Big critter: Chris Eccles’ doubling of ‘unconventional’ DPC

By David Donaldson

Monday February 13, 2017

Things are changing at Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet.

Walking through the halls at 1 Treasury Place, A4 sheets of paper mark out room names. Temporary walls block off some areas.

Excusing the “weird looking corridor”, departmental secretary Chris Eccles explains the office is being renovated to facilitate collaboration and embed new work practices that have proven successful.

It’s been a bit over a year since the department’s 20 or so executive directors — the people who sit below deputy secretary level — were relieved of direct line responsibilities and given the opportunity to “work on some of our more compelling projects”. It’s a “freeing up of intellectual capital” he hadn’t seen done before, says Eccles.

“There was a sense that the directors, who are responsible for the teams that drive the briefing machine that is DPC, found that extra level of management to be slightly constraining and it wasn’t utilising this collective resource of highly, highly capable people,” he recalls.

“The trick is not to conceive it in terms of core and outer … professionalise every part of DPC so that they’re all as capable as those that do more mainstream policy work.”

“It’s been so successful it’s led to us designing the workplace to enable that latent potential and strength to be given more expression.”

The office is being rebuilt around the idea of activity-based working, “to maximise the opportunity for collaborative input”.

It’s a similar redesign to the one he commissioned but did not remain to see in NSW — though that one was a little easier, as the NSW department was moved to a new building. By all accounts the shift up in Sydney has been “terrific”, he says.

Meeting rooms in the 50-something year old, grey precast concrete building overlooking Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens are being constructed to incorporate “electronic support for the latest in technology to enable them to throw up ideas on the board and then email around the ideas”. Additional stairs are being added to ensure a free flow of people between different floors.

“It’s just so important to facilitate that common exchange,” Eccles thinks. “We have limits to what we can do here, but we’ll give it a crack.”

Those changes build on the restructuring of what were clustered working groups dividing policy development and briefing responsibilities into different areas, spreading responsibility for policy across themed divisions and helping align DPC’s setup more closely to the new government’s priorities.

Instead of a separate policy and strategy unit, Eccles created groups responsible for social policy reform and state productivity and economic reform.

“The idea that within a premier’s department there is an area that is charged with policy and strategy and then there are other parts of the department — my view is that policy and strategy are the responsibility of everyone,” Eccles explains.

Tackling big challenges

It’s not just the furnishings that are changing. In two years the number of people working at DPC has doubled, from around 400 to just over 800.

The department has been accumulating responsibilities. The drive to hire staff to implement the Victorian government’s family violence reforms involved the single largest recruitment exercise in the history of DPC. This has led to the department’s first expansion out of 1 Treasury Place, with two floors of new staff working out of an office tower around the corner.

Many of these jobs won’t remain in DPC long-term, but there’s plenty of work to be done for the moment as Victoria works to implement all 227 recommendations of the state’s royal commission into family violence.

The department is currently in the process of recruiting someone to set up its new Victorian Centre for Data Insights, a new unit that will work on some of the major problems in the Victorian government’s use of data — though it’s unclear at this point how hands on the centre will be in dealing with other departments.

“We’re a quite unconventional first minister’s department because of our responsibilities within the department. We do equality, women’s affairs, veterans’ affairs, multicultural and social cohesion and Aboriginal affairs, as well as the integrity agencies and public sector ICT. So there’s the core of what is a conventional DPC and then there’s this other part to the department,” says Eccles.

Being such a “big critter” can present some challenges. “The trick is not to conceive it in terms of core and outer,” he notes, adding that it’s important to “professionalise every part of DPC so that they’re all as capable as those that do the more mainstream policy work.”

Victoria vs the rest

Eccles is understandably coy when asked if he has any insights into how governance differs between the three states in which he’s now led premier’s departments — Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.

Opting to stick to the place he’s working in now, Eccles suggests the most noticeable things are the Victorian Secretaries Board and the state’s robust and vigorous cabinet system. “I was lucky to inherit at least two elements of governance that are as good I’ve seen anywhere,” he says.

He puts the success of the cabinet system down to both political culture and formal structure.

“If you deconstruct the cabinet process, it’s built on two things: one is the confidentiality of the deliberations of cabinet. The other is that the information has before it is the best information available. That means everyone who should have an opportunity to make a contribution to decisionmaking, both within the political class and the public service, has that opportunity, and those views are properly taken into account. And where those views are not supported, that is apparent,” he says.

“The transparency around the policy development process and how that’s expressed in cabinet and cabinet documentation is really, really important. I come back to the fact that the system in Victoria is particularly strong.”

And how does he think Victoria now compare to the glory days of the National Reform Agenda, where, under premier Steve Bracks, it harnessed for itself the mantle of the smart — others would say pushy — state?

Eccles was, in fact, around to witness part of the period himself. He joined the department in 2007, then under the leadership of Terry Moran. As the Howard years rolled on without a clear agenda, Victoria decided to push for national reform, with DPC as the linchpin of policy development. The state, and DPC in particular, projected itself as an ideas factory, leading change in areas such as social policy and productivity.

Although the National Reform Agenda was a “marvellous initiative”, he says, it was born of a particular set of circumstances– there’s less of an appetite now for “an overt positioning of Victoria as being the home of all good ideas.”

Instead there’s “more of a recognition that through our policy reform, whether it’s in relation to the family violence reform initiatives, the data insights agency or the application of behavioural insights, that we make a contribution to the pool of ideas that are available nationally, rather than trying to stake out something as a unique marker of our mission.”

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