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Soft skills are now hard skills, and other career advice for public servants

‘After enlightenment, the laundry’ is one ex-secretary’s career advice. Adam Fennessy gives his tips for dealing with ministers and making yourself heard in a bureaucracy — plus why he left the public service.

Following your policy or service idea through to delivery might not seem as exciting as designing it, but embracing implementation is how real difference is made in the public sector, says former Victorian government secretary Adam Fennessy.

Speaking about his career advice for young public servants at the ‘MBA in a day’ event in Melbourne last month, the former Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning boss pointed to the proverb: “After enlightenment, the laundry”.

“You often have these amazing times in government — local, state or federal — where you come up with this great new policy, you might get it through the council or cabinet, but the real work starts with the implementation,” he explained.

“Implementation has to be one of the more boring words in government, but it’s critical, along with service delivery and knowing what your communities, your rate payers, want.”

While designing policy is often seen as more glamorous, implementation is what makes a difference to communities, he argues. “To me that’s the laundry. And you have to do the laundry every day.”

He also recommended public servants follow Barry Humphries’ advice — gleaned from Dame Edna gigs that went off the rails due to audience drunkenness — to “drive into the skid”.

Push against your own discomfort, says Fennessy. This is one piece of advice he recently took himself, leaving the public service after 20 years to give consulting a go.

“I was really loving my job, and if you love what you do, that’s a good time to think: what’s next?” he explained.

“To me it’s a good question to ask yourself: am I challenging myself? Am I getting a diversity of thought and sectoral experience? Some of the best teams I’ve worked with in government have a real mix in people’s backgrounds and skills.”

From essays to sticky notes

He also urged listeners to “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”

Your policy idea might be great, but it will go much further if you’re able to judge the timing and act accordingly. Don’t give up hope that the time for your policy will come. “Stick to your guns and stick to your evidence base,” he recommended.

It’s not just timing — the ability to adapt the framing and presentation of your advice to suit the needs of the minister or executive is important.

“Ministers and public servants are people too,” he says.

“Put yourself into the shoes of the person you’re advising, work out what is their preferred style of getting advice, and try to do that.

“Some ministers I’ve worked with like really detailed advice … there was another minister who used to like advice pretty much on a yellow sticky note.”

And when it comes to making recommendations, “it’s always good to have a few options”.

“It acknowledges that there’s never one answer to any particular issue. It also gives the person you’re working with to come and have a conversation,” he thinks.

“Giving someone a list of options so they can come into that conversation, rather than saying, ‘I’m independent and fiercely objective and here’s my advice, take it or leave it.’ That to me is not a good way to get a good outcome.”

Soft skills under-rated

The importance of being able to judge context and emotion is one of the reasons he pushed for so-called “soft skills” — communication, collaboration, culture, emotional intelligence — to be more widely recognised as a key skillset.

“Soft skills are now hard skills,” Fennessy argues.

“The most brilliant idea in the world sitting in the bottom draw that you cannot make connect to others is not going to go anywhere. It stays in the bottom drawer. If you work with others, collaborate, you’re open to others’ ideas, you’re vulnerable about the fact that you don’t know everything, you’re far more likely to get somewhere.”

It’s these people skills that make it possible to have tough conversations with a minister or an executive.

“To me it’s very important to go back to the facts and give your advice. It’s also important to have some empathy. That’s why I think EQ is so critical as a skill,” he says.

There are lots of ways to influence decision making, but the elevator pitch is a key one to keep in the back pocket.

“Often you’ll find councillors, ministers going to do a radio interview, and you might be there, or your manager might be there, and they’ll often just say ‘quick tell me what this is about, what do I say?’

“So don’t underestimate the depth of your advice, research and succinct pitch. I learned over many years how critical that is as a tool. It’s certainly not the only tool, because it needs to crystallise the core advice you’re giving, but it’s a really important tool to connect with community and ministers.”

Community engagement’s flow-on effects

Doing the hard yards on community engagement will often make your job easier in the long run, too.

“Ministers and councillors are ultimately voted in by rate payers and citizens. If you’ve got a really good engaged community strategy, you’ve worked really hard, you’ve done consultation and you know the broader community generally supports you, that’s going to be really important to those ministers. That’s their stakeholder group,” he notes.

“That’s why over time particularly at DELWP the more we could devolve and engage our processes with the community, the more the community would be genuinely on board. And you can say to ministers, we’ve spoken to this group, this group, this group, there’s generally support for this, there’s not for that — that lowers their risk.

“Again it’s just thinking about their context, but more importantly, direct community engagement leads to a much higher quality service outcome or policy outcome.”

‘Work for good people’

And while it can be hard to ignore rank in the public service, Fennessy’s advice is to do a job you enjoy.

“Work for good people, not money or titles. That’s an old one,” he argues.

“When I started my career I went in as a graduate in the Commonwealth Public Service, a lot of people were straight away trying to get to the next role. Sometimes you could get another job, but you’d think, I’m not actually interested in this but it’s the next level up.

“I learned over the years that if you know of good people and have an alignment with their values, in the public sector almost anything is interesting when you get into it. You’re more likely to enjoy what you’re doing, you’re more present, you do good things, you’re going to be more influential.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.