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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.

Perhaps this is emblematic of a growing distrust and cynicism among the electorate in the mainstream political discourse. For a government committed to reform, knitting together such disparate and sectional interests to advance the public good can be an epic task.

In the face of this uncertainty, volatility and instability, the institutional role of the public sector and good public governance is paramount. Also critical is the exercise of public leadership.

Organisational leadership

In my organisational role as Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, I have three primary leadership responsibilities:

  • principal public service advisor to the Premier
  • leading the Department, an organisation of around 550 employees who support the Premier and Cabinet in its decision making responsibilities as well eight ministerial portfolios.
  • leading the Victorian public service.

In advising the Premier and other portfolio Ministers, I consider my relationship with Ministers to be of utmost importance. That is not to shy away from my broader responsibilities in marshalling high quality and robust advice from my department on policy matters, advice that is uncompromising in its impartiality and is squarely apolitical and non-partisan.

But to carry out my role effectively, I need to build a close, personal relationship with the Premier and the Ministry, one that is underpinned by genuine mutual respect. From that flows trust and openness which allows for a frank exchange of views.

In leading DPC, my approach is premised on the organisation exercising six strategies for influence:

  1. Building and maintaining policy credibility:
    • demonstrating analytical credibility across the policy board.
    • providing selective thought leadership.
  2. Collaborating, forming and valuing positive relationships:
    • best results not built on adversity — but rather founded on strong and trusting relationships.
    • in terms of conventional roles, line agencies surrender their knowledge and expertise; while central agencies surrender their authority, and command and control of the decision making process.
  3. Working effectively with the leader of government and having a good understanding of their leadership and management style and focus:
    • Mike Rann was chairman of the state establishing the broad narrative.
    • John Brumby was more akin to a CEO of the state with a detailed interest and knowledge across all areas of public administration.
    • While Barry O’Farrell was the executive chair of the state, with a balance between strategic oversight and specific detailed knowledge in key areas.
  4. Awareness of the political environment:
    • policy logic not always determines outcome.
    • but the public service should not second guess politics. Not our role and we are not good at it. Awareness of the political context is critical — involvement is not appropriate.
  5. Engaging with those affected by policy outcomes:
    • reform is not closed a process.
    • need sophistication in engagement — network, coordinate, cooperate, collaborate, partner.
  6. Demonstrating accountability and follow through:
    • governments that can’t deliver don’t get listened to.

These strategies are not unique to DPC. I would ask each of you to consider: How can you apply these to your day to day responsibilities? What do they mean for your department or agency and how it operates?

The government has now passed the six month mark and we have concluded the first Budget process, focused on delivering Labor’s Financial Statement and other election commitments. I’m now detecting a real appetite, indeed in some areas an impatience, from ministers to run with policy reform. The Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings has addressed good government in Victoria, outlining the future reform agenda for the public sector.

The word “reform” has its roots in the Old French réforme, “to rebuild, reconstruct, recreate” and the Latin reformare, “to form again, change, transform, alter”.

From these historical origins, we have derived its contemporary meaning: to make changes in something, especially an institution or practice in order to improve it. The process of reform is therefore as equally important as the objectives of the reform itself. And for us as public servants, strong and clear reform leadership will be an essential perquisite in implementing reform and making it stick.

Paul ’t Hart, professor at the Netherlands School of Government and an adjunct faculty member of ANZSOG, has written extensively about public sector leadership and reform. He has proffered a set of rules of reform that he says ‘reform proponents (and indeed opponents) can ignore only at their peril.’ These include:

  • Use the ‘r’ word judiciously: Do not use reform as rhetoric to describe timid, technical and incremental policy changes. Instead reserve its use for far reaching, bold and progressive step change.
  • Prepare to be unloved: True reform challenges the status quo. We cannot assume there will always be winners and hence need to be prepared for pushback and countering the opponents.
  • Reform zeal without analysis is bound to end in tears: Remember the need for compelling evidence, the killer arguments, the incontrovertible proof. Compare and contrast the demise of the emissions trading scheme with the universal acceptance of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
  • Create reform bandwagons: ‘t Hart suggests while people may argue over individual issues, they are likely to reach agreement over broader reform packages which bundle up a set of issues. Think of it as baking a pie rather than serving up individual slices.

