What really bothers your secretary

By Harley Dennett

Friday March 23, 2018

Public service chiefs answer what is their greatest leadership challenge, and how to build a coalition for change.

Dr Heather Smith, secretary of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science kicked off a new series of conversations in Canberra, hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia, about thinking ahead for the APS.

There are whispers of a new APS200-like reform program in the works, and The Mandarin will be reporting more on Smith’s initial contribution at the Doing Policy Differently forum, and the rest of these conversations in the coming days, weeks and months.

For today, here are some of the more practical responses to questions from policymakers to their secretaries about their greatest leadership challenges and how to build a coalition for change.

Smith was joined by Blair Comley, former chief of several Commonwealth departments including Climate Change, most recently head of the NSW public service, and now at Port Jackson Partners; David Thodey, former Telstra CEO, now CSIRO chair and one half of the team reviewing the Public Governance Performance and Accountability (PGPA) Act; and Frances Adamson, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and IPAA president.

Smith’s challenges: communication and evaluation

The industry portfolio chief says her biggest challenges are measuring what’s working and then communicating that to those who need to know. There are “great things” going on in innovation and science, Smith says, but what hasn’t been easy is communicating that and helping their ministers communicate that “given the cross-cutting forces that we have.”

It starts with evaluation, Smith says. What is the impact of what the department does? “We really do change people’s lives with the things that we do … but we’ve got to get out of this insider conversation, and make it a bit more of an outsider conversation.

“Communication and evaluation are what I’ve been talking about inside my department, because that’s how we become effective and have impact.”

Comley’s challenge: diversity of thought

The former NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary left unfinished business when he departed last year, Comley says. Specifically the diversity agenda within the department, but not in terms of gender, where they had already hit exceeded 50% of SES were women, including at Band 3 level.

He had started to look at the broader questions of diversity including thinking styles, experience diversity, and network diversity that allow people can bring different ideas to work.

“We’re mostly analytical types who want to use evidence to drive policy. When I was in the department of climate change, we got all the SES to do the team management index. One of the dimensions on the team management is the analytical/belief-based. We’re 100% analytical. A consultant said that’s not unusual. Almost no one gets to the SES of APS unless they’re analytical.

“Analytical are convinced by data, evidence. The belief-based people are convinced by whether it aligns with their general values, and in particular, do they trust the messenger, are they aligned with the messenger. Now, 60% of the population are belief-based. So we have a group thinking about policy that is not aligned, that is quite different from the group that they’re trying to take on a change management journey.

“I had a someone saying ‘I can explain climate change … here’s a graph.’ I said stop: you’ve just alienated 50% of the room. 50% of the room didn’t like maths when they were at school, they don’t like it now. It doesn’t matter what’s on that chart, they’re annoyed.”

At the time, EL2s in the department were 50% belief-based and 50% analytical.

Comley says they weren’t thinking enough about how to do change management.

“You can either think about this as a policy change or an internal change. Our lack of diversity — not all those traditional measures — but the way we approach problems, and the makeup of who we are, was a barrier to making good things.

“You can compensate for that perhaps by your engagement process, by your consultation, but there is no substitute for having a dissenting person in the room that says ‘that just doesn’t resonate with me because of that’.”

How do you do change: build a coalition, and a compelling case

Comley warns not to underestimate how strong the status quo is.

“Building a coalition for change is a much harder challenge than you think,” he says.

“What people typically do when they leave university is this: I’ve got a problem, is start with a clean sheet of paper, what’s the objective, therefore what should I do, or where do I start from and what’s my transition plan. The general public does not start there. They start from the current state of affairs and give me a compelling case why I should change.”

David Thodey, bringing in commercial experience, thinks technological disruption will need significant buy-in to be managed well. In particular, he thinks middle management is more likely than front line workers to be disrupted by innovation and technology.

Asked what advice he had for public servants pushing disruptive technologies to drive better services, Thodey suggested they need to have these conversations with stakeholders about what changes are necessary now, not in 15 years after the change has already happened. “I’m an optimist — I think there’ll be lots of new jobs created, but not everyone shares that view.”

Read more at The MandarinWhy move organisations? APS senior leaders offered their reasons.

Top image supplied by IPAA ACT.

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