Chris Eccles, the ‘accidental public servant’

By David Donaldson

Wednesday February 8, 2017

It may come as a surprise that Victoria’s top mandarin describes himself as an “accidental public servant”.

Chris Eccles, serving as the secretary of Victoria’s DPC since December 2014, started out his career as a lawyer in private practice.

But “I quickly demonstrated I wasn’t very good at it”, he tells The Mandarin, and took up an opportunity to work as a legal officer in the Commonwealth Department of the Environment on conservation and world heritage issues for the Franklin River and Daintree Rainforest.

The mid-1980s was a time of environmental activism and conflict between the states and the Commonwealth over conservation.

“It was a very small team. I found myself working on some of the most contemporary, high-profile environmental matters just by happenstance. Once you get exposed to that sort of policymaking, you sort of fall in love with public policy,” he says.

Working on the ground in Cairns with stakeholders such as the logging community left an impression. “What I learned from that is that public policy is far from just an abstract or academic pursuit, because decisions taken by government have profound implications for the lives of individuals,” he recalls. As many public servants will agree, the prospect of working to make meaningful change was appealing.

He tried a seven-year stint back in the private sector — where, among other things, he experienced first-hand the red tape involved in starting up and running a small business (a consultancy ultimately acquired by KPMG), something Eccles thinks made him “a bit more sensitive to the operating circumstance of small enterprises” — before returning to the bureaucracy.

The surfing leader

As far as he is aware, Eccles is the only person to have headed up chief minister’s departments across three different states.

He spent a couple of years in the top job in South Australia as chief executive of DPC from 2009, before being appointed by incoming Premier Barry O’Farrell to lead the New South Wales Premier’s Department in 2011. He departed not long after Mike Baird took up the reins in 2014, however.

So it was that when he received the call offering him his current job in the gap between roles, the mandarin was out surfing. Not how one might picture the boss of a large bureaucracy, but perhaps fitting for a departmental head generally seen as approachable and relaxed. Public servants tell The Mandarin they’ve never heard him raise his voice, and that — unlike some other senior executives — isn’t one to pull rank. Staff feel he makes an effort to get to know subordinates and tends to be genuinely interested in what they have to say.

“I’m really attracted to the concept of servant leadership,” the secretary says. He cites Weary Dunlop’s formulation of the idea: “The ideal leader is the servant of all, able to show a disarming humility without loss of authority.”

A similar notion guides his advice to his own department in dealing with line agencies. His suggestion that DPC see itself less as a central agency — with all the visions of power and authority that conjures up — and more as an “agency of unifying intelligence” has made an impression on many. Those at the centre should avoid the temptation to use the “terror and compliance” approach to compel line agencies.

This idea is “a way of calling out the need for a change in mindset”, he explains.

He wants “to draw a contrast between an agency that operates on the basis of power and hierarchy and presumed or projected authority, rather than an agency that defines itself by the value it creates in the work of other agencies.

“If we don’t add value to the work of the Education Department or the Health Department or the Public Transport Department in delivering services then we’ve failed. So it’s about value creation, and it’s also about a recognition that in the complex, multi-faceted world we live in, you have to rely on distributed authority, rather than one source of authority.”

DPC needs to be honest with itself that it doesn’t know everything, he explains.

“I’m very keen on the idea of DPC being a synthesiser, having full grasp of the strategic context, being able to bear multiple perspectives, being able to reconcile different views,” he says.

“I’m also pretty drawn to the idea of intelligence being around the application of logic and evidence and reasoning, and it has a significant component of learning in it, so you should never assume you know everything. If our operation is partly about recognising that knowledge resides everywhere else, and — some would say — authority resides with us, then it’s a bit about DPC surrendering its authority, and agencies surrendering their knowledge, all for a common end.”

‘It’s important not to overplan your career’

A public service career is about more than just a race to the top, Eccles suggests.

“Aspiration and ambition are always commendable attributes,” he argues, “but I think that it’s important not to overplan your career, and to allow the heart to dominate when choices occur between where the head and the heart lie with different options.

“I think the most important thing is to look for interesting and quality work with interesting and quality people from whom you can learn and with whom you can have a laugh.”

He agrees with Adam Fennessy, secretary of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, that “if you want to become a secretary, you probably haven’t got the right frame of mind.”

“You’ve got to find your own way,” Eccles argues. “I’m not saying people should never aspire to the role, but not to the point of it being an obsession.”

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