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Education secretary Lisa Paul to exit public service

Lisa Paul, long-time secretary of the Department of Education and Training, will leave in February next year to pursue a career beyond the public service.

Paul is the fourth departmental secretary to have signalled their exit from the Australian Public Service in recent weeks.

Paul’s departure also leaves just four women in the ranks of the 18 APS departmental secretary roles, with three vacancies yet to be announced, including Communications and the Arts and Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“For me, every day of my 11 years as a secretary has been a privilege,” Paul said. “In coming to this decision, I want to thank the Prime Minister and Minister Birmingham for their support.

“I am proud of being able to help make a positive difference over the years to the lives of Australians and others in areas so important for our nation’s future such as early childhood, schooling, vocational education, skills and training, higher education, international education, research, science, employment, workforce and workplace relations. I am also proud of the special focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“I have been incredibly fortunate to work with many wonderful and talented people from all walks of life. One of the most fulfilling aspects of being a chief executive is the opportunity to create a workplace where people want to come to work, where they understand the value they bring and they know they are genuinely supported in what they do.

“Some of the big challenges I have faced include leading a complex merger in 2007 and a demerger in 2013, while retaining top-quartile staff engagement. I have managed up to $46 billion annually, 6000 staff, including up to 6% Indigenous, in 50 locations globally. Over time we reduced operating costs by more than 30% while increasing business lines. I am a strong advocate for digital innovation across government. This includes using big data and leveraging the power of opening Government data to the public.”

Paul said she is excited by the challenge of applying her energy and drive to a portfolio career including non-executive directorships as well as the chance to pursue interests such as leadership, culture change, digital innovation, skills formation and continuing to make a positive difference.

A substantial contribution

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office Friday morning said Paul wished to pursue a career outside the APS. Malcolm Turnbull said Paul has made a substantial contribution to the development of education and employment policy in Australia.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham issued a statement saying there is “much that she can be proud of” in her public service career including 11 years as a secretary, a tenure at the top only surpassed among current secretaries by Department of Finance boss Jane Halton. Birmingham added:

“Many ministers from both sides of politics owe Lisa a debt of gratitude for her advice, guidance and tireless work. As both Assistant Minister for Education and Training and the Minister for Education and Training I have greatly valued Lisa’s experience and expertise.

“I am sorry Lisa is departing at this time but understand her reasons after such a long and distinguished career. Lisa will be missed by many, especially those within the Public Service to whom she has provided valuable leadership and mentoring. I wish Lisa all the best in her next career where I know she will continue to make a significant impact and contribution to Australia.”

As a deputy secretary with the former Department of Family and Community Services, Paul led the taskforce that provided immediate and long-term support following the 2002 Bali bombings, a task she rates as a career highlight and for which she was awarded the Public Service Medal.

She was also made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2011 for her public service work and was named Federal Government Leader of the Year by the Chartered Accountants in the same year. She holds a range of board positions and is a national fellow of the Institute of Public Administration Australia, a fellow of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders, a fellow of the Australian Institute of Management, an Australian National University Public Policy Fellow, a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and a member of Chief Executive Women.

Paul has served as secretary for prime ministers Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, and Turnbull, and cabinet ministers Brendan Nelson, Julie Bishop, Julia Gillard, Simon Crean, Chris Evans, Peter Garrett, Bill Shorten, Christopher Pyne and Simon Birmingham, as well as many non-cabinet ministers.

An accidental career

Paul has always maintained that hers was an accidental public service career, after coming to Canberra by way of Adelaide, New Zealand and California, where she was born. Her first government job was in the ACT public service before the territory was self-governing and she says it was only after looking back on 20 years in the federal bureaucracy that she realised she was a career public servant.

On leadership, she told journalist Paul Malone in 2005: “I like to see the humorous side of things. I like to enjoy what I do and I like our people here to enjoy their jobs. I believe there is a direct relationship between morale and productivity. So it’s not just doing your job but enjoying it as well.”

Over her career Paul has seen significant change, as does any public servant who makes a career of it. Paul’s secret has been to embrace the scary as an opportunity: “Any of the moves I’ve made from one organisation to another, you know I’ve been anxious about because I want to do a good job.”

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The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.