Kym Peake — 'connector, not ring-fencer' — on coming home

By David Donaldson

March 21, 2016

INTERVIEW: Kym Peake’s appointment as head of the Department of Health and Human Services doubled the number of female secretaries in Victoria. Be a connector, not a ring-fencer, she advises.

Kym Peake
Kym Peake

For Kym Peake, being appointed secretary of Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services felt “like coming home”.

After an initial three years as a graduate in Prime Minister and Cabinet, she spent most of the first decade of her career in the DHHS’s earlier incarnations. She’s still fairly fresh to the top job, having been appointed in November. “It’s good to be back,” she said.

By chance, in her first few months as boss Peake had a meeting about winding up the National e-Health Transition Authority she helped design.

For the moment she’s enjoying the prospect of having a clear role after switching around a lot last year, helping establish the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, setting up a new public sector reform agenda in DPC, filling in at the Department of Education and Training, then back to DPC, before joining DHHS.

“As much as anything it was nice after Christmas to say, OK, I’m just going to be in one job for a while,” she said.

But her appointment is more than just a homecoming — it doubled the number of female secretaries in Victoria. Education Department boss Gill Callister was for a long time the only female secretary. “That in and of itself would suggest we’ve still got a way to go,” Peake told The Mandarin on International Women’s Day.

The public service has to become more creative about bringing women in and building the requisite networks to reach more professional women, she argues.

A connector in the PMO

Although she’s only spent a short amount of time in the private sector — she led a governance practice unit at KPMG for a time — Peake has varied experience within the government sector. She’s had four stints in central agencies, the most noteworthy being a period in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Initially she joined “to play a connector role” in social policy for the first year of Kevin Rudd’s government, but the beginning of the global financial crisis soon after saw her redirected into a new job improving the flow of decisions and the relationship between the political class and the bureaucracy.

“I learned heaps,” she explained. Working in a political office is really valuable experience, she says, giving you an idea of the pressures and rhythm of the week.

“How do we either find the common ground, or at least minimise the points of difference?”

“But also the way in which decision processes work and how you seek to influence those. I’ve always been a really big believer that the best relationship between the centre and the line agencies is to really understand the value that both bring to the task of better policy and better public administration.”

Though she’s reluctant to pin down her leadership style with any particular descriptor — “the reality is your leadership style is situational” — one thing she’s learned from working in both central and line offices is the importance of “being a connector, not a ring-fencer”.

“Being able to talk to people and identify what are the mutual interests or points of intersection between something we’re interested in and something another department will also have a stake in,” she said. “How do we either find the common ground, or at least minimise the points of difference?”

Talking through problems before they’re elevated to the point of decision-making helps make problems more manageable, she says.

“Decision makers are best served by departments having done as much of the heavy lifting outside the room to narrow the issues of disagreement and optimise the value from different departments’ contributions,” she said.

Super departments and cross-fertilisation

Having a smaller number of departments in Victoria and rearranging how business units are organised within DHHS has allowed for greater cross-fertilisation, Peake believes.

While she acknowledges having fewer departments “creates fewer opportunities for people to get that sort of exposure at senior levels”, the benefits outweigh the costs.

“We’re seeing enormous lightbulb moments …”

A key part of this has been arranging work groups along functional, not programmatic, lines. This means not having a whole section devoted end-to-end to children and families, for example, but putting infrastructure, housing, hospitals, sports and recreation in one part together under someone with expertise in infrastructure and project planning and management.

“At the strategy end we have one person who’s deeply enmeshed in what are the connections in social determinants of health, for example — health reform strategy, integrated community services or child and family services,” Peake said. “We’re seeing enormous lightbulb moments about how these different services interact, rather than having people focused on, and confined by, just the particular service that they’re involved with.

“You mightn’t be across every intricacy and every program and every part of the business, but you start to see common threads much more quickly. Already I’m seeing the benefits of that cross-fertilisation being possible.”

Younger women need mentors

Given the continuing under-representation of females at senior levels in the public service, Peake says identifying young, capable women and creating opportunities for them — as earlier mentors offered her — is “something I feel very strongly about”.

It’s important, she argues, for younger women aspiring to high places in the public sector to take risks.

“When opportunities present themselves, back yourself to give them a go. Be quite purposeful, not in planning out your whole career — because I don’t know anyone who’s done that, to be honest — but look around at what’s the interesting work, who’s someone you can learn from, and then proactively putting yourself in a position to be noticed and create those opportunities,” she explained.

“Both seize opportunities when they arise, but create opportunities as well.”

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