In a CEDA report on policy and reform, Geoff Allen (founder Allen Group and former Commonwealth public servant) and Michael Stutchbury (editor-in-chief, Australian Financial Review) have put paid to the “great man theory” and the influence of the single individual in the reform process. They write:

“shorthand perceptions of policy reform and its telling tends to ignore the build-up of evidence and demand for change, the role of supportive constituencies, and coalitions involved in its gestation and execution.”

They [Allen and Stutchbury] also highlight a strong set of cohesive values or an overriding philosophy that determines the overall direction as foundational for successful reformist leaders. So too is discipline in governance and policy development processes.

And finally as aspiring leaders of public sector reform. I always offer my departmental colleagues the caution uttered by Niccolo Machiavelli:

“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who will benefit from the new.”

Collective leadership

To lead a successful public service requires an effective architecture of government — well-oiled “machinery” to co-ordinate the activities of the public service and ensure that all the agencies, and their leaders, are heading in the same direction.

It is for this reason that I have confirmed the Victorian Secretaries Board as the peak leadership group for the Victorian public service. The seven departmental secretaries together with the Chief Commissioner of Police and the Victorian Public Sector Commissioner meet fortnightly and collectively provide coordination, leadership and stewardship of the public sector.

In practice, this means we:

  • share information and ideas
  • form a coherent view on issues of strategic importance
  • promote collaboration across departments and agencies, consistent with individual roles and responsibilities
  • uphold the highest standards of public administration, professionalism and integrity.

Ours is a distributed leadership. Instead of focussing on the role, behaviour and skills of the one leader, it is about leadership as a function of the Secretaries Board as a whole. This requires:

  • trust in the expertise of my colleagues around the table;
  • a culture of autonomy where individuals are respected for their knowledge; and
  • the development of collaborative relationships that forgo ego and power.

Our shared vision is to drive high quality public policy, public administration and public sector performance for the benefit of all Victorians. We are determined to work as one, bound by the strength of common purpose and mutual trust.

We are determined to innovate, to drive reform and provide transparent and accountable governance of the public sector. I genuinely enjoy my time with the other secretaries and I feel privileged to work with such an accomplished team of dedicated public servants.

By virtue of its role, the Secretaries Board is itself an extension of the centre. And while these are early days, my Board colleagues and I are working towards developing new models of truly collaborative leadership premised on shared power and authority.

We will ultimately hold ourselves to account in adhering to these new models not only in our activities as a Board, but through our collective efforts to imbue such models across the Victorian Public Service.

And our aspirations extend beyond the VPS to what the Special Minister of State described yesterday in his Public Sector Week speech as the ‘public purpose’ sector.

‘Public purpose’ sector

Traditional approaches to public administration are characterised by single direction relationships – usually top down, bottom up. They fail to recognise that the public service is no longer the sole provider of policies, programs and services. Instead we are working alongside non-state actors to deliver public value and this is accelerating the emergence of a ‘public purpose’ sector comprising government, business and civil society.

It is in the intersection of this ambition for new models of collaborative leadership and the emergence of the public purpose sector that I think sizable opportunities exist in Victoria.

It seems to me that, in Victoria, there is a highly desirable ‘proportionality’, equivalence and balance in terms of historical, inherent strength and influence and relevance between our public, private, community and academic sectors.

We have a strong community sector with many of Australia’s national not-for-profits headquartered here. We have a vibrant business sector deeply connected to the public sector and civil society. We have an academy comprising eight universities made up of both ‘sandstone’ and ‘technical’ leaders. And to top it off we have a public sector that presides over an extremely robust system of cabinet governance and has a deserved reputation for national policy leadership.

