When something works, works well — and you know why — stick with it.
That seems to be the prudent, logical and fairly obvious rationale behind the elevation of Transport chief Tim Reardon to the top of the New South Wales public service by Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Friday.
In a state that chews-up and spits out service delivery ministers as a staple dish of breakfast radio, it’s an essential survival skill to have people in charge that can not only see and avert disasters before they arrive, but sing the success of reform as it occurs.
Of all the tough portfolios in NSW, Transport would have to be at the top. Not just because of the massive investment and Herculean project management skills involved, but because when it goes wrong millions of people complain and hold their negative experience against you.
During an epic winter in opposition, Glady Berejikian honed her reputation as a formidable Transport shadow not through cheap shots and shrill grabs but as a relentless critic of systemic deficiency, chronic underinvestment and moribund culture that had set the state back decades.
Just as importantly, she usually had solutions to suggest, even if they often never made it into countless stories detailing the miserable series of scandals that was public transport. Remember t-card? Most don’t because in 10 years it never eventuated.
In that time, the woman with an encyclopaedic memory who is now Premier pushed hard into the detail of a fractured and run down portfolio she ultimately came to master and rebuild as a Transport Minister. Bureaucrats coming underprepared did so at their own peril.
Transporting a metaphor
New South Wales, and Sydney in particular, isn’t just renewing transport infrastructure, it’s basically building a series of whole new networks on top of the existing ones across rail, roads, trams and anything else that seems to be able to move.
What people frequently forget is that this carefully orchestrated upheaval (which is a visual mess) isn’t just about the daily commute; it’s a case study in mass communication at both physical and messaging levels.
When millions of everyday people don’t get the message or don’t understand what’s happening in the transport system it grinds to halt. It’s no accident that everything from public announcements to wayfinding signage to the placement of rubbish bins is all heavily tested and validated for effectiveness.
People with experience from existing mass transit systems have also been imported, sometimes from the UK and sometimes permanently. New South Wales did effectively buy the Transport for London blueprint, but that’s not such a dumb thing.
Look at it this way. In Transport expectation setting and management isn’t an art form, it’s literally an applied science used every day. Stand back from the platform. Allow passengers to alight.
Just stare at one of the miles of fences dividing George Street as it’s pulled apart for a new light rail and you’ll get a message about the end point of the struggle: turn up and go.
Contrast that with some of the more questionable claims made during Mike Baird’s policy reversals or craters — council mergers and banning greyhound racing — and the rationale for putting a transport wonk in charge of the public service comes into focus pretty quickly.
Apply the same skills and rigour — which will mean turfing dud ideas rather acquiescing for expediency — to areas like health, education, environment, social services and economic development and long term success should come from good planning and disciplined implementation. At least that seems to be the theory. And at least it’s based on experience.
In Transport Reardon demonstrated he could not only manage and unite once bitterly Balkanised tribes, but do so behind a common purpose for the good of the people and the state.
A big part of that was harnessing the public’s desire for improvement, which created a social license for change that included reforming one of most heavily industrialised workforces in Australia so they felt they were an integral part of the bargain.
If Reardon can apply the same discipline, agility and forbearance across the NSW public service as the head of DPC to make it continue to rise to contemporary challenges, the fortunes of the government will likely rise with it.
For those hungry for conspicuous progress, the trick will be knowing where to apply the brakes to ambition to keep reform on the rails across all portfolios.
Just ask anyone now trying to benchmark the so-called savings and efficiencies of local government mergers and bowl them up as success.