A restructure of Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, built around three new “thematically clustered” working groups, has been designed to drive the new Labor government’s priorities and “live up to our own vision”.
New secretary Chris Eccles told staff this week he’d learned from his time heading up premier’s departments in New South Wales and South Australia and listened to Victoria’s public servants to design a workflow with an emphasis on decentralised decision-making and a stronger culture.
The new roadmap, announced to staff on Wednesday and due to take effect from March 2, has been well received. Staff The Mandarin spoke to were excited about a shift they say was a long time coming.
Eccles was appointed secretary a day after Labor’s election in November, tipping out Denis Napthine’s man Andrew Tongue. Eccles was seen as a moderniser of the NSW bureaucracy (he was hired by Barry O’Farrell but replaced when Mike Baird became Premier) and was brought in by Andrews as a new broom in a beefed-up department he saw ripe for reform.
In a five-page memo to staff — obtained by The Mandarin — Eccles says the changes go “to our role, our values and norms, how we can and should be influential, how we work together, and how we lead”:
“The changes are designed to best position DPC to deliver the government’s priorities, including those apparent from the government’s early decisions and the machinery of government changes that it has made …
“The arrangements reflect significant thought on my part, taking into account my observations and discussions since commencing as Secretary (including my discussions with the Premier and the Special Minister of State), the advice that I have received from DPC including the ‘incoming Secretary briefing’ material to which many of you contributed, developments in central agencies elsewhere, and the wider external forces affecting our work.
“On a more personal note, I have also reflected on my previous experience here in DPC and as the head of the equivalent departments in SA and NSW. I have endeavoured to learn from what has, and hasn’t, worked in each of those contexts.”
The department has been restructured into three units, “each with a strongly embedded strategic and policy leadership focus”. They are the:
- Economic Policy and State Productivity Group (EPSPG);
- Governance Policy and Co-ordination Group (GPCG); and
- Social Policy and Service Delivery Reform (SPSDR).
Each unit will be led by a new deputy secretary, drawn from the existing senior ranks: Simon Phemister (EPSPG), Kym Peake (GPCG) and Rebecca Falkingham (SPSDR). Said Eccles:
“Collectively, Kym, Rebecca and Simon will bring significant expertise and experience to their roles as well as a fresh perspective on the exciting work ahead of us. Once they start, they will work closely with me to establish the more detailed priorities for their groups, and you will hear more from us as that thinking develops.”
Two existing deputies — Brendan Flynn and Joanne de Morton — have been shifted to other strategic roles, still answering to Eccles. Flynn will advise on commercial matters and de Morton on business transactions reform. There are no job losses in the restructure.
Three groups, multiple priorities
The EPSPG group will be responsible for economic development, regional and local government outcomes, international engagement, infrastructure, planning, major transactions (including the possible sale of the Port of Melbourne), energy, resources and land policy. The Infrastructure Victoria and Projects Victoria agencies will run separately but work with the group. Said Eccles:
“It will lead work on some of the highest priority areas for the government, relating to the Victorian economy as a whole, and among other responsibilities will provide the secretariat for the Back to Work Plan IDC and a major projects executive committee, both of which I chair.”
The GPCG group takes on public sector governance, performance and reform, cabinet management, community security and emergency management, intergovernmental relations and strategic communication and protocol. The office will support Labor’s new Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings. Eccles stated:
“It unites the strategic whole of government leadership and coordination functions that are unique to a central agency, in a structure that will foster a reform culture as well as excellence in the government’s day to day operations.”
A major priority of the CPCG unit will be public sector reform, drawing in the work of the abolished Government Branch and Productivity and Delivery Unit. Eccles said he’s mindful of the “substantial and valuable reform work” done by the latter unit in the past and “I have every intention that this work be continued”.
The SPSDRG group is responsible for Aboriginal affairs, multicultural affairs and citizenship, veterans’ affairs, women, equality, education, justice, health and human services policy. It will also co-ordinate work around family violence and the royal commission examining the issue, which is a policy priority for the government. Eccles said of the alignment:
“There are large synergies between these areas and bringing them together will enable a holistic approach to social policy and service delivery, including reform.”
Eccles said the “basis of our success is ultimately our people and our culture”. A new position of “executive director, people, culture and operations” will report to the secretary to “transform our culture, embed our values and support all our staff, including a focus on women in leadership, flexible work arrangements and leadership capability”.
Eccles is also setting up a general counsel office (replacing the legal branch), led by Ryan Phillips, to report directly to him on legal advice.
Before March, he has tasked directors and executive directors to produce a list of priority projects over the next 12 months for deputy secretaries to review.
Eccles, who began his career in Canberra before joining the Victorian public service, said the lack of stand-alone units tied to particular policies is deliberate to:
“… promote collaboration, innovation and the highest quality policy and project work across the department, and to fully utilise the skills and dedication of all of our staff, strategy and reform needs to be the business of all of us …
“Key projects will be distributed across the different parts of DPC, including ‘strategic’ and priority reform projects. I am alive to the risk that this could lead to crucial longer‐term thinking being crowded out by the more apparently pressing day to day issues that will always be there. However, I am convinced that the benefits of embedding this work across our whole business far outweigh the risks. I am committed to ensuring that longer‐term strategic thinking and projects are prioritised as part of DPC’s core work, and I will hold myself, the Deputy Secretaries and the Special Advisors, as well as Executive Directors and Directors, to account for this.”
The secretary says “clear and comprehensive communication” with staff is now a priority. Staff The Mandarin spoke to praised the level of communication to date — one bureaucrat said the couple of rounds of drinks Eccles bought for staff before Christmas was a good start.