What Chris Moraitis learned from 5 years of constant organisation change

By Harley Dennett

Wednesday February 21, 2018

AGD secretary Chris Moraitis

The head of the Attorney General’s Department shares his secrets to leading organisational change.

Public sector organisations are rapidly reinventing themselves. Between technology in constant flux, science and demographics warning big challenges ahead, and global and domestic affairs drawing governments in new directions, there’s enough need to do so.

This is where Chris Moraitis was an outstanding choice to kick off this year’s IPAA ACT secretary series. Before taking up the responsibilities of secretary of the Attorney General’s Department, from almost the very moment of reaching Band 3 in Foreign Affairs and Trade, Moraitis has been leading a near-constant series of machinery of government changes. There was AusAID re-merging with DFAT, the Australian Government Solicitor from an enterprise back into the public service, then Arts briefly coming in, then out of AGD, and now Home Affairs shaking everything up again.

We’ll have the video of the talk to share shortly, but for now, here are some of the highlights from what Moraitis has learned about how organisations can deal with change.

How organisations deal with change

These changes don’t come easily, Moraitis notes, recalling that some DFAT officials were still complaining the 1987 merger of Trade and Foreign Affairs departments was a big failure.

While leaders grapple with the big questions of change, it can also destabilise an organisation’s own sense of itself, and that’s where Moraitis says a few key pillars can help individuals at all levels navigate the change, “so they can see and subscribe to the contours of that entity as it evolves. They can see themselves as a contributor and co-creator.”

The pillars Moraitis focuses on are mission, people and culture. They are intermeshed, and you can’t talk about mission without culture and people:

“When I was High Commissioner for PNG, it was an interesting environment to work in. People brought they families and children, and it’s a quite challenging environment for a variety of reasons. In terms of my approach there, the first priority is the safety of our people. The second priority is the wellbeing of our people. The third priority is ensuring priorities one and two are done efficiency and effectively, and be seen to be done. And the fourth thing is our policy mission achievement. Because in my view, you can’t have policy priorities without people feeling safe. The First Secretary isn’t going to write that cable about political developments in Port Moresby if they’re worried about if their child is going to be safe coming home from school that day.”

People: the human dimension

Structural realignments can’t be dealt with on the papers, Moraitis warns. People can feel lost during change, so it must start with a genuine commitment to communication: what’s happening, why, and where we want to be at the end of the process: “Communicate, communicate communicate … and when you think you’ve had enough of communicating, you’re probably getting the point where the message is starting to get through and the communicating is being effective.”

Other tips Moraitis offered about change communication:

  • Communicate in real time. Don’t allow any delays between the formulation of an idea and the effects of that.
  • If you don’t know all the details, be up front and say so — including the Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns. For most people that’s a positive to learn the boss doesn’t know everything.
  • Don’t have separate narratives: where the official story and what people are actually working on are different. Have a consistent, true genuine narrative about what’s happening.
  • Create channels for two-way communication. That means listening, seeing what can be done about what’s been raised and communicating back in response to those questions.
  • Share the organising principles with staff from day one. They map the general direction, and become genuine reference points as you arbitrate future decisions.

However, don’t let strategy blind you to the importance of the detail. Moraitis warns that a significant number of staff will need those areas to be addressed that not doing so could cause problems.

Culture: the critical path to success in any organisation

Culture is the sinew of whether an entity thrives or just muddles through or even whether it fails. “It’s what allows organisations and people weather the storm, because having fostered engagement and trust, culture has also engendered a commitment to getting things done … it means the organisation and people know instinctively that everyone is is working to achieve an outcome and it’s the right outcome at all levels of the process. It’s also the disinfectant against cynicism, distrust, apathy. These emotions can be the most toxic in any process.”

Moraitis hit back at the somewhat popular belief that culture is abstract and unverifiable: “You can see it in measured levels of staff engagement though staff surveys and census, satisfaction ratings, metrics on whether the workforce is proud of their employer and encourages others to join…” The public sector is competing for talent in the workforce, and if you’re getting that talent then the culture that’s also measurable.

There are so many areas of culture that come up time and again in the public sector, but the three areas that Moraitis wanted to highlight today were:

  • an inclusive work culture, premised on leadership fostering a diverse workforce;
  • fearless collaboration and teamwork and an environment that fosters trust and respect; and
  • incubating people to be bold and try new approaches without fear of failure and a measured appreciation of risk.

Upcoming IPAA ACT events


Most of the Canberra-based IPAA events have been selling out quickly, but more events next month are opening up tickets in the next few days:

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