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Shergold’s failure forum: rethink risk, create plan for success

The Department of the Environment has begun devolving responsibility down to lower levels and appointed a chief risk officer, after facing 10 major external reviews since the botched Home Insulation Program of 2009.

Secretary Gordon de Brouwer said the department had done “an enormous amount” of work in response to the scrutiny of the past seven years, speaking to members of the Institute for Public Administration Australia in Canberra on Monday — video online via IPAA ACT and contentgroup.

At the same time, he said all the proposals in Learning from Failure — University of Western Sydney chancellor Peter Shergold’s recent attempt to explain why the HIP and other big government projects sometimes fail catastrophically — were still of “direct relevance” to Environment.

” … every person at every level can and should be expected to display leadership … ”

The department is also striving to learn from a more recent error — the ignorance of skinks and snakes that led to ministerial approval for the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland being overturned and then re-issued — without making scape goats.

“We take a very strong line internally that that mistake wasn’t an intentional mistake, it wasn’t reckless, there was no serious negative intent,” said de Brouwer. “It was really about people trying to improve the system, but … that didn’t work well enough.

“So we explicitly said that ultimately, the person responsible for the department is the secretary, so I’m responsible. I’ll back staff in their decision making [and] we’ll learn from the mistakes.”

Martin Parkinson
Martin Parkinson

Australian public service head Martin Parkinson had the last word to the room full of public servants who came to hear Shergold expound on his latest ideas. Parkinson urged public servants not to forget that poorly run government programs could endanger life and limb:

“I think we worry about reputational risk, quite sensibly. I think we worry about damaging relationships with ministers, at times. What we rarely do is to stop and think about the consequences our actions have beyond the APS.”

In the case of the HIP bungle, those consequences were the deaths of four young men, he reminded them.

“It’s our responsibility as leaders to make sure the conditions that led to their deaths … cannot happen again,” said the Department of the Prime Minister Cabinet secretary. “We cannot erase our mistakes but we can learn from them and we have to.”

Parkinson, PM&C’s third secretary in three years, said his favourite line from Shergold’s report was:

“Failure and how we respond to it is where leadership is born.”

“Leadership is not someone else’s problem,” he said. “So I don’t want anybody in this room walking out thinking ‘that was a really interesting discussion’ and leaving it at that.”

Parkinson told the IPAA members that “every person at every level can and should be expected to display leadership” and offered some advice on how to do it well: admit to your failures, acknowledge your personal contribution to them, and “reflect actively and progressively” on your decisions and performance.

The new approach to risk in the APS

Public service commissioner John Lloyd noted that Learning from Failure “fit quite neatly” with the mandatory administrative reforms being led by the Department of Finance. One area of alignment is the need to rethink risk — with Shergold arguing that all major proposals should go to cabinet with risk assessments attached, and that each major agency needs a chief risk officer to lead a shift to a “positive risk culture”.

The appointment of a chief risk officer at Environment, de Brouwer said, did not mean one lonely executive was responsible for risk on behalf of the whole organisation:

“It’s really frankly an instrument to engage [all] the staff about risk, rather than someone who separately carries that risk. We appointed a person who’s engaging, who’s got the backing of the board and myself, but also deeply respected by staff on those issues.”

The CRO’s role is to lead a shift throughout the department, from risk management characterised by lots of documentation and forms to fill in, to “thinking about … the forces that are at play in the world, how that helps you achieve the outcomes, or how you engage with those forces to deliver the outcomes”.

” … we don’t know if this is going to work; if it doesn’t, we won’t proceed further.”

It was logical, de Brouwer added, that “if you expect people to take risk, they have to have responsibility” and they also “have to know that you’ve got their back” if things go wrong.

“So frankly if you’re going to give people the authority and say that they’re taking on risk, you really have to back them,” he said. “I’ve said that to my own department and I really expect SES officers and team leaders to back their staff — and that’s very explicit from me.”

The Environment secretary explained he had put leadership of internal committees and more financial responsibility in the hands of Band 1 and 2 senior executives, which in turn was putting more responsibility onto Executive Level staff. The number of SES officers is being reduced by 25% compared to just under a 20% reduction in overall staff numbers, the forum heard.

“We’ve shrunk the system, so we’ve gone from 18 to 12 divisions, specifically with the idea of creating a very powerful incentive for SES officers to pass on the responsibility to their officers,” de Brouwer explained.

Conflicting messages on risk?

Andrew Stuart, a deputy secretary with the Department of Health, put it to the panel that public servants been constantly hearing two conflicting messages about risk.

The newer vision of empowered staff who “engage with risk” to enable innovation and organisational agility is confounded by the traditional risk aversion which still permeates much of the APS. He asked: “How do we reconcile them?”

Only Shergold addressed the pointed question, making it clear that what puts the brakes on the new approach to risk inside particular departments is ministers and political considerations. He said the one key difference he noticed between the private sector and the public sector was that cabinet does not discuss its risk appetite in various areas in the way company boards do.

“I don’t believe that discussion is impossible within a public sector arena,” Shergold contended, suggesting public servants should ask ministers what they want to achieve, and how much of their limited political capital they are willing to stake on each policy aim.

Small-scale experimental trials and innovative solutions are best suited to areas where past policies have failed, and can be safely explained to the public on this basis. Shergold, having chaired the state government’s Social Impact Expert Advisory Group, cites Social Benefit Bonds in New South Wales as an example:

“The way … the government framed it, first Barry O’Farrell and then Mike Baird, was to be very open with the public: ‘We’re doing this in areas where public policy has previously failed; we don’t know the solutions; we’re willing to trial a number of new approaches; we don’t know if this is going to work; if it doesn’t, we won’t proceed further.'”

Creating an environment for success

In his closing remarks, Parkinson reflected on how senior APS leaders could create the right environments for staff to excel.

He said failure should not put the brakes on “blue-sky thinking”, which he believes is critically important and must come from casting a much wider net when trawling for inspiration. Senior bureaucrats had stayed inside their own bubble too much.

” … involving a wide group of people in blue-sky thinking gives every person a stake in making the resulting decisions work.”

“This is a failure of leadership,” said the PM&C boss. “This is a failure of their own personal leadership. When we neglect to reach far and wide for ideas, we open ourselves up to a lethal combination of arrogance and ignorance, and that’s not acceptable in any context, but particularly not in a modern public service.

“Once we come up with ideas though, wherever that we’ve garnered them from, they should be rigorously questioned. This isn’t about putting people through a ringer and saying ‘I’m smarter than you’, it’s actually about testing and refining ideas because by testing and refining, you will find the best way to ensure success.

“Open, candid discussion winnows down ideas to find those that have the best probability of being able to be implemented successfully. And involving a wide group of people in blue-sky thinking gives not only a broader set of perspectives, but it gives every person a stake in making the resulting decisions work.”

Secondly, Parkinson argued that objective, evidence-based analysis required “safe spaces” based on “collegiality, co-operation and creativity” to be successful. Even after government has made its decisions and they have been implemented, the public service should be able to collect data and examine if programs are working as intended, he said.

Going back to the HIP debacle, Parkinson picked another quote from the Shergold review about the need to consult “those who best understand the environment in which a policy will be delivered” to understand implementation issues.

“As the person who was given the Home Insulation Program and some other programs to try and clean up, it was very clear that execution was not built into policy design; it was treated as an afterthought,” he said.

“Implementation should never be seen as the poor cousin of policy development in the APS.”

Top image: Peter Shergold and Gordon de Brouwer

More reactions to Peter Shergold’s seminal report at The Mandarin: Adaptive government? Easier said than done.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.