Mike Mrdak shows how an experienced leader doesn’t mince words

By Harley Dennett

August 25, 2017

How to get states and territories to co-operate, is the federation working, and which agencies can’t be trusted with reform — the federal Infrastructure and Regional Development secretary pulls no punches.

Up and coming public sector leaders would find it time well spent to study the masters. Show, don’t tell is a writing technique — but quite valuable a skill for leaders, as demonstrated when Mike Mrdak took to the microphone for the latest IPAA ACT secretary address.

The secretary of the federal Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development opened with a crowd-pleasing promise: a uniquely Australian success story, one involving most members of the audience in some capacity, an opportunity to pat each other on the back. That success story was the Federation and its ongoing evolution.

What the audience got was a pitch-perfect demonstration of how to give frank and fearless advice — where the advice in this case was what the audience of mostly central agency types needed, but probably not what they wanted or expected to hear.

A view ministers need to hear

The untold Federation story, Mrdak began, is not the big dollars allocated by governments, but in long-term planning and investment reform. Rather than something unique to infrastructure, Mrdak sees that long-term perspective as a core responsibility of all public servants.

“Electoral cycles are very short, the focus of government tends to be very short,” Mrdak said. “We are the continuity and the people who have to understand what the future needs are to provide that long-term advice to government … often governments don’t want to hear our view.

“A view is not an opinion. I have lots of opinions — not worth much — but my agency has a view on the right outcome for the future. It’s informed by evidence, informed by good long-term research, and it’s all about what is the right outcome for the challenges facing the country.”

Be prepared to take forward-leaning steps to get there, ahead of the pressing public policy issues of the day. That focus is what differentiates this vocation from others, he said.

Politicians may not want to listen, acknowledged the secretary who has been appointed and re-appointed under both ALP and Coalition governments. But he had some tips for that situation — tips that revolved around the real theme of his talk: collaboration and coalition building.

Minister won’t listen? Could the same ideas get a better reception in the minister’s office if coming from an industry group? Mrdak thought it likely. So build up a shared vision with stakeholders, the minister starts hearing a consensus, and long-term goals start to also become viable as short-term steps. When done properly, he added, the community can enjoy quite substantial benefits.

‘Critical for public servants to make Federation work’

The Federation is like the APS, Mrdak observed, albeit too crisis driven. “Fragile, tired and needs care and attention but still world-class.”

The Constitution was drafted in a very different world. Rigidity built into it makes reform difficult. COAG and issues like rail coordination show that governments can make it work within the limitations of the Constitution. It goes off the rails when governments fail to invest in COAG institutions.

“If you want to see a reform agenda killed early, hand it over to the PMO, PM&C or Premier’s departments.”

“Too often governments look for the quick fix, place too much faith on financial incentives to deliver policy outcomes, or neglect the big picture in favour of local outcomes. In my view these short-sighted approaches are not investing in the Federation, actually erode the Federation and the nation.

“They leave the Federation fragile, and open to criticism that it is a model that does not serve Australians well.”

Australian governments will be judged on how effectively they manage the Federation, Mrdak notes. Good government is nine jurisdictions working together to deliver an outcome for the community, a clear understanding of the problems, and a commitment to the national interest. Above all, it requires public servants doing the hard policy work, building the evidence and sharing it freely.

“The states are not the enemy,” Mrdak says. They too can be committed to the national interest when shown good evidence, “but they’ve become experts in making the Commonwealth pay too much — we need alternative incentives.”

Where reform grows, and where it goes to die

The not-so-successful approach to the Federation is reform announced by press release, Mrdak says, frequently driven from the centre, particularly the PMO or Premier’s offices. These “can’t bring the states, territories, or community with them. Perhaps these days, always driven by the need to be campaign mode, elected officials at every level of government are seen to be doing something, anything, even if it isn’t actually achieving a great deal.

“Also, the centralisation of these issues in my view kills the issue very early. If you want to see a reform agenda killed early, hand it over to the PMO, PM&C or Premier’s departments, and you’ll not see it ever come to fruition.”

“The only way you’ll see reform is when it’s driven by line agencies, and the coordination is done at the centre, but the hard work is done in the line area. Often the Commonwealth and also the state governments don’t draw enough value from the expertise of their line agencies. Reform led by central agencies usually founders quite early because it doesn’t have buy-in from line agencies across the jurisdictions and is often driven too much by the Treasury focus on where the dollars go.”

“A central approach often doesn’t engage the states enough on agreeing to the problems. It too quickly moves away from identifying the need for reform and valuing the state contribution, into a discussion around dollars. When you get to the dollars it’s often combative and not cooperative and that’s why we need to do much better in how we manage our reform agenda across the public service, both federally and with the states.”

“That’s why line agencies must have a view, because only they have the relationships that make this work.”


Video of this IPAA secretary series event was produced by contentgroup.

Upcoming IPAA events in Canberra

  • September 7Dr Gordon de Brouwer’s valedictory address. Dr de Brouwer will step down from his role as Secretary of the Department of the Environment and Energy and IPAA ACT President on Friday 8 September 2017, after 30 years’ public service. Prior to his term as Secretary, he was an Associate Secretary with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and was also the Prime Minister’s G20 sherpa. His career has included roles with The Treasury, the Reserve Bank of Australia and as Professor of Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU. Dr de Brouwer was awarded a Public Service Medal in 2011 for outstanding public service in the development of international economic policy.
  • November 15: IPAA 2017 National Conference in Canberra. In a ‘post truth’ world, business-as-usual isn’t cutting it. The rules are being rewritten.
    Trust in government, our institutions and the corporate sector is diminishing – even as we expect them to do more.


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