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Leanne Wallace on ministers, ‘judicious’ use of consultants

Leanne Wallace
Leanne Wallace

“I think there are certainly times when consultants are overused,” says Leanne Wallace. Which is not something you expect a consultant to government to say.

But Wallace has seen it from the inside, with three decades at executive and senior management levels in the New South Wales public service. As she told The Mandarin: “There’s certainly a few engagements where I’d say to agencies, you don’t need it, you shouldn’t be using it …”

Wallace has a broad government resume, with five years in the NSW Department of Health, five years with the Department of Land and Water Conservation and nine in a range of corporate, technical and policy roles at the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. More recently, as a deputy director-general in the Public Sector Workforce Office of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, she examined public service practice and reform across agencies.

She now works at Nous Group, consulting back to government particularly in the areas of health and human services. She misses the direct control of working in government, “but you’ve got also the freedom as a consultant to come up with some bold ideas that agencies might not be thinking about”.

“They don’t have to accept it at the end of the day, but the great thing about consultancy is actually looking at the problem that they want to solve and really pushing, thinking of governance around what the solution might be … I’m very much about influencing the outcome, putting up some good ideas and understanding the practicalities around implementation,” she said.

Wallace, of course, believes consultants can add a great deal of value to the process. Evaluations and reviews — where independence of the existing process is vital — are some examples. But it’s about their “judicious use”. “I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing,” Wallace said from her Sydney office.

“It’s thinking about why would you want to engage a consultant? Even for the right reason, what do you want to get out of it? My experience as a provider of consultancy, so this is relevant to a buyer, is that sometimes people really don’t think those things through before they go out and try to get a consultant to do something.”

And make sure the workforce learns something from the process. “I think agencies are more and more looking at consultancy engagement without building their own capacity. So you don’t just get a consultant to come in but you actually learn something yourself out of the process, which means the next time you need to do something like this you’ve got a greater capacity to do it yourself,” she said.

Contestability of ideas, as much as service delivery, is required to “push your thinking”, she says. Not continually — “you need some stability as well” — but a good balance of internal capacity and outside perspective.

“I think sometimes when we work at the public sector we think ‘there’s no way the minister will accept this’.”

Fresh ideas in the public service seem to be thin on the ground — or at least the will to put them on the table. “I’ve been out of the sector now for about six years, but it has actually become more risk averse than it used to be,” Wallace lamented.

“When I was in the sector I had chief executives or secretaries who encouraged me to do things outside the box, to take a few risks, and we put in place some fantastic programs because we did that … To be nimble, and to work across agency barriers, my observation would be that people are afraid to make decisions because they’re going to be hit from above. I mean, this is a generalisation I know, but it’s an observation about what I’m observing in the sector.”

Ministers might not want to hear the bold idea — but Wallace thinks public servants should trust they just might. “I think sometimes when we work at the public sector we think ‘there’s no way the minister will accept this’. So we dumb it down or we modify it in advance rather than being brave enough to actually be able to put a view up,” she said.

“I think ultimately you’ve got to be true to yourself. You’ve got to have your own values. There were a few times where I probably was out of step of the political lines … You’ve got to be aware of that. As a public servant there’s a fine line between the politics and the bureaucracy. You’ve got to be, in the end, I think, quite true to yourself, your values and how you want to deliver services …

“I got these fantastic programs up because I was attuned to what the minister of the day was looking for. We just happened to package it in the right way and put the bold idea up at the right time and went with it. So I think sometimes, as public servants, we do a bit of a disservice. I recognise that there is that punitive side of things [but] I think that happens less than probably we think it does.”

Leanne Wallace

Policy achievements, work diversity

In November, the Institute of Public Administration Australia named Wallace as one of 11 new fellows, recognised as “talented, dedicated and highly professional public administrators” who “have made an outstanding contribution to the public sector throughout the country”. She was humbled by the honour.

Wallace is particularly proud of the work she did in the public capital areas of health, and on vulnerable children and families. “I suppose you can call it my passion, which is always good to have when you’re a public servant,” she said.

In Aboriginal affairs, she drove a project providing support services for pregnant mothers across NSW. The achievements were potentially significant: a higher birth rate, healthier offspring, less maternal deaths. “We know that outcomes for family, children and young people start in the womb. So the things that we could do to make the birth outcome better was obviously going to have a long-term impact,” she said.

“So that’s one in particular that I’m very proud of and was passionate about being involved in where we can see some positive outcomes.”

The interest in welfare has continued outside government; she currently chairs the not-for-profit Jannawi Family Centre, providing bilingual support services for families with young children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

“There’s not too many places that we can move around so widely in a sector and have a broad range of opportunities.”

“Most of the children that [are being referred to Jannawi by NSW Community Services] are families that are experiencing domestic violence and usually alcohol and drug [problems] as well. It’s such a huge issue. I think there’s some really good work that’s been done [but] there’s a whole lot more work that needs to be done,” she said.

At the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Wallace led engineering teams traditionally dominated by men. “I was supported and encouraged actually to give things a go, which I think the public sector has traditionally and still is very good at doing,” she said.

But barriers can still be put up by middle management, she says, not just for women but for anyone who demands a more flexible schedule.

“Middle managers that are in the sector are conservative and sometimes don’t know the best ways they can manage a diverse workforce. By diverse workforce I mean people who don’t want to work part-time or full time, people who have different skills and experiences. That’s a bit of a barrier,” she said.

“I think encouraging young women to move into management positions, they will be looking for flexible work experiences, they will be looking for some managers to support them in there, and my experience is if you do provide that environment then you’ll get women to bloom and be prepared to take on management roles.

“I had people that I reported to that were flexible about things. So when I had kids that were in daycare I got to lay aside things to pick the kids up. I world pick up work later again at night. I had support for doing that. I was in a position where I felt confident enough to sort of say ‘that’s the way I’m going to work’ and had an agency and a chief executive or director-general or secretary that supported that.”

She stumbled into the public service like many; chemistry studies didn’t help for her first years in an analytical role in the Department of Health. But directors encouraged her to study and “think quite laterally around where my goals would lie”.

“For me, that’s one of the great things about the public sector. You’re encouraged to actually think pretty widely and the systems support you. I’ve had lots of opportunities to work across a pretty broad range of areas and never had too many barriers put in my way,” she said.

“I moved from Health to National Parks to Land and Water, to Health, to central government in Premier and Cabinet … There’s not too many places that we can move around so widely in a sector and have a broad range of opportunities.”

Author Bio

Jason Whittaker

Jason Whittaker is managing editor of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has written for and edited political, business and culture publications for a decade. He spent two years as editor of sister Private Media publication Crikey.