Public servants make good leaders: Anna Bligh's lessons

By David Donaldson

April 1, 2015

Anna Bligh believes her background as a public servant was a “huge advantage” in political office, giving her insight into how to make things happen some other ministers lacked.

The former Queensland premier says it struck her quite early in her career “how few people in ministry had ever worked in government”. Even then, many of those who had public sector experience came from a teaching or healthcare background, meaning they knew about service delivery, but not necessarily the grind of central agency policy-making.

“Unless you’ve actually worked in the head office of public service departments and worked with ministers’ offices, prepared legislation, written budget and cabinet submissions, it is actually a bit of a mystery trying to work out how government works and how you can effect change and influence policy and public responses to issues”, she told The Mandarin.

“Many ministers on all sides of the political spectrum have very strong commitment to implementing election commitments and responding to the big issues of the day, but often flounder in understanding how do you take an idea and turn it into a piece of legislation, a new program or a funded new service.”

She thinks the skills required to navigate the “complex beast” of government “are often invisible and, to my mind, they aren’t valued as much as they should be.” The solution is that new ministers or political staffers should perhaps be given training in the practicalities of government:

“In a representative democracy where we want people in our parliaments from all walks of life, it’s going to be the case that some of the best and brightest who have a lot to contribute won’t necessarily have had any experience of working in and delving deep into the workings of very large, complex bureaucracies and making the elephant dance in the process.

“So I do think there is some room either for political parties or the various public service commissions to think about how we might better prepare people,” she argues.

The hole in the wallbligh through the wall

Bligh’s memoir Through the Wall, released Wednesday, aims out to convey “the lived experience of leadership”, she says, rather than writing the definitive account of her time in office or the settling of political scores.

Fittingly for someone who professes a love of books and studied English at university, the memoir is compellingly written, providing an insightful look into the mindset of a public leader. It follows her through a handful of key events, culminating in the January 2011 Queensland floods, the incident for which she is probably best known around the country.

Three years after defeat at the hands of Campbell Newman’s Liberal National Party, she is CEO of YWCA NSW and sits on the boards of Medibank Private and Bangarra Dance Company — “and that’s enough for now”, she says. “Interestingly, I found it very difficult to put pen to paper in those first couple of years. I suspect it is something you need a little distance from so you can see it with some clarity.”

Bligh argues young people, especially young women, should consider choosing politics as their vocation:

“The title of my book, Through the Wall, is based on a phrase from the movie Moneyball, and it’s about people who are pioneers or the first in their field, who are challenging the status quo in one way or another. The first one through the wall always gets bloody. Always.

“For me as the first woman premier of a relatively conservative state in Queensland, there were some very tough moments when I had to consciously break down barriers. I was often the only woman in the room. I was always reminded of my gender.

“What I wanted to say, particularly to young women, is please do not take any note whatsoever of my bruises and scratches, that wasn’t the point. The point is that there’s now a hole in the wall. Every woman that jumps through it is going to make that hole bigger, until eventually we have no wall at all. I am worried that increasingly young Australians and young women particularly look at the experience of public life and think it looks pretty unattractive.

“I wanted to say without hesitation that the opportunities you get on the positive side of that ledger are so extraordinary and a remarkable chance to shape the world we live in, that young people should think about choosing politics as a career.”

The shifting public service landscape

In her fifteen years on the Queensland front bench, Bligh says the relationship between the ministerial office and public service changed, though it remains “probably one of the most critical relationships to getting things done”.

The 24-hour news cycle meant that the “big culture clash” between political and bureaucratic staff is often exacerbated by the pressure of needing to constantly put out political fires.

She thinks one of the best things public servants can do is to spend time in a ministerial office — particularly those at mid-level rankings, who often bear the brunt of day-today dealings with the minister’s office:

“I think it’s very important for there to be a culture that encourages talented departmental staff who may have leadership potential to spend some time in the minister’s office, even as an exchange, a three or six month stint as a liaison officer. I certainly have met departmental staff who, after doing that, had a new appreciation of the pressure the public and the media put on the minister’s office. And with that understanding, I think a much improved relationship on both sides.”

Among the ruminations on leadership in her book, Bligh points to the tests of leading a long-term government as particularly difficult. After she triumphed in the 2009 election, former prime minister Paul Keating sent her a letter congratulating her on joining him as the only Labor leaders ever to have led their governments to a fifth consecutive win.

“The challenge of leading a long-term government is a constant daily fight against complacency,” she told The Mandarin.

“The minute a government and its administration become too comfortable, they’re at risk of being judged very harshly by the electorate. With a long-term government you always run the risk that for some of the senior people the fire in their belly has gone out. It’s not only in government you can see that. The senior echelons of the public service can become very comfortable working with the same minister term after term. As comfortable as it all is, the electorate wants to feel that the place is moving ahead, that there is a constant sense of forward motion.

“Leading at the end of a very long-term government for me personally was probably one of the biggest challenges I faced. I had some terrific people around at both the political and the bureaucratic level. But people lose the hunger for the fight, and the electorate can sense that very keenly.”

Through the Wall is published by HarperCollins, $39.99 RRP.

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