Brendan Murphy reflects on leadership and the public service changes to outlive COVID-19

By Jackson Graham

Monday October 25, 2021

Brendan Murphy
Brendan Murphy gave a wide-ranging talk to public servants on Friday. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Department of Health secretary Brendan Murphy says risk-taking and fast-tracked decision-making should outlive the pandemic in the Australian Public Service. 

Murphy gave a wide-ranging talk to public servants on returning to work, resilience, leadership and vaccination mandates in a Comcare webinar for ‘safe work month’ on Friday. 

On returning to work, Murphy said Department of Health staff would likely be back in offices 60% of the time, and work flexibly 40% of the time in the future. 

“Some people will want to be in the office all the time, and some people might be less in the office,” he said. 

“That’s OK, as long as their managers know what they’re doing and there’s clear oversight on their productivity.” 

Murphy was Australia’s chief health officer at the beginning of the pandemic and became department secretary in July 2020. Reflecting on leadership over his career and particularly in the past 20 months, Murphy said the public service should embrace more risk-taking. 

“The public service is not good at risk-taking,” he said. 

“That’s not the culture I want in the health department, I want people to come up with ideas, challenge the status quo.” 

But to support risk-taking, Murphy said public sector agencies and departments had to find the right culture and leadership style. 

“If [employees] get it wrong, what you’ve got to do is say, ‘well, I will back you, as long as you’re not doing something that’s completely outrageous and have sought advice if you don’t know,” he told the webinar. 

“Sure, you have to work to the agenda of the government of the day; that doesn’t mean you stop good ideas bubbling up and maybe parking them for a while until the right political moment is there.” 

Murphy gave an example where, as chief health officer early in the pandemic, he believed the government made an incorrect decision. 

“Everyone said ‘you can’t challenge it, it’s career-ending’ and I said, ‘well I can’t stay on as chief medical officer and I think this decision was made on the basis of incomplete information’ and they changed their mind and went out and publicly recanted on a decision,” he said. 

“I have seen that the whole way through the pandemic: my ministers, the prime minister, have been absolutely respectful of the clinical advice. Even though it’s been quite difficult.” 

The speed of departmental decision making is another condition of the pandemic Murphy hopes to continue in the APS. 

“[Before the pandemic] we had this incredibly rigid structure where we had subcommittees reporting to subcommittees that reported up to [health department heads], which reported to health ministers. And an issue might take two years to get resolved,” he said. 

“Now we just convene a meeting of the health CEOs and say ‘how are we going to fixs this?’ And we make a decision. It’s a virtual meeting so we can convene it in two days.” 

By his own admission, Murphy has never had any formal leadership training but offered public servants his “lived experience” as chief executive at Victorian public hospital Austin Health in 2005 and during the pandemic. 

“The most important thing … is the organisational culture, and that’s not been more obvious than in the response to COVID,” he said. 

“If you have the right culture, you can be unbelievably adaptable. You can do things that would seem to be almost impossible in a normal business-as-usual world.” 

Key to that culture is recognition of staff’s efforts, Murphy says, particularly when they are performing above and beyond duties. 

“They do need to have that sense when they are working all weekend or all night, as so many of us have done in the COVID response, that is noticed and repeatedly recognised and appreciated,” he said. 

He acknowledged that the stresses on the current generation of junior workers were not the same as he experienced as a young doctor. 

“The space was a bit different — the team supported each other, there were no competitions for getting senior training positions and people felt not judged and not under pressure,” Murphy said. 

“Younger doctors today often have a sense of vulnerability, they have uncertainty about getting into their career of choice, and there is often a sense that they are being judged, and they have to perform to their bosses in a way that makes them much more anxious.” 

Another key element too, is trust and leaders’ willingness to take responsibility for their team or organisation’s mistakes.

“In this time of uncertainty, and building the plane as we fly, leaders have to be open to their teams being very blunt and frank,” Murphy said. 

“The leaders have to be the ones who stand up to any criticism of what we do. And we have certainly seen the times I have had to stand up to face criticisms of parts of the commonwealth COVID-response, and be the front face and protecting the people who might otherwise be attacked.” 

With mandates for coronavirus vaccination applying to some areas of public service, Murphy said he was not supportive of compulsory jabs for all officials.

“I don’t think it would be proportionate and reasonable to mandate that a standard head office working public servant who doesn’t have a community-facing role … I would hope because they are intelligent people they would be vaccinated voluntarily,” he said. 

“On the other hand, it may make sense to say a Centrelink office staff, or a Comcare driver, or certainly a biosecurity worker working at the border, it is proportional and reasonable for an employer to mandate that they be vaccinated.” 

Reflecting on the decisions he made early in the pandemic, Murphy said commencing border closures on February 1, 2020, was a moment Australia entered uncharted territory. 

“The mantra at the time very clearly in all our pandemic planning, our pandemic flu plans said border closures weren’t sensible, WHO never supported them. So we had no plan for closing borders,” he said. 

“But it was bleedingly obvious we would have to start doing border measures, particularly as an island if we were going to try and have a different COVID experience to most of the rest of the world.” 

He said he was most proud of Australia’s very low death rate from COVID-19 compared to most of the rest of the world. 

“Most of Australia has lived a pretty normal life. Sure, Victoria has had a few lockdowns, and Delta got to us before we had properly gotten ourselves vaccinated, but it’s driven vaccination rates,” Murphy said. 

“My proudest feeling is that we didn’t have widespread community transmission across the country in the pre-vaccine era, like nearly every other country did and therefore lots and lots of deaths.”


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