Richard Bolt on the road to mega-department secretary

By David Donaldson

Friday November 13, 2015

Richard Bolt

INTERVIEW: The head of Victoria’s DEDJTR came to the public service via a qualification in electrical engineering, political activism and a stint with the Democrats. Educate yourself as widely as you can, he says.

When Richard Bolt couldn’t appear in person to accept his IPAA national fellowship last month, it was remarked he could be excused as one of the busiest people in the public sector.

As the secretary of Victoria’s Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, Bolt’s already-dizzying portfolio also extends as far as the arts. It’s a breadth of responsibility he never expected.

Bolt didn’t come from the economics or law backgrounds that dominate the upper echelons of the big portfolios. Bolt originally studied electrical engineering, spent some time in political activism as a researcher for the Australian Democrats, before going on to assume a variety of leadership roles in the Victorian Public Service.

Yet, he could also be the poster child for the next generation of public sector leaders, as the major heads of services push for broader backgrounds in recruits.

“I personally did not have this view that I was going to become a secretary. I think, by the way, that’s partly because I didn’t come from the sort of family background where that aspiration had any kind of history, so it wasn’t something that I knew,” Bolt told The Mandarin.

Bolt started out at BHP and Mitsubishi as an undergraduate engineer while studying in Adelaide, before being recruited by Victoria’s State Electricity Commission on graduation. The commission was a state-owned monopoly producer and retailer of electricity and although Bolt maintains “they treated me well”, he found “the culture didn’t work for me at all, it was very hierarchical, very siloed. It was very discouraging of disruptive and innovative thinking.”

“Always be prepared to synthesise from the best ideas around you, and don’t be too selective as to who the idea comes from…”

Around that time, he grew increasingly interested in public policy, becoming the principal spokesperson for the nuclear disarmament movement, before finding his way into working as a researcher for the Australian Democrats, in a role that now typically isn’t done by parliamentary staffers.

His experience with Democrat senators meant he was able to see the Hawke-Keating government up close and enjoy some influence on what happened. “Out of that, I thought, government’s my gig,” he says.

His background in electrical engineering, relatively rare in public policy circles, has been “tremendously valuable” across his work in communications, Defence, the energy sector and climate change.

“It also meant there were some aspects that I was terribly green and naïve about, the basic business of politics itself I had no training in, but you learn that as you go,” he points out.

He went on to a role helping to establish the regulatory system for the recently privatised power industry, doing the first big price control for the newly privatised power distributors, in which their prices were substantially cut and new incentives to improve their service were put in.

From there he was put in charge of energy policy at the Department of Natural Resources and Environment from 2001-2003, before becoming executive director of energy and transport security at the Department of Infrastructure for almost four years, which included leading negotiations with aluminium smelters Alcoa on what to do with their long term power contract.

Since then he’s headed up three departments. He was secretary of the Department of Primary Industries from 2006-2011 — a portfolio that now sits within his own, much larger, department. He was head of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, from 2011 until December last year, and has spent close to a year now in charge of the department commonly known as DEDJTR.

Look for knowledgeable people

Bolt’s advice to junior public servants is that the best way to get ahead in your career is to “do your current job really well”.

While having a career plan is fine, “I have a question mark over that approach, because if you’re doing this job with an eye to the next one, you may not be doing this one as well as you should be,” he explains.

“Be good at managing in all directions — not just up, not just down, not just sideways, but all three.”

“I’d say to people: think broadly, be innovative, take people with you. Educate yourself as widely as you can, because it helps enormously to be able to look at problems from various disciplinary angles: economics, science, behaviour, psychology,” he says.

Learn how to deal with people in a way that suits your personality and is engaging, that brings people with you, and at the same time learns from them, he counsels. And make sure you have good people around you.

“Never imagine that you’re the font of all knowledge. Always be prepared to synthesise from the best ideas around you, and don’t be too selective as to who the idea comes from, just listen for the quality of the idea.”‘

Importantly, don’t see a job in the public service as an end in itself — always ask: who is this for? who is being impacted? how can we do that better?

The great thrill of these sorts of jobs, Bolt reckons, “is getting directions and ideas that are bigger than the sum of the individuals involved. So learning the techniques and getting the best out of people, collectively and individually, I think is a good way of working. And being good at managing in all directions — not just up, not just down, not just sideways, but all three.”

More honourable than Utopia

He watched a few episodes of Utopia, he laughs, but found it “both too inaccurate and sometimes too superficially accurate for me to want to keep watching it”.

“Of course there are some conversations in public service which are pretty well mimicked by Utopia,” he says. But working the public service is “absolutely not” just the series of managed blunders depicted by the show.

“The public service is a much more honourable, worthy profession than you would believe by watching that, unfortunately. It’s good for a little laugh, and there are times when you look around and you say, ‘I think we’re having a Utopia discussion here, because we’ve kind of lost sight of the big picture’, but it’s not everything we are.”

The second part of the interview with Richard Bolt looks at the key challenges of culture.

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Paddy Mohan
Paddy Mohan
5 years ago

Public policy is not always about economics and law. I am
also from an electrical engineering background, but currently working in the “administrative”
stream in the NT Public Sector. I had quit my engineering career in Perth (WA) a few years ago, out
of my passion to pursue a career in Indigenous affairs. I am also studying
public policy at university and hoping to focus on the development of northern
Australia. People from diverse backgrounds, such as from engineering, health,
social work, town planning, etc., must be encouraged to pursue administrative
and policy careers, since they can bring a different perspective to policy issues
and potentially find solutions to problems that may not be addressed by economists
and lawyers.

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