Chris Eccles: leadership from the centre

Let’s do away with the term “central agency” argues the head of the Victorian Public Service during the state’s first Public Sector Week. Chris Eccles reimagines the centre as a unifier of intelligence, rather than an autocratic overlord.

My observations today are informed by a diverse career over 30 years that has spanned the Commonwealth and four State and Territory public services, and senior management roles in the private sector. I have worked with Premiers, line Ministers and Treasurers. I have jousted many a time on the battleground of Commonwealth State relations. I have even crossed to the dark side and worked as a Ministerial adviser at the federal level earlier in my career.

Over this time, I have observed a tectonic shift in our operating environment as public servants. To quote a former United States Secretary of Defence, these include the known knowns:

  • increased community expectations about the role of government;
  • a contestable market for policy advice with private advisers, consultants, academia and think tanks;
  • the unrelenting 24/7 news and social media cycle, fraught with the dangers of policy on the run;
  • a mixed economy of public, private and third sector providers, supplying services to government and directly to the public;
  • cross-cutting policy challenges that span the boundaries: between departments; between the public, private and third sectors; between levels of government; and even between nations.

Then there are the lesser knowns, the early warning signs that are challenging the conventional orthodoxy of government and governing. No longer can we operate on the assumption of a two term government that allows for the deliberative design, delivery and anchoring of policy reform over an extended period of time. There is a growing impatience among voters, an expectation of instant results and the rejection of unpopular policy choices even if these are in the longer term public interest.

Another signal of change is the rise of the minor parties, micro parties and the independents, threatening the duopoly of the left and the right. The vote for minor parties and independents has been trending upwards for the last two decades with the 2013 federal election setting a record for the proportion of voters choosing non-major party candidates.

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