IPAA Victoria boss Nina Cullen on the opportunities for the public sector going forward

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday May 26, 2021

Come one, come all.
Come one, come all. (Image: Adobe/ korkorkusung)

The new head of the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s Victorian branch has put forward her vision for the organisation, including building strong partnerships with public sector organisations to achieve better outcomes for the community.

Nina Cullen commenced in the role of IPAA Victoria CEO this month, following the departure of David Ali.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cullen moved from her previous role of executive director, strategy and performance at the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, to a COVID-19 response position at the state Department of Health.

There, she managed a team that undertook shift work ’24/7′, and provided regular briefings to government on critical public health matters.

Nina Cullen

“All of the people in the broader COVID Response Team met online. The work was very intense, the hours were intense, and we were working in ways that I didn’t think were possible in terms of policy development,” she told The Mandarin.

“So the pivoting that happened was incredibly fast, incredibly demanding, but the public sector did do that. And I think there’s a lot to learn from it.”

While the VPS is still in COVID-response mode, it has the opportunity to capitalise on the lessons it has learned and the changes it has experienced since early 2020.

“I think one of the key things that the public sector will need to continue to do is take a real people-focused, community-focused way of working — which it does do — but it [should be] heightened,” Cullen said.

“In terms of what else it could do, I think it’s very much about increasingly building in that opportunity to have flexible work models, flexible engagement models with key stakeholders, and just be incredibly innovative, creative, going forward, whilst at the same time continuing to respect its people, and look after its people.”

READ MORE: Public servants should take a wellbeing-led approach to COVID-19 recovery, leaders say

The community has been pushing for a greater sense of fairness following the pandemic, and the public sector must be able to meet that expectation, Cullen noted.

“Taking that further, I think the importance of integrity within the public sector will continue, especially as we keep going through adjusting to hybrid work models,” she said.

“So integrity is a continued opportunity and ongoing area of attention and importance I think within the public sector and it’s absolutely critical the sector gets that right.”

Wellbeing within the VPS workforce and in the broader community is another big issue that the public sector must continue to prioritise.

“In the public sector there’s a need to continue to support individuals, but also build the capability to have resilience and psychological safety as core skills, particularly in leaders,” Cullen said.

“The reality is the public sector is going to continue to work hard, and needs to work hard, it always does. It has been through bushfires, it is working through COVID. But the budget made it quite clear that there’s an awful lot that the public sector will be supporting the community on over the next four years.”

READ MORE: Victoria commits to establishing Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission

Cullen’s plans for IPAA Victoria include creating strong partnerships with the public purpose sector and the individual organisations within it. This will allow them to start conversations about what wellbeing means for the community and the workforce, and build the skills that enable people to thrive in this new environment.

“What I value about IPAA Victoria is that it provides the opportunity to connect, empower, and celebrate the public purpose sector, and it does that through various mechanisms,” she said.

“The public purpose sector is incredibly varied, and the more that the organisations within that sector work together and become connected, then better the outcomes will be for the community.”

Other important areas that present opportunities and challenges for the public sector include understanding and progressing the commitments that Victoria has made around advancing the treaty process and Aboriginal self-determination, understanding and managing the impacts of climate change, and understanding what a hybrid working model means.

While the immediate threat of COVID-19 accelerated the introduction of more flexible work practices, and prompted a focus on wellbeing, enabling action on other pressing issues — like climate change and Aboriginal self-determination — will be more complex.

“Fundamentally, it does rely on understanding, compassion, appreciation, and a willingness to change,” Cullen said.

READ MORE: How COVID-19 accelerated the Victorian Public Service’s flexible work journey


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