “into the kitchens” was publishing diet books.

Leading the Space Industry Capability Review was another learning experience. Clark didn’t know where to start, but then hit on an idea.

“I’ve gone, ‘Wait a minute. Why don’t we just ask the nation to write the report, seven times? Why don’t we get every state and territory to write the report? And I’ll have seven versions of the report and then somehow we’ll cobble together the final version.’ … So this actually was a big step for me, and then we went around and that’s exactly what we did.”

This approach produced very influential advice, she said. “So I learned from that process that actually the nation knows exactly what it wants … and then you could go and [very confidently] advise government. I could say, ‘Look, the nation’s fully lined up here. There’s tension here.’”

Dr Megan Clark. Twitter

This approach helped her warn against controversial ideas for the new agency’s role, which she knew half the community would oppose. It also helped to counter last-minute ideas from government, if she could point out they had never come up in hundreds of consultations.

Clark also advised her fellow public servants not to worry so much about facing a “difficult environment” in public consultation. In her experience, most people are very pleased to see public servants show up and listen, and this will earn a lot of respect, even if it’s a hard conversation.

Popularity not a problem

As it turned out, arousing interest was not a problem for the space agency. It began measuring public engagement and set an initial goal for the first 12 months, then achieved it in just a few weeks.

“What was important for government to see was that this was across the nation, across the demographics — bipartisan, regional and city or urban populations as well. This was truly the nation responding, saying that this was something of which they approved.”

Clark hopes the new agency can maintain and build on this public support by sticking to its values, setting clear and realistic goals, and following through on what it says it will do. Space missions fire up a fair bit of interest anywhere, but Clark thinks Australians are particularly keen. This really hit home at a conference where the agency made its international debut.

“The head of the UK Space Agency came up to me. He says, ‘I don’t have my nation behind me.’ He says, ‘You clearly have the nation behind what you’re doing.’ And he said to me, ‘Don’t take it for granted.’ It was a really powerful moment.”

Clark thinks the ASA is stirring the sort of quiet national pride that has also been inspired by the CSIRO’s achievements over the years. More than once she referred to The Dish (a comedy that portrays Australia’s role in the moon landing with some artistic license) to illustrate the point.

“We’re tapping into the sentiment that is quite visceral; that goes back to the ’60s, where Australians know ‘we were there’. We were right there, and we should be there again. There’s something very deep in our connection with space, and it has a lot to do with our partnership very early on with the US. But I have to say this, our capacity to inspire the nation surprised us all.”

It’s a big country

Clark emphasised that Australia is a big country, and that truly “engaging the nation” in useful conversations means going far and wide.

“And I look back now, 15 months on, and I think one of the most successful things that we did to build momentum was every 12 weeks, we had a roadshow. The first year, we did a roadshow to all states and territories — myself, the deputy and representatives of the agency.”

When the ASA staff met members of the public, government representatives, and other key stakeholders in each jurisdiction, they were “hugely surprised” by the response every time.

This was a two-way street; the agency learned a lot by listening, and also spread awareness about what had already been happening in the local space industry, but had gone largely unnoticed. When her legal and regulatory team were considering updates to legislation, the CEO told them they to “go to every state and territory to engage” as well.

“And they said, ‘What happens if they ask us questions we can’t answer?’ And I said, ‘Oh, they will… but they’ll be so appreciative that you actually went.

“And then you have to put up publicly how you changed your view. So when you went out and listened, what is it that you changed in the law or the rules or the guidelines, because of listening? And then [report] what you didn’t change, because you didn’t agree with it. … And then when you’re out there, people will say, ‘You know, we saw that you listened to us and actually changed the approach. Isn’t that wonderful from government?’”

Clark also offered an anecdote showing how negative comments on social media can be useful. Aiming to simply “grow” the local space industry was not inspiring enough for one early critic on Twitter; surely the goal should be to “transform” it, they opined. ‘That’s not a bad idea…‘, thought Clark, so she took it up.

Values

Staring at the blank page that would become the first draft of the ASA charter, its founding CEO pondered the strategic purposes of the world’s biggest space programs and Australia’s place in the world. A superpower we are not, so “world domination” obviously wasn’t part of the program, she joked.

One of its key practical roles is to help diversify the economy and create more high-tech jobs. Clark felt it was also a reasonable aim to try to “inspire the nation” — and this was before she realised just how quickly and effectively the space agency would be able to capture public attention.

The ASA has “the most commercially focused purpose” of any such body in the world, she said, and it is firmly focused on working through partnerships. Clark believes it must maintain and build on the strong interest and support it enjoys in the community to succeed, and that relies not only on it talking directly to the community, but also living up to its word.

This includes sticking to the agency’s founding values which emphasise being a “responsible citizen” in space, amid growing indications of militarisation, and putting the safety of Australians first in all its endeavours.

“We also needed to showcase a kind of can-do attitude — you know, think of The Dish — this kind of entrepreneurial spirit that we wanted to come through,” added Clark. Diversity was also on the list, part of the CEO’s efforts to attract the best team possible.

“From day one … we said it would be 50-50 male-female, top to bottom. Today it is that, from our advisory board right through the organisation.”

“We absolutely wanted to build a diverse team, because we wanted to be globally competitive, and we wanted our team to be able to run through the legs of giants. From day one … we said it would be 50-50 male-female, top to bottom. Today it is that, from our advisory board right through the organisation. It’s delightful what you can do with a blank piece of paper.”

On top of that, the ASA chief set one simple general goal — the agency should try to do what it says it will do — but she also observes that can be difficult to achieve. Clark’s closing advice to her fellow public servants was to remember “it’s not just what we do, but how we do it” that matters, and she left them with a few questions to ask themselves.

“How often do each of you talk about your values with your team? How do we build teams that can compete anywhere in the world, and how do we make sure those teams care for each other — not just care for each other, but truly care for each other — because I think they’re the essences of great teams: they can compete anywhere in the world and they truly, truly care for each other.

“Engaging with the nation really matters. So the question then is, how do you help your teams get out there and listen to what the nation has to say, and then reflect that in your advice to government? Because I think actually Australia deserves nothing less from us.”

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