Australia’s top mandarin a focused method man

By Melissa Coade

Monday June 6, 2022

Glyn Davis
The APS will emerge as a modern, invigorated public service that will help governments in decades to come, says Brian Schmidt of Glyn Davis. (AAP Image/Alan Porritt)

Canberra’s new guy in town, Professor Glyn Davis, is a deep thinker who plays the long game. The next DPM&C head will approach APS reform in a way that is tactical, evidence-based and unrelenting. Expect change. 

It is Davis’ first day in his new job leading the APS. Top of the agenda for the new DPM&C secretary will be advising the prime minister about which public servants will be best suited to lead new departments — like DFAT, which is due for a shake-up

ANU vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt was a former colleague of Davis’, having served with the new APS boss as a member of the Group of Eight and Universities Australia when Davis led Melbourne University from 2005 to 2018.

Speaking to The Mandarin, Schmidt described Davis as one of the ‘most successful’ vice-chancellors in the history of any university in Australia. The change Professor Davis brought to Melbourne University was at times uncomfortable, and under his stewardship, the transformation was dogged. But Schmidt said the change was driven by a ‘resilient, pragmatic’ leadership approach and was achieved without a major financial cost. 

“Glyn, is a person who is thoroughly research-evidence-based, he’s not going to do things by gut,” Professor Schmidt said. 

“Things are carefully constructed and planned and executed. He’s not a ‘seat by his pants’ type of guy — he thinks about problems, he thinks about them long and hard. He convenes groups of people etc. to potentially further an agenda and will refine the agenda.”

As an academic and member of several panels appointed to review APS reform needs over the years, Professor Davis has an intimate understanding of what needs to be improved to set Australia’s bureaucracy up for success. In terms of the ‘how’ and the ‘what’, it is yet to be determined what Davis’ reform agenda will tackle as a matter of priority. But Professor Schmidt predicts it will be ‘substantial transformation’, informed by the Thodey review recommendations, and executed swiftly.

“Within the public service, he was part of the Thodey review; he is an academic who has researched public policy, and has expertise across public service,” Schmidt said. 

“He’s practiced public service up in Queensland and so he is going to come, I presume, with a pretty strong agenda.”

To understand more about his approach to change management, Professor Schmidt advised the APS to buckle up — while they were in the hands of a competent and very considered leader, Glyn Davis is not someone who cared to waste time getting on with it, he said.

“It will be wide and strongly progressing — ‘linear’ would be my guess,” Schmidt said of the type of APS reform to be expected. 

“I think the public service will emerge as a modern, invigorated public service set up to help not just this government but governments for the decades to come.”

The ANU vice-chancellor also described Davis as a person whose duty to a role was sacrosanct — meaning the higher education sector should not expect any special favours from the new DMP&C secretary. This was likely, even though Davis is one of the thought leaders of Australia’s higher education system.

“I don’t think he will be adversarial to higher education, but it will be treated like any other head of PMC would treat it. We would not expect any interventions or special treatments,” Schmidt said. 

Davis’ style is firm and effective, and is achieved with him first putting a strategy forward. Schmidt said that once it was accepted, Davis would be ‘full on’ in pushing toward the outcomes of the strategy. 

Having a track record of change management within the constraints of the kind of institutional culture of a university bode well for the reform aspirations of the APS, Professor Schmidt also observed.

“He’s prepared to adjust course along the way but he’s not going to go all marshmallowy, and he will push very hard for the change.

“The place where he does well is he sets things up really well strategically. He has a strong vision, and then puts all the pieces in place, and then kind of goes quite hard and fast in the direction,” Schmidt said.

So much of what Davis brings to his role as a public sector expert has been honed by his time in managing university stakeholders and trying to make some ambitious changes to higher education policy locally and abroad. And his track record speaks for itself. 

Schmidt said Davis was a strategic leader possessing natural leadership qualities, who was also able to rise quickly in his academic career and take on executive administrative roles (from 1998 to 2002 Davis headed the Queensland Department of Premier and Cabinet under the Beattie government, going on to serve as vice-chancellor of Griffith University in 2002 before joining the Melbourne University leadership team). 

Considering the new DPM&C boss’ career achievements, Schmidt said what made Davis unusual was that his work reflected that of three people. Schmidt said his leadership style was immaculate, organised and akin to the exacting methods of a chess master.

“Davis’ [career] drew on the actual intellectual rigour of his own discipline. He will have drawn on that experience, where he was prepared to leave that behind and — despite being an outstanding academic and superstar — going out into public administration for real,” Schmidt said of Davis’ time working for the Queensland state government. 

“Then, he effectively used all those powers to take Griffith, but I think especially Melbourne, to where it went.”

“Glyn’s got that experience in multiple ways, all with this intellectual underpinning, all in a single package.

“Running universities are messy. Much messier, quite frankly, than the public service — although people across the lake from me may not fully agree with that,” the ANU vice-chancellor added.

“The public service is more compliant than a university, where [university] people have tenure and can line up the wagons around the chancellery and not let you out. That is not going to happen around the parliamentary triangle.”

In Davis’ new role, a robust and respectful relationship with the prime minister will also be instrumental if there is to be any headway in APS reform during the term of the next government. Schmidt points to the ‘very successful’ working relationships Davis has been able to foster with Kevin Rudd (also an ANU alumni) as part of the Australia 2020 Summit he co-chaired in 2008

Schmidt also believes Anthony Albanese’ choice of Davis to be his top advisor for the public service was a brave move. 

“He’s not going to be a compliant, ‘do as you’re told head of DMP&C’; he will be very, very independent. But also, may I say, very constructive with the prime minister.

“Glyn would work well with almost any prime minister — he would respect the person he worked with. And if he respects them, I think he could manage almost any personality type,”  Schmidt said. 

“I think it’s an absolutely outstanding appointment. He’s quite a remarkable person.”

With his Twitter account now officially retired, Davis can turn his hand to what, for all intents and purposes, is the culmination of his life’s work as head of DPM&C. 


Recapping the new APS boss’ take on public sector reform

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