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Tap into the power of peers in the public sector

For senior level government employees, one of the greatest sources of knowledge can be their fellow public servants.

That was what Winnie Blackwell learnt when she undertook the Australia and New Zealand School of Government’s (ANZSOG) Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA). The general manager of Projects, Assets and Program Management at Public Transport Victoria says that the experience was “eye opening”.

“It was the first time I was actually exposed to so many different jurisdictions — but also people of different backgrounds,” she says.

Blackwell began the two year course in 2007 and in 2011 she returned to ANZSOG for the Executive Fellows Program.

“I think one of the things that has really stayed with me was the discussion about public values, how they differ from private values, and how they complement each other,” she says.

Learning from peers

With executives from state and federal government across both Australia and New Zealand taking part in the Programs, it is a chance for public servants who wouldn’t normally interact to share knowledge, resources and management styles.

Victorian Assistant Commissioner of Crime Command Stephen Fontana encountered a diverse array of people with different experiences when he studied the EMPA in 2003, its inaugural year. He also completed the Executive Fellows Program in 2014.

“I’m in policing, and we might have some wicked problems we’re dealing with,” he says. However throughout the course, he learnt decision-making skills from peers in different sectors that were useful to bring back to policing.

“You learn a hell of a lot from the people that you’re with,” he says.

During the EMPA, students present their particular real-life problems or experiences to the cohort. Some scenarios, says Fontana, “take you right out of your comfort zone”.

“They give you different concepts and ways of doing business, and I’ve applied those concepts through my work,” he says.

Leading through times of change

Public servants, no matter what agency or jurisdiction, explains Blackwell, are often faced with making decisions in the context of changing governments, funding arrangements and management styles. Her 2007 cohort focused on how to lead departments through these scenarios.

“They [her peers] seemed to be facing the same type of issues in different settings or sectors,” Blackwell says. Now, with her team responsible for fulfilling some of the state government’s public transport commitments, effectively dealing with new governments and shifting priorities is essential.

Fontana says he not only developed skills such as decision-making, strategy or management through fellow students, but he also now has a better grasp of how the public service works.
Understanding how different agencies operate, and maintaining the contacts he made at ANZSOG, has allowed Fontana to work more effectively.

“You may have some people you touch base with throughout work, you might end up on different committees together,” says Fontana. “It’s broadened my outlook, it’s given me a number of good tools in my toolkit, and it’s broadened my professional contacts.”

After the programs conclude, ANZSOG fosters networks among students, both online and through alumni events and programs. The value of developing professional relationships through ANZSOG extends beyond personal career progression, according to Fontana.

“It makes you think about alternative models for providing service,” he says. “And it makes you reflect on what we’re here for, and our value to the public.”

Written by: Jessie Richardson

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The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.