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A memo for Tasmanian public servants: just get on with it

With the Tasmanian government holding an axe over hundreds of heads in the state’s public service, one veteran agency manager offers some timely advice to the state’s workforce.

Robert Cockerell (pictured) knows a thing or two about restructuring — he led the amalgamation of two corporate services sections when the Department of Primary Industries and Water and the Department of Environment, Parks, Heritage and the Arts were combined in 2009.

Staff “need to be flexible and adaptable and be prepared to change,” he told The Mandarin. “I found for three of my four branches I was responsible for, that was the case. A lot became responsible for their own futures and looked for opportunities.”

The two biggest issues, he thinks, were bringing the two agencies together culturally and helping staff find jobs elsewhere — which may have been easier then than it will be for those seeking new jobs now.

“Back then, we were the only agency that was put into that situation, so we were able to place people into other agencies,” he said.

The efficiency drive might hurt but public servants must “get on with implementing it. I don’t know that that’s fully understood yet. It might be very controversial if I say that, but that’s my observation.”

Some staff, he argues, “think there’s room for negotiation, alternative solutions. A bit of ‘if we go slow enough or put up enough roadblocks it won’t happen. If we can get to the minister, we can get him to see the error of his ways’. But this particular government will just go through them, go over them, whatever.

“This particular government has shown a determination. Are the others not as determined? I don’t know about that. I guess it’s degrees.”

After some 40 years in the public service, working in Tasmania and across Bass Strait, Cockerell was recently named a national fellow of the Institute of Public Administration Australia. It came as “a shock and a half”.

He’s held a range of senior positions in the Tasmanian service, including general manager of corporate services at the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment and director of corporate support at the Department of Treasury and Finance. He spent five years as director of finance and administration and then director of corporate services at the then-Department of Primary Industries.

He is currently acting director of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens. Over the past five years he has assisted in fixing up the previously struggling IPAA Tasmania branch through financial and other reforms.

[pullquote] “What we’re seeing in public services currently is the new norm.” [/pullquote]

Before shifting south, the Victorian expat spent two decades at the Victorian Workcover Authority and Melbourne Water. “The thing I really noticed in the Victorian environment,” he said, “is that I don’t think I ever met a politician. Hobart being smaller, the access to the politicians for everyone is a heck of a lot easier. So everyone gets an airing, whether formally or informally.”

But, he adds, “I haven’t worked out if that’s a good or a bad thing”.

Regardless, the good old days — “whatever the good old days were” — are gone. “What we’re seeing in public services currently is the new norm,” Cockerell warned.

“They’ll be under scrutiny, internally and externally. There’s a lot more examination in the public service of what needs to be done, as opposed to my early years in the ’90s when people had pet projects and fiefdoms of funding and things like that. That’s gone, that went some years ago.”

He reckons governments need to do a better job of keeping in mind that the economy works in cycles, and should plan based on expectations of fluctuating revenue.

“The thing I’ve witnessed is that in the boom times, governments put in place recurrent programs thinking that times are going to stay good forever. Then we’ve reached the peak and we’re going the other way, and what are we going to reduce? I have a view that in boom times, funding should be set aside for projects with finite lives, employ accordingly, and do worthwhile things from a project perspective like infrastructure.

“Employment conditions and contracts should fit with that. Rather than in the good times continually employ permanent public servants who have an expectation that they’re permanent no matter what. The popular thing to do is increase programs on a recurrent basis. The basis for that is that things are forever going to stay the same or get better, which doesn’t take account that things do contract and revenues reduce.”

Building customer service in Tasmania

In the 1970s, Robert Cockerell worked at the family’s towbar and aggregate spreader manufacturing businesses in Melbourne’s northern suburbs doing the books. “I was the one in the family that had no skills,” he joked. I got the very menial, easy stuff to do in the factory, so I became the bookkeeper, accountant, marketing officer, all that type of stuff.”

The tasks have grown considerably more complex since. One of the biggest projects he’s overseen was the 1998 rollout of 17 rural Service Tasmania shopfronts, a one-stop shop for government providing a range of services. It proved prescient.

Though integrated customer service outlets have become common, at that time only Queensland had something similar. Service Tasmania took the idea one step further, integrating government databases, rather than merely serving as a drop-off point for documents.

“We visited them [in Queensland], but it was very non-systematised,” he explained. “It was really a place where you put in forms, with or without money. So the Service Tasmania concept was a bit based on the Queensland model but it was always the plan to be automated.”

Opening the first two took half a year, but then “the government of the day decided on an accelerated rollout, and we were doing one a week. So you had a whole team working through the state.” They ended up opening the remaining 15 shopfronts across a six-month period.

At first it was difficult to get staff at the Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries to come on board; many didn’t see the project as coming under their remit. “We were primary industry and fisheries and quite frankly the staff didn’t see it as relevant to the department,” Cockerell recalled. “I remember someone in Devonport asking, ‘is this core business?’ and my project manager quite brilliantly said ‘yesterday it wasn’t, today it is’. I can’t say it was greeted with open arms …

[pullquote] “Banks and businesses were pulling out of regional areas and here was something that was actually being put into the towns.” [/pullquote]

“But as we did the first and second shop — the government issued it as a challenge to do the other 15 in the remaining six months — I found people rallied and wanted to be part of it. I actually had to knock people back, which might be a bit unusual for government!”

Cockerell puts eventual staff support down to the government making the rollout a clear priority — and the “feel good” aspect of the project. “It was counter everything that was happening. Banks and businesses were pulling out of regional areas and here was something that was actually being put into the towns. So the locals loved us,” he said.

“I did have a joke at the time, ‘geez, the government’s actually doing something that people like’. It was an enormous help that the community wanted it. The team rolled through the town, and the town got a real boost, as the staff resided in the towns for more than a week.”

Another big challenge he’s taken on was upgrading the Department of Treasury’s ICT system around 2000. “It was like Old Macdonald’s farm,” he said of the legacy systems, “there’s a server here, there’s a server there, everywhere there’s a server!”

The change “completely re-infrastructured Treasury and put in a standardised approach to their databases and applications”, as well as setting up new systems for printers and servers.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.