Q&A with Martin Bowles: peer pressure, data use and leadership

By The Mandarin

June 27, 2016

Department of Health secretary Martin Bowles answers questions from public servants in Canberra following his contribution to the IPAA ACT Secretary Series last week.

We can’t be constrained by one track thinking

QUESTION: Thank you for your presentation … I was thinking about some of the really positive terminology that you used, you know, and you’ve been speaking about developing a culture that gives permission, an evidence-based approach to policy development, embracing and seeking out diversity, and all these things are really positive and wonderful, and I must say in my experience of Health has been that it has markedly changed under your leadership, for the better, so I can see all of those in lived experience.

But I would be interested to hear from you if you’re able, to reflect on how you balance your role as Secretary, given government policy, APSC reforms and a difficult space where your view of how to manage a good team, and a strong team, and a viable team can be really challenged by policy and agendas that don’t fit with your own, and I imagine that’s a really difficult leadership space.

MARTIN BOWLES: Thanks. Look, you’re right, there are a whole lot of challenges that are put in our paths all the time, and not everyone’s going to have the same view as me on everything, and that’s again, fine. For me it is about respecting all of those issues that are out there. And one of the things, you know, if I go into particularly the people space, which is really where you’re going, there are a whole lot of rules out there, and there’s a whole lot of guidelines out there. We quite often mix them up, we quite often put our own hoops and hurdles in place that are not necessarily the rules. They’re the ones we’ve created over time.

“The reality is, I asked some different questions … so you get away from black letter thinking.”

So if I use the data example, if I go into it a little bit more, we have this notion that everyone said ‘you can’t give MBS and PBS data out because of privacy reasons, and all these other reasons you can’t do things.’ Well if I just believed that, we’d be still not giving it out. The reality is, I asked some different questions. If I want to do this, how do I do it? So you get away from black letter thinking, and you get to a point where there are black letter issues, but if you think about it differently, can you actually facilitate a different outcome?

In Health, and in Immigration, and other places for that matter, we have shifted our thinking on a range of those people related things. Because what we did was we embraced the people themselves to generate a lot of the conversations. And look, yes we will come up against some things from an APSC perspective, but they’re looking at things from a whole of public service perspective. I’m looking at things from a Health perspective, at this particular point. The issue though is how do we all, as leaders, start to step it up? Because if we start to step it up, and we talk about some of these issues, ultimately we start to understand them better, and we have a chance at getting a better outcome.

So I mean, I’m not again negative about having some of those things in place, in fact we need the checks and balances in our system, otherwise there are things that will happen that are inappropriate out there. So we’ve got to recognise that, but we can’t be constrained by one track thinking on them. There are ways of dealing with most things in this world, you just have to think differently. Sometimes you have to challenge yourself around some of those things. So you know, there’s no one answer to your question, and I suppose for me it is one of the critical leadership elements for us all is, how do we challenge the norms?

Not to buck the system, but how do we challenge the norms to get the best outcome we possibly can for our people and our organisation? And you know, I talked a lot about the team, and I’m not talking about one particular group of people necessarily, it’s the whole approach. It’s how do we actually make things better for each other to get the outcomes we need?

Getting over our fear of sharing

QUESTION: Martin, I understand that you’ve invested in your data analysis capability, and I was just wondering, has that been going long enough for you to get some returns, and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that.

MARTIN BOWLES: Yes, I have invested quite heavily in whole data analytics, and more and more so now into behavioural insights and behavioural economics technologies. I actually think our world is at a tipping point in a range of ways, and if I look at Health, the amount of data that we have is just phenomenal. We don’t use it anywhere near enough, and I have invested in trying to put data analytics, the whole behavioural stuff, the research, the evaluation at the centre of our thinking. So when we look at an issue we look an issue, we look at the data. I mentioned we’re doing the Medical Benefits Schedule review work, that’s all based on data analytics of what’s actually happening out there.

I actually believe we need to actually keep going and expanding in those space and say, we need the clever people to ask the right questions, and when we ask those questions, and we’ve done this in mental health, for instance, we’ve asked questions that we dreamt up, if you like, based on our history, based on sometimes gut feel. And at one level they’re right, but the deeper you go, the more questions that get raised. And the deeper you go, the more streamlined your level of questioning becomes. So the solution, while the overarching is still true, the solutions to getting a difference up here is probably a lot narrower than we actually currently think.

So investing in understanding data and understanding how data links to policy outcomes, I think is pretty much where we need to go into the future. We’ve been doing a lot of work with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which is one of my portfolio agencies. We’re trying to really reinvigorate the AIHW to be one of those really critical bodies where data is linked, anonymously and – but for policy outcomes. I don’t think we’ve necessarily done that as well as we could.

I think part of that, it sort of goes to that notion of what I said before, we don’t want to share sometimes. Well, we’re going to have to get over that. Now, from a research background you could ask me … your next question could be, ‘well why don’t you give it to me?’ And I think you have to get there … I just don’t think we’re quite there yet. Now we can get there in certain limited cases, but I think we need to work out what are the things in this sense that are personal to me and I don’t want you to know about, and how is that protected. What are the things about me that I want to share with some people, like my doctor, so they can help me be as good as I possibly can be.

” … that might be a bit Machiavellian in some ways but you have to move your organisation forward with that.”

And then there’s data about me that nobody really cares about and nobody knows it’s me, but will actually help us come up with the next cure for … whatever. The whole notion of open data. And I think we’ve got to get there. And I think there’s a lot of talk at the moment around that, and I think it’s quite positive. We’ve got a lot of activity in this space and I think it’s all very, very positive. So I think we’re on the pathway. As I said this is the space where I think the tipping point is there and I said if we make the right decisions in some of these areas we can fundamentally rethink our policy positions on a range of issues.

Peer pressure is great for changing behaviour

QUESTION: As a senior leader you must understand that people will be asking you your opinion and your advice and direction and you are a strong and informative leader. How do you keep your leadership team aware of the importance of listening to other people and not only sharing ideas but accepting them as well?

MARTIN BOWLES: When I sometimes say to my deputies ‘I’ve just heard blah and this is happening,’ and they say to me, ‘what do you mean?’ I say, ‘well I’ve been out and about and this is what people are telling me.’ It’s absolutely amazing what peer pressure does to people. Because if they’re not up with it, they want to be up with it and it’s amazing how quickly they get up with it. So part of it is just how you culturally drive behaviours. I quite often say, ‘my words and actions need to be like that.’ [together] As soon as they [part], no one’s going to believe me. So get it back to there [together]…. I say, ‘if your words and actions start there [together] and end up there, [apart] we’ve got a problem.’

And I think sometimes it gets to a point where people were waiting for me to do the next big whatever, and I just say to people, well that may happen, but it may not happen. What are you doing about it? How are you playing that particular card? Because leadership has to go through the organisation, and to be honest, Health, I think in some parts of Health it’s brilliant the way it goes. Other parts … and we stop.

We know that because we’re actively investing in that. We’re looking at what’s happening from the survey data, a whole range of different things. This notion of ‘watch and listen’ and how do people actually engage with that conversation. That’s how you have to do it. And again, one of the things over my career is I’d say peer pressure is probably the greatest thing that will change behaviour. People always want to be seen as doing ‘the right thing’, or being ‘as good as’ … particularly people who have aspirations for high office and things like that. That’s the way we’re made. So you work on how we actually drive some of those things and you know, that might be a bit Machiavellian in some ways but you have to actually move your organisation forward with that.

Watch the full video of Bowles’ address on the IPAA ACT Vimeo channel, produced by contentgroup. A full transcript of the address is also available from the Department of Health.


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