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In the past year we’ve published more than 400 stories on life in the public sector, so to celebrate we’re looking back over a selection of our most-read articles and favourite quotes.
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The big names
Peter Shergold talks about his journey from academia to secretary of PM&C, and becoming a better listener.
“I also realised that, in fact, I was a relatively poor listener. I would sometimes go into meetings with my notepad, and it would only have one word at the top. And it was ‘listen’, just to try and get me to listen to the other arguments.”
Anna Bligh as Queensland premier ordered the largest medical evacuation in Australia’s history, where ICU patients were wheeled out of Cairns hospital and across the tarmac hours before a cyclone was supposed to hit.
“One of my favourite sayings about leadership is that ‘leadership is what you see when the rulebook runs out’.”
NSW Treasury boss Mike Pratt on his move from banking to bureaucracy, and influencing ministers:
“I had, as you can imagine, some pretty interesting debates with ministers. Often we did not agree. At the end of it, I would take the customer metrics and say, ‘right, you have your view, I have my view. Here’s what the citizen says,’ and that overwhelmingly won the day.”
Allan Hawke, former Commonwealth secretary and chief of staff to PM Keating, looks at what brings out the best employee-engagement levels in organisational workforces.
“Executives must be perceived by their people as feeling that achieving high performance is vitally important.”
Lisa Paul, former secretary of the Commonwealth education department, thinks that while Australia does well at responding to crises, its handling of slow-moving problems is less strong.
“It’s really hard to do anything in the public sector outside the urgent quadrant.”
Former secretary of Victoria’s department of economic development Richard Bolt writes what he’s learned about corruption, which has been a feature of every department he’s led.
“Even after my first encounter with corruption, I missed a case of misappropriation which almost literally stared me in the face. I visited a school in a low-income area and was struck by its digital facilities, such as a robotics lab, film studio and radio station. I asked the principal whether the school was really able to pay for its equipment from its government funding entitlement. Yes I was told, which I accepted on face value. But the real answer was no — funding above the formula had been provided without authority.”
Former SA premier Jay Weatherill on where his high-profile and innovative citizens’ jury into nuclear waste descended into polarisation and vote stacking:
“We found that people inside the room networked with people outside the room, because we were running a very public process, and we started to get, rather than a deliberation, we started to get really interesting group behaviour. … So much so that there was lobbying for votes to be taken, people started to label themselves and break off into groups.”
Fran Thorn mulls over the tough job of heading up Health and Human Services, looking back on the bureaucracy from the private sector, and how royal commissions are over-used.
“There’s this enormous pressure on anyone who’s the head of an organisation to be authoritative and to be like you’re in control. It’s almost oppressive sometimes. It was a shock the first time I sat in that chair to suddenly realise they’re waiting for me to give them direction. What? You guys really want to trust me?”
Craig Ritchie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, spoke about how turnover means public servants are like the folies bergere.
“One lot of dancers comes onto the stage and they’re on for a while and then they dance off and the next lot come on. Meanwhile it’s the same people in communities, particularly in the Aboriginal world. And often the same conversations happen, because the interlocutors change on the public service side.”
Mary Ann O’Loughlin, deputy secretary at NSW Department of Education and former social policy adviser to PM Keating, talks about the leadership lessons she’s learned along the way.
“One thing is humility. In a recent speech, I explained I have lived a life of policy failure. It’s a very confronting thing for someone who cares about this set of issues to realise all the wonderful things that I was claiming some association with have had some indicators that things were going the wrong direction.”
Steve Hodgkinson, CIO at Victoria’s DHHS, spoke about wanting to do digital transformation better.
“One of the first things I used as a mentor to engage my staff, when I first started in this job was ‘ban stupid digital stuff’. … That authorised people to say, hang on, you know what, what we’re talking about is actually stupid digital stuff.”
Wondering what drives your minister? Another former premier, Geoff Gallop of WA, outlines his 11 theses on Australian politics in practice, and how he’s found greater bipartisanship in WA than the east.
“A hundred years from now, historians will emphasise one big fact about Australia: this country was very remote, and then suddenly it wasn’t. We suffered from a ‘tyranny of distance’, and then we didn’t.”
Ben Hubbard discussed life as chief of staff to PM Gillard, and the need to fix the structures governing advisers:
“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.”
Glyn Davis, a Thodey review panellist and former Melbourne Uni vice chancellor, discusses how the public service has changed over time and the loss of institutional memory.
“The talent flooding out of the public service that should concern us all. It’s all those people you meet in consulting firms who used to be public servants. Many get better paid and no longer have to take responsibility for outcomes.”
Danielle Wood argues reform really has slowed down in recent times, and outlines what her focus will be when she takes over as CEO of the Grattan Institute.
“If you look at it quantitatively, that suggests it has become more difficult. If you map out the major reforms of the last 40 years in both economic and social policy — as we’ve done — there were a lot more reforms, and they were much denser, in the 80s and 90s than they have been in the last two decades.”
