Ben Rimmer: leadership is still the bureaucracy’s Achilles’ heel

By David Donaldson

Thursday April 7, 2016

Ben Rimmer

INTERVIEW: The public sector lags business in executive leadership, with too many secretaries persevering with a dictator model. Ben Rimmer tells The Mandarin that’s not what the workforce, or customers, need.

Widespread poor behaviour and confrontational leadership styles among senior bureaucrats are the public sector’s “Achilles’ heel”, City of Melbourne CEO and former myGov lead Ben Rimmer believes.

“If we’re honest as a sector we have people in senior leadership roles who don’t personify a contemporary way of leading and managing, and whose values and behaviours as leaders are no longer consistent with where the Australian community is at,” he tells The Mandarin in his book-lined, Victorian-era office in Melbourne Town Hall.

“Don’t allow yourself to be captured by the worldview of the place you happen to be working … ”

The “dictator” model of leadership, he contends, “is still pretty persistent in parts of the public sector … it means we’re not getting the best advice to ministers because people are more worried about looking good in front of the secretary than they are about providing the right advice.”

The public sector needs systems and a culture to call out bad leaders and “we haven’t chosen to do that.”

“What we value is whether a minister or a council works well with a particular leader — we value that very highly — and we don’t value as highly the leadership style and management approach the leader brings to the task.”

In such conditions, he argues, women in particular find it more difficult to progress, as such management approaches dovetail with outdated gender stereotypes.

And it’s worse in government than the private sector.

“I’m not saying the private sector is perfect, but if you look at the leadership styles of the most successful private sector CEOs, they’re now quite different to that, and they’ve grown and changed a lot in the last 10-15 years. That growth and change hasn’t yet fully impacted the public service.”

Rimmer brings to the debate his experience at having collected the rare quintuple. He has not only worked across all three tiers of government — most recently he was associate secretary at the Commonwealth Department of Human Services, and before that spent eight years in Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet — but in the private sector, at Boston Consulting Group, and in the non-government sector.

Since February 2015 the former Rhodes scholar has been in charge of City of Melbourne’s 1500 staff and $600 million budget.

“Perhaps I need to work in small business, that’s the last frontier,” he laughs.

His advice to younger public servants is to find a positive role model — not necessarily your own secretary.

“Look to managers and leaders who display different kinds of leadership models — the kind of leadership model for example of David Thodey at Telstra — and build your expectations and skills and capabilities off that, not necessarily off the person who is your current secretary and is yelling at you.”

Make sure you’re exposed to a range of leadership styles and workplace cultures.

“Don’t allow yourself to be captured by the way of working and the worldview of the place you happen to be working in on any given month or week,” he argues, pointing in particular to organisations “with incredibly strong cultures” like Foreign Affairs and Treasury.

“Always have an external perspective, always keep yourself fresh. The best way of keeping yourself fresh is to get that experience and create those networks and make sure you have those networks beyond your own organisation.”

Citizens don’t care about tiers of government

It’s a common refrain in policy wonk circles that Australia would function better if it could eliminate the overlap in roles and responsibilities between its three levels of government.

But Rimmer is sceptical.

“Yes it would be simpler. We can all wish for peace in the Middle East,” he says.

” … so often we fail to deliver — every day in quite spectacular and often harmful ways.”

“But if you look at all the issues which really matter at the stage of development we’re at as a country, they all sit on the boundary [between different tiers of government] — mental health reform, economic development, the transition from school to further education and training.

“These are all issues that require the Commonwealth, states and local government to work together, yet we still have this political rhetoric and simplistic rhetoric from a whole range of people saying ‘we should divide the world up into three nice, neat little patches’.”

The alternative is to approach the problem from the perspective of the citizen.

“If you take a customer view, a lot of these problems fall away,” he suggests.

“No one in the community particularly gives a damn about levels of government. They don’t care that the hospital they’re going to is a not-for-profit, the GP is private sector, the immunisation register is a Commonwealth run thing, maternal and child health is a state and local run thing, and the play group is locally run.

“They just want it to work together in a seamless way. So often we fail to deliver on that — every day in quite spectacular and often harmful ways.”

Online identity can build on myGov

Despite negative media coverage and user dissatisfaction with myGov, the federal government’s digital service portal, he argues the system “is actually a success story”.

“myGov [has] a higher penetration than exists in America, UK or Canada — that’s an incredible strength to build on. ”

Rimmer, who led the creation of myGov, acknowledged that technology breakdowns “have really inconvenienced people”, but noted that there are now over seven million accounts.

“Something between a third and half of the adult Australian population is now walking around with a myGov account established,” he says, “which is a higher penetration of access to online services than exists in America, the UK or Canada — that’s an incredible strength to build on.”

He hopes to see a “federated system of identity” model — in which a government-backed identification system helps enhance security for a range of services — emerge from myGov, with greater interoperability and engagement with the private sector.

“If you put the best of myGov together with the best of what we can learn from what’s happening internationally and what we can do in banking and telecommunications, you could create in Australia an absolute world-leading system of identity in digital infrastructure.

“But you don’t get that by throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. You do that by building on the strength of what you already have,” he argues.

“You can’t get it 100% right the first time.”

Innovation at the City of Melbourne: part two of The Mandarin‘s interview with Ben Rimmer published next week …

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Barry Anderson
Barry Anderson
5 years ago

Totally agree with Ben on the confusion between authority and leadership. Authority being based on perception not delivery will maintain and reinforce the status quo; leadership based on clarity of strategic intent will facilitate change and take you to new places.

Gina Welsh
Gina Welsh
5 years ago

It would be interesting to see what Ben intends to do about the bad leaders in senior roles at Melbourne Council who “are more worried about looking good” in front of him than actually doing a good job, and how he will identify those people who are high performers within the organisation but are not recognised due to perhaps not being a favourite of their managers. Particularly women.

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