And all of this is underpinned by the progressive sensibilities of Victorian communities, evidenced by facts as diverse as the strongest Adult Community and Further Education sector and the highest level of support for multiculturalism in the country.

Finally, at the risk of perpetuating contestable generalisations, this sector proportionality, this parity of esteem and influence between the sectors, is accompanied by a very Victorian way of doing business that is instinctively collegiate and conducted with a firm eye to the importance of on-going relationships. I am told this is the case in the business world. I know it is the case in the public service.

So the question becomes how do we leverage Victoria’s unique operating environment. First, it means the conditions in this state are conducive to success in adopting an approach to government based on co-creation of public value with professionals in the private, community and academic sectors and with the community as a whole. Secondly, we can confidently reinvent how we work with our sector partners.

What might this reinvention look like?

We are currently looking at how we can reboot Victoria’s information strategy so we can unlock the value of the information the Victorian Government holds. What if we created our own mini Silicon valley within the public service, a physical space where private sector entrepreneurs can explore and mash up government data sets to devise new products and services. Even better, what if they were to collaborate with our own data geeks and data custodians, extending our technical and creative capacity to leverage the social and economic value of data published by government.

What if we partnered with the academic sector to establish centres of ideas and practice within government. One possibility that springs to mind is a Centre for Evidence, placing evidence and academic expertise at the heart of decision making in government. Such a centre’s remit would be to collate published evidence on the effectiveness of policy interventions, disseminate findings with policy makers and build capability in using evidence. Such a centre could also identify potential areas possible to further the evidence base in particular policy domains.

And finally what if we strengthened the relationship between the public service and the community sector through a secondment program which allowed VPS staff to work on sectoral or organisational innovation projects. Not only could such a program contribute to the NGO’s more effective fulfilment of its mission but it would extend the skills, experience and perspectives of VPS participants.

Delivering value, in these terms and in others we have yet to imagine, in partnership with these diverse and complex actors, requires new institutional frameworks, an expanded view of capability and a new collaborative and networked approach.

In this new world, the role and shape of the centre is changing and my department (together with Treasury) is no longer its sole occupant – if indeed it ever was.

I have a proposition: we should remove the phrase ‘central agency’ from the lexicon of public administration. Central agency and its corollary – line agency – evoke an industrial age of bureaucracy, one founded on hierarchy, power and presumed authority. It runs counter to the notions of the distributed authority and leadership I am advocating.

That is not to diminish the coordinating role of my department in supporting the Premier and the Cabinet nor our aspiration to be recognised as playing a leading and indeed critical role in whole of government policy and public sector performance. But we should not confuse these roles with an assumed overt pre-eminence in the constellation of departments and public sector agencies. Indeed, if DPC was to conceive its role from the perspective of the Victorian citizen on the receiving end of government services, we would be far from central and indeed we would be less than peripheral.

If not ‘central agency’ then what?

Last year Geoff Mulgan – Chief Executive of NESTA and former Head of the No 10 Downing Street Strategy Unit – released a paper called Rewiring the Brain. In his words, it is a rough blueprint for reforming centres of government. Mulgan posited that the centre can work through at least three very different modes:

  • direction and command,
  • coordination through consent and deals, and
  • influence through expertise.

Within these modes, he outlines and refutes three equally different operating models for the centre:

  • “clever chap” theory — according to which the structures are essentially sound and just need smart and articulate people in charge.
  • new public management theory which advocated turning the centre into a business focussed on outcomes, deliverables and KPIs.
  • ‘Napoleonic’ theory where the centres of government only need shout loudly to generate terror and compliance.

So how could my new expanded view of the centre operate, if not with clever chaps, management theory, terror and shouting?

