Be proactive: former secretary Greg Wilson’s career tips for adaptation in a changing world

By David Donaldson

Friday August 14, 2020

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Change is a constant in public sector work, so ensure you understand how it affects your field, be upfront about risk, and don’t ignore the small opportunities.

The world is changing, and public servants need to ensure they have the skills to adapt.

Greg Wilson
Greg Wilson

But that’s nothing new, says Greg Wilson, former secretary of Victoria’s justice department.

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“Whenever I’ve heard that change is the new normal, I keep thinking back — I’ve worked in the public sector since I was 18, which is 40 years, and I don’t reckon there’s been one year in that 40 years where the prevailing mood isn’t ‘change is the new normal’,” he told a recent YIPAA masterclass.

The pace has, however, picked up.

“In the last 10 years it’s the rate of change I think is the thing that’s been pretty extraordinary.”

Australia’s defamation system is one example. Our existing uniform defamation laws are currently being reformed, even though they were only adopted in 2006.

“To me that doesn’t seem that far away, but Facebook wasn’t even invented then, let alone Twitter and all those other social media vehicles,” says Wilson.

“You see the attorneys general now dealing with the issues of who’s responsible and who’s liable for defamatory content on those platforms.”

And we’re not just talking about exogenous change — sometimes it’s easy to forget how much of an impact public policy can have on society.

The road toll is a great example of public policy changing citizens’ lives, says Wilson, who is now chair of the board at the Transport Accident Commission.

In 1970, more than 1000 Victorians died on the road. If that were extrapolated to today, with population growth, that number would have doubled to around 2000. Instead, last year’s toll was 266 — and that was a bad year.

Those changes have come about thanks to efforts across the public purpose sector to change the attitudes and behaviour of drivers.

“At the time, even going back to having to wear seatbelts, the community reaction was, ‘how can the government make me wear these things?’. Or with a random breath test, ‘you mean the police can pull me over when I’ve done nothing wrong and just test me?’

“… Only a couple of decades ago you’d have 25% of people admitting to drink driving — one in four. Today that’s more like one in 20. So those things are having a real impact.”

Translating megatrends

It can be useful to spend time identifying what the upcoming megatrends are, how they translate into your field, and then what the specific trends for your work are.

Thinking through these questions with colleagues makes it more effective — and it shouldn’t just be the formal strategy sessions your boss sends you to.

“If I had my time again I think I’d probably be a bit more proactive as a young professional,” Wilson says.

“Basically getting colleagues together and looking at those trends and understanding what it means for us. Having more of a deliberate, once or twice a year, discussion session.”

Once you work out what the implications are, identify specific actions appropriate to the scale you are working at.

“How do you translate that thinking into something you’re going to present to your leaders to say, ‘this is what I want you to approve’?”

And don’t overlook the importance of incremental change.

“Quite often you see people who want everything, there are big, polished proposals, and if it’s nothing then they just walk away and the problem’s not solved. But sometimes making these clear, specific changes scalable means you can actually achieve certain things, a step along the way, and those things provide you with the evidence base to make the case for subsequent stages.”

It’s important to have a strong understanding of how decisions are made, says Wilson. The processes will be different between different organisations, and it’s not much use having good ideas if you can’t get them up.

“The bigger the reforms are and the more complex they are, and the more they’re multi-agency, you need to allow much more time and you need to understand how those processes work to give your particular proposals the best chance of success.”

He also cautions that while data is useful, it’s best to approach it with an idea of the problem that needs solving already in mind. Translating this into a problem statement or hypothesis means your efforts can be focused, and helps sell the idea to leaders.

“The logic of that structure then dictates where you want data, rather than saying let’s gather all the data we can … and wait for something to leap out.”

Public policy always includes risks, and it’s vital to ensure they are properly managed.

“It’s much better as a young professional to clearly identify what those risks are, articulate what they are, and include mitigation strategies for them, rather than just leave them hanging around.”

Of course, risk always provides a reason for not doing something, but “if you’re presenting to executives, talk about the risk of not adopting what you’re proposing”, Wilson recommends.

And finally, experiencing change for yourself can be highly valuable for a successful career, he says.

“I’ve been involved in various statutory corporations, central agencies — Treasury and Premier’s — led two portfolio departments, and I’ve been a regulator.

“The benefits of moving around, experiencing different problems, different cultures, different perspectives, expanding your networks, I think it’s certainly helped me in my career, just understanding how the public purpose sector works.”

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