Leadership: From helping your boss succeed to seizing all opportunities, here are six ways to demonstrate leadership regardless of your position at work.
Feedback: if you want to drive performance improvements, ditch the ‘shit sandwich’ and have honest conversations.
Diversity: Accepting different leadership styles will help improve cultural diversity in the public service:
“You might have all the capabilities of leading a team, but because your style isn’t the same as the accepted style of leadership, you might not get the promotion, or you might not be groomed for that senior position.”
And it’s not enough to just take on smart people — diversity is key to a strong team too.
Mental health: If you suspect an employee is lying about a mental health claim, ask yourself these questions first.
Self-care: As he was leaving the ABS after more than three decades, chief methodologist Dr Siu-Ming Tam told us about the importance of prawn fishing for him.
“It’s mental renewal because for those hours I am focusing on how to catch a fish, not the problems in the office. It’s a break for 8 or 10 hours.”
The office: It’s perhaps less of a concern right now, but the noise of open plan offices distracts staff. Here’s what you can do about it.
Procurement: Two recent train purchase processes demonstrate the importance of early consultation. Victoria ended up with happy stakeholders while Queensland is retrofitting vehicles after breaking its own disability laws.
Compassion in leadership: while accountability is important, we should be careful about assigning blame in disasters such as the bushfires, says former Emergency Management Australia head Mark Crosweller.
Mega-departments: Coordinating a coherent seamless departmental response in a mega organisation means getting people out of their silos and thinking beyond their usual remit, writes Bernard Keane.
Treasury: Paul Tilley looks at the central agency’s juggle: providing the minister with fearless advice (even if it causes discomfort), while keeping the government’s political strategists happy.
Five challenges: Economic thinking has clearly played an important role in the prosperity and position Australia enjoys today. For that role to continue into the future, it needs to respond to the changing nature of our society, writes Sean Innis.
Social and health policy
Entrenched disadvantage: DPC dep sec Lill Healy outlines Victoria’s work on social procurement, better data linkage for users of multiple services, improving place-based service capability, and working more closely with public housing tenants.
Robodebt: Governments are looking to algorithms to catch people improperly claiming social security. But as both Australia and Michigan have discovered, this can easily lead to false accusations of fraud. Seeking to avoid these problems, New Mexico opted for a nudge-based system instead.
Cross-sector collaboration: start with the bleeding obvious and know how the partnership will work, advise those in the not-for-profit sector who’ve worked with government.
Health reform: A few years ago, WA overhauled its health system with the aim of improving patient outcomes and saving the state money. One of the leaders of the reform program, former health deputy secretary Rebecca Brown, discusses how they did it and what she learned.
Life in a pandemic
Learning from SARS: Public administration can make the difference between containment and major disease outbreak. The divergent experiences of the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario during SARS prove just how important different approaches to planning, resourcing and workers’ rights can be.
Working from home: Has working from home worked? Public servants give their thoughts:
“I absolutely think we will see far more remote working as a permanent thing. There is all this talk about APS reform; well we have basically just lived the reform. We’ve just done it and it came at us full on.”
The APS responds: public servants should ensure they don’t appear too insulated during the pandemic, argues Verona Burgess.
Supporting staff remotely: Be understanding and get all-staff emails right.
Unfocused: Psychology helps explain why many people are distracted at work and how we adopt new health-preserving habits.
Change: And here are the components of change we’ll need to use to rethink and embed changes post-pandemic.
The Thodey review
It seems like so long ago…
Verona Burgess thought the review findings were underwhelming (and the government’s response even more so), while Andrew Podger thinks it made many sensible recommendations, but with weak analysis and a lack of detail.
Panel member Gordon de Brouwer reminds us not to forget the importance of advice as governments focus on delivery, and that public management reform is always a hard slog.
Technology and data
Pia Andrews outlines how the NSW government Policy Lab learned to use modern design methods to create more user-friendly solutions.
Allan Barger, a digital government specialist who worked on data.gov.au, explains how a ‘digital twin’ — a virtual replica of a system that exists in the real world — can help us better understand the shape of government and start a conversation about how we use technology to shape a better bureaucracy.
The Victorian Centre for Data Insights is improving capability in everything from budgeting to tracking diseases. Solutions don’t need to be complicated, says head of analytics Brad Petry — but make sure you plan for implementation from the start.
Lack of trust is preventing departments and agencies across Australia and New Zealand from delivering the effective digital services that the public has come to expect from the private sector, argues BCG senior partner Miguel Carrasco.
Media and FOI
Public servants tell harrowing tales of harassment after a mention in an FOI release. Their leaders want to shield them from the trolls, but anonymity comes with a price.
The media loves a good bureaucrat beat-up. Don’t be a victim: these are the mistakes public servants make with journalists.
And many of the issues that consume legions of public servants and media management time would be a non-event in the US, says public health expert Craig Dalton. He urges public services not to allow political sensitivities to limit reasonable discussion of policy alternatives.