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‘I walk in with ten more facts than the minister, and I survive’

Ministers don’t always appreciate the range of skill sets required to run a department and tend to choose secretaries based on how well they perform in ministerial briefings, agreed Blair Comley and Jane Halton at last week’s Australia and New Zealand School of Government conference.

Discussing the differences between two leadership styles termed ‘hero’ — the big leader — and ‘host’ — the facilitator and collaborator — head of the of the New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet Blair Comley argued that “ministers like heroes”.

While the job of a departmental secretary consists of being “principal policy adviser, a manager of programs, a steward of the department and a steward of the public service … the reality is that greatest exposure of most ministers is seeing the secretary as the principal policy adviser.

“Most politicians are ‘people’ people and they think about trust in individuals and trust in relationships less than institutional trust,” he added.

He admitted to being “on the host team, in terms of preference”, however.

“I’m completely on the ‘you need leaders that are multidimensional and they have really good bringing-people-together skills’ etc, but the reality of a lot of the people who’ve been picked to be secretaries in the past is they’ve been picked because of what the minister wants and if they do the other things, it’s a good thing but it’s not necessarily why they get there.”

Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Finance Jane Halton said she thought Comley was “absolutely correct”.

“It’s important to understand this,” she argued. “The reality is in a public sector context, if you can’t deliver what your principal client wants, which is the premier or the prime minister or the minister or whoever, you will actually not have the opportunity to do the other leadership things.

“And I’ve said this to ministers on many occasions — it is not your job to run the department, it is mine. Sometimes when they get into giving you gratuitous advice about individuals or activities, which, as we know, sometimes they do.

“But the reality is if we are to ensure that we have the leadership depth and strength in our organisations, we do have to find a way for people to be able to deliver what the person who is your principal client wants, which is timely, effective, responsive [advice]. The number of times I have gone to Parliament House on the phone to somebody on the way up [saying] ‘explain to me this please’ and by the time I walk in the door I have ten more facts than the minister does, which means I survive.”

She commented that while the tools for running public service organisations changed all the time, “there’s a core common element to being public servants that goes back to before Federation. We advise, we sometimes run things and we manage. If you think about it, those core common things that unite us as public servants haven’t changed.

“… I don’t think the Sir Fred Wheelers and the people who led public sector institutions in the last century did anything particularly different but they went at a much more leisurely pace, and mostly they intimidated the ministers they had working for them. That is no longer the case.”

Don’t grow clone-leaders

Halton conceded that one of her challenges as a leader “is not to replicate myself every time I look at my senior executive suite or indeed one layer down.”

Comley also emphasised the importance of diversity within a leadership team.

“One thing about humans is there’s a great variety in the ways that people like to interact. One of the things you learn at a leadership course is you get better at understanding your own preferences and how they differ from others,” he said.

“I’m not really a reader. I can read, technically, but it’s not the way I absorb information. It’s because when you do these sorts of personality surveys, I’m on the extrovert scale — I think there’s about 0.4% of the population more extroverted. Not only do I not like to interact in a written form, I don’t retain information in the same way. If I sit down in a meeting with someone for an hour, I’m quite good at remembering quite detailed data because that’s the way I operate. Other people are different. We actually have to be really careful about one size fits all.”

‘You’re in a meeting and a stakeholder says something ridiculous…’

Being upfront with stakeholders about what’s possible can be difficult to do but is important, argued Comley. He set out a dilemma for many public servants:

“Let’s say you’re developing a policy and you’re going out to stakeholders with vastly different points of view. You’re sitting in a meeting with a stakeholder and a stakeholder says something you just think is ridiculous. Let’s say it’s something that you know there’s no way in the world the government is going to do it, for whatever reason. The reason could be, you can see how it’s in the stakeholder’s interest, but there’s another stakeholder who has a diametrically opposed view. What do you do as a public servant?

“A public servant has two obligations here in stakeholder engagement. They’re not mutually inconsistent, but they’re slightly different obligations. One is that they need to genuinely engage so that they understand what’s going on, what’s really going to drive the outcome for the wellbeing of the Australian people. They need to understand it.

“The second thing, though, is public servants do have a role in serving the government of the day in trying to manage stakeholder expectations to maximise the chance that wherever the government lands is going to be received well throughout the community and there’s going to be more likelihood it’s actually implemented successfully.

“There’s a very strong premium in going to the stakeholder and saying, in a respectful way, ‘I don’t think that’s going to fly, for the following reasons.’ I would argue that’s a very good thing to do, because one, the stakeholder might turn around and say, ‘I didn’t mean that at all, this is what I really had in mind, and this is why it’s going to work’. And you might go, ‘ahh actually, that’s a good idea that should be part of the process’.

“Or they might say, okay they don’t find that argument compelling, and they’ve given the reason why, I might have to go away and think about whether there is a way I can manage through the process that manages their legitimate concern … my observation of lots of public servants in engagement in this sort of consultation is there’s a very strong temptation just to sit there and not provide an authentic response.

“One reason is they don’t want to have a confrontational discussion, that could be part of a very human response. The other thing is they’re really worried about the potentially committing or being seen to commit their minister when they’re saying I don’t think this is going to work or it’s not compliant. So they’re really cautious about what their steering influence and control is.

“But whenever they do that you lose a little bit of that genuine communication and transparency … Some public servants might be worried that if they’re seen to be pushing too hard back that someone will then ask how close is the public service to the government and that whole politicisation debate, which can be quite awkward.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.