Belinda Clark: breadth makes your career ‘a hell of a lot more interesting’

By David Donaldson

Friday August 28, 2015

Public servants need to be more open to taking up different career opportunities, thinks Victoria’s inaugural public sector commissioner Belinda Clark.

“Take every opportunity offered. Some of the most interesting jobs I’ve had in my life are ones I wouldn’t have known about or recognised,” she says. “I’d say we probably need more breadth of experience in people. We tend to have people who have great depth, which is really important, but not so much breadth.”

Although she stresses she doesn’t know why some are reticent to try new things — “people have said to me it could be due to job security, so there could well be reasons” — she urges people to consider broadening their experience, arguing that “even if it’s terrible it’ll do them good, because they’ll learn so much, how to react in a difficult situation or they’ll learn from their boss or whatever. But the person themselves can’t necessarily see that.”

“It just makes your life and career a hell of a lot more interesting,” she says.

The Public Sector Commission’s new capability strategy, which will look at how best to equip the Victorian public service into the future, will consider how to incentivise and encourage movement, she says. The VPSC is currently undertaking the review, which is scheduled to be given to Cabinet in a few months and should be published next year.

‘It evolved into a pretty sophisticated program’

Clark’s own career is testament to the value of trying different things. Before coming to Victoria, she spent more than ten years as secretary of the New Zealand Department of Justice, as well as ten years with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including a four-year stint at the United Nations as NZ Representative on the Human Rights (Third) Committee. She was a senior associate with the law firm Minter Ellison Rudd Watts for four years.

But the most interesting job she’s held would probably have been the inaugural directorship of the Office of Treaty Settlements, she says.

The agency was set up to address New Zealand’s equivalent of native title claims — historical breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, an agreement between Maori and representatives of the British crown guaranteeing Maori ownership of their lands.

“I would never have planned for that job. I didn’t know it was going to be created, no one did. Life evolves and changes.”

“The treaty settlement job I got into because I was working in the Department of Maori Development. I actually went in to do constitutional legal work. I was interested in trying to formulate a legal framework for indigenous rights. Then we got sidetracked by these political things, that we had to settle the treaty claims.

“We almost had to drop [the constitutional work] and say it would be great if we had a theoretical framework but we haven’t got time for that so we’re just going into negotiations. I would never have planned for that job. I didn’t know it was going to be created, no one did. Life evolves and changes.”

Like many programs, it began as a relatively simple concept, but became more intricate as it continued.

“It evolved. It started off as land claims and because of all sorts of complexities, like some tribes didn’t have much land or there wasn’t land available to be given back because it was now in private ownership — one of the things that has always been a staple of this policy is that private lands couldn’t be taken, that’s one of the reasons it got public acceptance — we had to get quite creative in conjunction with the claimants as to what sort of redress. The base premise is land for land, that’s the preference of claimants, but if it’s not available what other things can you look at?

“So we looked at protection of sacred sites, which might involve legal changes or co-management or things like that. We started looking at rights of first refusal, which is very difficult to administer, but if other properties that they identified as central to them came back out of private ownership or the crown had them and was going to release them.

“There were all sorts of costing and accounting issues around the values of those rights. There was quite a lot of non-monetary value rights, a lot around recognition. A lot was about name change, so key landmarks were officially renamed in the indigenous language. A mixture. It evolved into a pretty sophisticated program,” she explained.

More strategic role

The Victorian Public Sector Commission, meanwhile, is settling into its new, more strategic role guiding the development of the VPS. Clark started when the agency was rebadged in April 2014 from the old State Services Commission, taking up a seat on the steering committee for the state’s public sector, the Victorian Secretaries Board, along with the secretaries of the seven departments and the head of Police.

“The public servant of the future [is] someone who’s very comfortable in a collaborative environment and working with, it could be NGOs, the private sector or unions.”

The VPSC aims to play a key role fulfilling the board’s stewardship function through the aforementioned capability strategy review, currently underway. The government has indicated it wants to be seen as a model employer for the approximately 265,000 people who work in the Victorian public sector, so the commission will examine “the whole life cycle of an employee and make sure we are adding value — the induction’s right, the training’s right, career opportunities, leadership development, all of that sort of thing”.

The other aim is to consider what the system needs.

“When the citizen goes to interact with government, they would like it to be as seamless as possible. That has implications for IT. Can they do many transactions online? And if they can, are they cumbersome and clumsy or are they easy? That implies we need to look at certain, quite specific capabilities, around IT and that sort of thing.

“Then there are more generic capabilities. If you’re talking about a more citizen-focused workforce, you want to know if you’ve got people who can engage effectively and meaningfully. When you look at the capabilities it’ll be a mixture of both specific capabilities like IT and project management, business disciplines, that sort of thing, but also the public servant of the future — someone who’s very comfortable in a collaborative environment and working with, it could be NGOs, the private sector or unions.”

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