Let us look instead at what Mulgan describes as “the same capacities as an intelligent individual”:

  • observation — the ability to see, in this case through intelligence, data analytics and other feedback
  • attention — the ability to focus
  • cognition — the ability to think and reason
  • creation — the ability to imagine, innovate and design
  • memory — the ability to remember (and not to repeat past mistakes)
  • judgement — the ability to decide
  • wisdom — the ability to make sense of complexity and to integrate moral perspectives.

It is this capacity for a unifying and moral perspective that meshes the frames of organisational and collective leadership I have been speaking about.

So with the removal of “central agency” from the lexicon, I propose to replace it with the “agency of unifying intelligence”.

And this perspective leads me to my third frame: leadership as values.

Leadership as values

Leadership as values can be activated at two levels — at the system level and at the personal level.

At the system level, we need to understand and protect the fundamental values of good public governance. The OECD defines good governance as:

” … the competent management of affairs and resources in a manner that is open, transparent, accountable, equitable and responsive to people’s needs, and which minimises opportunities for corruption.”

Leadership in the public sector requires us to understand and nurture the fundamentals of good public governance: proper regard for the separation of powers; effective checks and balances on the exercise of unfettered power; a comprehensive and seamless process for the transfer of power; and strong mechanisms and institutions to support accountability and transparency. Victoria is well served in these respects; and indeed in terms of the highest form of decision making I believe we have the most robust and effective system of cabinet governance in the country.

Additionally, public sector leadership needs to be focussed on creating a sense of public trust for government’s stewardship role.

This public trust needs to be a network of trust:

  • Citizens must be able to trust public institutions to defend their interests.
  • Politicians and ministers must be able to trust that the public service will give them objective, high quality and fearless advice.
  • Public servants must be able to trust government to do what it says.
  • Public servants must be trusted by government and citizens for their integrity, impartiality and expertise.

It is this network of trust and the public service as a custodian of good public governance that will help us and the community weather the known knowns and the lesser knowns I outlined at the start of my remarks.

At the individual level, I have a simple proposition. Fundamentally leadership –including from the centre – is about values; it embraces integrity, trust, listening and respect.

Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop said that there are eleven desirable qualities of leadership: motivation, courage, decisiveness, responsibility, initiative, integrity, judgment, knowledge, loyalty, selflessness and the ability to communicate.

He also said: ‘The ideal leader is the servant of all, able to show a disarming humility without loss of authority’.

I am drawn to this concept of servant leadership – that leaders serve and this service can take a variety of forms whether it is an organisation, a community, or for us as public servants, the people of Victoria and the government of the day.

Leaders need to align their action with values and practices that are genuine and authentic. Keeping hold of these principles and values and returning to them provide the bedrock in making the difficult decisions that we all face on a daily basis.

Make leadership personal

I would like to conclude by letting you know about my personal aspirations as a leader which I shared with my department when I first arrived:

  • to have personal vision based on self‐belief and moral courage,
  • to have regard for ethical and social responsibilities and awareness of the impact of wider social change,
  • to cultivate my own self‐awareness and reflections,
  • to effectively balance the dilemmas that arise from complex and uncertain situations,
  • to build an organisation based on truth (and here again I turn to Machiavelli who said: “there is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making men understand that telling you the truth will not offend you”),
  • and finally, to care about the people in my own department so that they know it.

As I also shared with my departmental colleagues in the interests of full disclosure: every day I face the test of meeting these aspirations and every day in some respect, and sometimes in most respects, I fail.

Despite this, I take comfort from the words of Confucius when he said:

“He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.”

So may we keep our virtue intact, and may we always keep our gaze on the north polar star.

This is an edited extract from Chris Eccles’ address ‘Leadership from the centre’ for Public Sector Week, in Melbourne on June 23.

Read more at The Mandarin: Janine O’Flynn: Rethinking public administration leadership

Author Bio

Chris Eccles

Chris Eccles is currently secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and head of the Victorian Public Service. He has held equivalent roles in the NSW and South Australian public services.