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Richard Bolt: culture and systems key to stopping corruption

As the man in charge of Victoria’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development when allegations of corruption against the department’s bureaucrats surfaced, Richard Bolt is in a unique position to talk about integrity.

Bolt, now secretary of the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, outlines two key pillars to rooting out corruption: fostering an organisational culture that values integrity, and having systems that can detect cells operating outside that culture that can build walls around themselves.

Several former officials of the department have been accused of siphoning off millions of dollars from the education budget. Gill Callister, who has been secretary since the start of this year, has condemned a “culture of entitlement” within the department and vowed to improve control systems.

Bolt salutes the work Callister is doing to reorient towards a high integrity culture, but admits things could have been done better in the past. “Frankly, when I got to Education we didn’t have all the systems that could find [corruption],” he said in a wide-ranging interview with The Mandarin.

“… you have to have the whistleblowing systems and the investigative systems to deal with it when it arises as well.”

“I think now they are improving and we made some progress while I was there. A high integrity culture demands a lot of vigilance and it demands that you don’t go into denial. When the signs are there, pursue the signs.”

Bolt reported some of the matters being investigated to the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission. He urges other departments to work closely with the anti-corruption agency “because IBAC has powers departments don’t have” and can find things departments can’t see.

A culture of openness and integrity within the organisation, he thinks, makes it less likely people will abuse their positions — and more likely they’ll be detected if they do.

“But equally people hide stuff. They will hide it. So you have to have the whistleblowing systems and the investigative systems to deal with it when it arises as well,” he argued.

Even seemingly little things like people not wanting to have their emails forwarded when they are on leave can be a warning sign they’re insulating their unit from outside scrutiny.

“Most of all it’s about making sure there are no safe spaces for people to develop a series of collaborations where with a lot of small transactions that are fraudulent, they can hide a decent amount of money,” he said.

“That is the repeated pattern we’ve seen in other cases — Public Transport Victoria had that problem, Education had it — and that’s where we need to develop stronger practices and we’re working on that now.”

‘Challenging but stimulating’

Managing such a huge department is challenging, says Bolt, but “it is also really stimulating”.

His previous experience as secretary of the Department of Primary Industries from 2006 to 2011 — a portfolio that now sits within his so-called super department, DEDJTR — makes it a bit easier to get across the detail, though.

“I’ve just dealt with a brief on fruit fly,” he explained. “I don’t have to go and educate myself as to fruit fly propagation and measures to mitigate that, which I would have had to have done the first time around.”

The department, which came into being following a machinery of government reshuffle after last year’s state election, covers a broad range of areas that could generally be described as relating to the state’s economy: public transport, agriculture, creative industries (including arts agency Creative Victoria), employment, energy and resources, industry, ports, regional development, roads and road safety, small business, innovation and trade, tourism and large events.

DEDJTR employs around 3000 staff and has an annual operating budget of $7 billion.

“If you can’t make a department this big work you can’t make a government function effectively either …”

Despite the breadth of the department’s span of control, Bolt is confident the set-up works.

“I’ve had some people say ‘how is it possible to make a department this big work?’. If you can’t make a department this big work you can’t make a government function effectively either, because a government needs to join itself up across its disparate parts as well,” he said.

Where organisations fail most consistently is in collaboration across their structure, Bolt says. That doesn’t just apply to government — plenty of corporates suffer the same problem.

And while he doesn’t spend all his time chasing down silos, there’s no secret to making big organisations work, he says — it’s all about “building in the planning, governance and relationship development work that lowers the barriers to collaboration, which identifies the priorities for collaboration and ensures through planning that they’re actually done and not left to chance”.

A “fair deal” of Bolt’s time is spent helping co-ordinating minister Jacinta Allan make the systems work, in addition to acting as the principal adviser to the department’s nine ministers. But the variation in policy subject matter invariably means a lot of the work of briefing ministers must be devolved.

“They would be foolish to rely on me, when on every subject or even most subjects there’d be people in the department who know more than me,” he said.

The important part is ensuring the minister is speaking to the best person to give advice, while ensuring that advice “is given in a strategic context in which the person giving it understands the broader game plan that the department is executing on behalf of the government, and not just giving advice in their own name”.

Maintaining neutrality

As a big economic department responsible for doling out a lot of money, it’s also important to ensure decisions are being made in the public interest. “It’s evidence that counts,” Bolt said.

“It comes down to clear criteria, an open access approach to letting work and giving out grants, thorough evidence in assessment, good governance to avoid conflicts, all of those good things. Your reputation stands or falls on whether you’re seen to do that well.”

But maintaining neutrality doesn’t mean insulating yourself from the private sector. Market-led proposals — where a company suggests a project it could undertake, which usually means building new transport infrastructure — can be a useful source of ideas.

“It’s a dance with the market,” he said. “We’re not being dictated to, but equally we can’t set ourselves up as being the font of all wisdom and the inventor of all good solutions.

“Yes of course they’re pursuing a dollar, that’s what they’re there for. But if we take their ideas, evaluate them properly, refine them properly, we can get good value from them.”

Part one of The Mandarin‘s interview: Richard Bolt on the road to mega-department secretary

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.