Vice cop: Catherine Myers on compliance, culture change

By David Donaldson

Friday January 15, 2016

The public service has become more welcoming of people with private sector experience in recent years, Catherine Myers reckons.

When the now CEO of the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation made her own move into government nine years ago, after nearly a decade at Telstra, she felt a lot of people didn’t really value her private sector experience.

“If you hadn’t been in the public sector for 10 years then you were a newbie and you had to wait in line for your turn,” she told The Mandarin.

But she’s seen that culture change during her time in government, first at the Victorian Department of Justice and now at the regulator. “I feel that shift within the public sector, that they certainly do value bringing in new ideas and a range of expertise,” she said.

“… understanding the bureaucracy and how to navigate it is something you can learn along the way.”

“If you bring knowledge and ideas from other areas, understanding the bureaucracy and how to navigate it is something you can learn along the way.”

Certainly, she thinks, gaining a breadth of experience by taking careful sideways moves, rather than always trying to reach the next level, has placed her in good stead for the role of CEO. Some of the people skills she learned as a primary teacher fresh out of university even come in handy from time to time.

“It’s OK to put yourself out there somewhere you may be out of your comfort zone if it’s going to help you get knowledge and experience in something that will help you get to the next level. It’s being open to move sideways, learning to embrace change,” she said.

And there’s been plenty of change, even since she joined the bureaucracy in 2007.

The statutory authority she now leads was created in 2012 out of a merger of Responsible Alcohol Victoria — the Department of Justice unit she worked in previously — and the Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation. This meant knitting together the operations and workplace cultures of a whole range of business areas supporting the new agency’s four main functions: communication, education, compliance and licencing.

Setting up a new organisation “is a tough gig”, she says — it’s a job her former CEO described as resembling drinking from a fire hose. On top of that, in 2012 there were major changes to how the industries in question were regulated.

“There was a lot of camaraderie within the team because the workload was quite significant and there was a lot of pressure with the looming legislative time frames,” she recalled.

Bringing together the two former units “wasn’t simple” and is still a work in progress.

“Change takes time,” she explained.  “You can read lots of articles around mergers and acquisitions and it’s three to five years to really build that culture and build that forward plan so people have the same vision and the values of the organisation.”

While it’s important to set the agenda on where you want the organisational culture to head, there’s only so much that can be directed from the top. While initially the executive were driving a lot of efforts at unity, “over the last 12 months staff and individual business areas are starting to formulate activities to bring people together, whether they’re social activities or working on an initiative, or more proactively engaging with other areas of the business,” she said.

“We’re starting to see change that’s coming from the bottom up rather than the top down.”

Educating for voluntary compliance

As part of its effort to be a “modern” regulator — balancing the management of the risks and harms of gambling and alcohol against the ability for the industry to function effectively — the VCGLR aims to improve voluntary compliance by focusing on educating the industry.

“The whole idea is around education as a preventative measure which helps licencees to become compliant because they’re better informed,” said Myers.

“Some of the things we’ve done are improve the information that gets out to stakeholders; we’ve made changes to how regularly we communicate changes to industry; we’ve introduced different types of training.”

A recent stakeholder survey suggested that while they want to be known for their educative functions, industry tends to see the VCGLR as “the big stick regulator”. So there’s some way to go yet.

To help improve efficiency and make life easier for stakeholders, VCGLR has “done a fair bit of work in the licencing space, reducing our determination times and we’ve done a lot of process re-engineering and reduced a lot of wastage in the process”, she explains. An overhaul of the online portal for applications, which used to freeze, has helped cut down on multiple applications.

A website usability study was recently completed, which will provide insights into what stakeholders — ranging from mum and dad cafes through to multimillion-dollar companies and many others besides — want to access. The agency is planning to redesign the website this year.

“Making sure we are vocal and transparent about those processes and setting those expectations has been key.”

They’ve also automated applications for temporary limited liquor licencing for low risk events — a grandmother’s 80th at the local hall or a school fete, etc — to enable resources to be directed towards higher-risk and more complicated activities.

The idea to automate low-risk applications came from staff, Myers points out. She deliberately cultivates an environment where she hopes any of her 220 employees feels comfortable to come and chat about problems or ideas they might have.

To encourage collaboration, she’s also led a move to cross-skill staff. “If you look at the industries we regulate, it’s about problem solving,” she said. This means insights are now more commonly shared across workgroups, so someone who processes liquor licence applications has more opportunities to suggest ideas to the people in education.

As a regulator in charge of the liquor and gambling industries, integrity is paramount. The VCGLR is currently undertaking a review of integrity processes to lift its standards and ensure there are appropriate levels of rigour where they are needed — processes need to be stricter when hiring a compliance inspector than an education officer, for example.

It’s about having the right culture, as well as structures. “We don’t shy away from setting the expectations with staff that they need to behave at the highest standard of professionalism and integrity,” she said.

“The processes we have in place are there for a reason, whether it’s declaring a gift or the disclosure of information as part of the recruitment process. Making sure we are vocal and transparent about those processes and setting those expectations has been key.”

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