The effective executive: getting out to the coalface

By David Donaldson

November 18, 2016

Gill Callister, secretary of the Victorian Department of Education and Training.

It’s a problem faced by governments everywhere: how do leaders know what front-line service delivery staff are thinking, let alone how citizens are experiencing schools and hospitals and Centrelink outlets?

Figuring out how good policy is translated into good outcomes is one of Gill Callister’s hot button issues, she tells The Mandarin — second only to equity and fairness. As the secretary of Victoria’s Department of Education and Training — with more than 2600 staff overseeing the school system, which itself has more than 43,000 full-time equivalent employees across 1524 government schools — it’s an inescapable problem.

“History is littered with examples of good policy that didn’t make the difference it was intended to make because not enough effort went into implementation,” Callister says. She sat down with The Mandarin after her speech on the value of education at the Trans-Tasman Business Circle last week.

“Senior teams can’t just rely on all the information being passed up the line. So I suppose because I started my career as a practitioner, my expectation is that we as a senior group try to find many ways, including our own presence, of spending time out listening to people and understanding what’s impacting on them in order to best get them to take things up.”

Understanding the cultural context of the place where services are being delivered is important, she argues.

“For example we spent an hour and a half with the principal of Morwell Park Primary a few weeks ago sitting in his staff room, listening to him talk to us about how he’s used his equity funding, what the challenges are for him, what the cultural context of Morwell is,” she explains.

“You have to understand not just your workforce and the cultural context in which they work and the professional lens they place over things, but the place they’re in.”

This enhances the board’s understanding of the landscape, but it also signals to those at the coalface that they’re willing to put in the effort to listen. It can’t be “token”, she points out — leaders have to be prepared to really learn what the barriers to good implementation might be.

“You can’t over-invest in that. Obviously I can’t go to a school every single day of the week, but I do try to make sure I am out visiting services, whether it’s schools or other types of services regularly, and I take the senior team, the board, we go on a regular basis and hold our board meeting out in a region.

“We meet with the regional staff and we go and visit some schools or other sites. And I try and spend time going out to principal network meetings where they invite me to meet with groups of principals and have time listening — me talking about what we’re trying to do, but listening to them about how they’re receiving that.”

Harnessing ideas

The public service is needs to put more effort into coming up with new ideas, even if they’re unusable for the time being, Callister thinks.

“If there’s one thing I think the public sector really needs to focus on, it is having ideas. Pushing at the boundaries of things, coming up with ideas that you then decide are really too far and you’re not going to do them, but at least developing that ideas notion.”

She recently put out the call to DET staff to submit suggestions for how the education system, or the department itself, could work better. Colleagues could then vote on, or add to, others’ recommendations. The process is still underway.

“It’s a way of saying this doesn’t have to be top down,” she explains.

“If you’re working in the public sector, by and large you’re a relatively well-educated, smart person, and some of you are on the way to bigger and better things. So let’s harness more of that.”

Bouncing back after IBAC

When an organisation is faced with a high-profile integrity crisis it can be difficult to balance responding to the problem and maintaining staff morale. And that’s what Callister has had to do.

Anti-corruption hearings into incidents several years ago in the department were “shattering” for staff, she says.

The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission has spent several years investigating and conducting public hearings into varied claims of corruption and misconduct among senior Education officials from before Callister took up the role of department head. As the current boss, Callister has had to lead the response.

“There was the initial impact, and it was all about really owning that and saying this has happened and we have to learn from it — being able to describe how it felt,” she explains.

“I said to people, don’t just hold a staff meeting about this, talk to people in teams, encourage corridor talk about this, encourage people to talk about how they feel.”

The Victorian Public Service, and Education in particular, are in the process of embedding new rules and processes to tackle future integrity risks.

But while much talk has centred around blame — and necessarily so —  the discussion had to move on at some point, she says.

Soon enough, staff started asking, “are we going to keep talking about this in a blaming sense? They were starting to feel tarred with it,” she says. “Then it has to become more about framing the positive ways forward out of this, the way we model good values.”

The key changes the department is making fall into two categories. The first is increasing accountability through processes and compliance, “which people often experience as more onerous, so it’s about trying to frame that as this is about better accountability in some of the things we have to do.”

The other category is cultural.

“It’s about behaviour, it’s about values, and it’s couching all of that not just in terms of changing the culture and having a more open culture for the purposes of responding to IBAC, but so we deliver really good education. It’s all got to be linked to that,” she says.

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