Making the elephant dance: DELWP secretary John Bradley

By David Donaldson

June 5, 2018

DELWP secretary John Bradley

John Bradley is not sure if he always wanted to be a public servant, but looking back now, there were certainly hints.

“I came across a piece of artwork I’d done when I was in grade one, which was a picture of my father talking to the government on the phone,” laughs the secretary of Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

“Clearly there was some kind of odd obsession at that point with government.”

Bradley’s public sector career started out while studying public administration at the University of Queensland.

“Literally my first job was working in the mailroom, as per the cliche,” he told The Mandarin.

As a graduate he started out in emergency services, before moving to rail reform. The 1990s was “a significant period of change in that industry”, he explains. “That got me very interested in microeconomic reform generally and put me into the Treasury portfolio, and into energy and utilities work after that.”

Much of his career since then has been in those areas, though his stint as CEO at the Queensland Water Commission during the millennium drought stands out.

“Part of that was being put into a genuine crisis environment where a community of 2.8 million people was facing a water security crisis that could have seen dam levels fall below levels able to maintain sufficient supply,” he says.

Big changes had to happen to ensure the sustainability of Queensland’s water supply. The industry was restructured, new regulatory frameworks established, water saving targets introduced, and water use behaviour change campaigns undertaken.

“There was a complete change in the culture of the community with regard to water use and sustainability,” he says.

Prior to his appointment to DELWP nine months ago, taking over from Adam Fennessy, Bradley worked as director general of Queensland’s Department of Environment and Resource Management, a consulting executive to the International Monetary Fund, and CEO of energy industry peak body Energy Networks Australia.

That might sound like a disparate collection of experiences to some, but it makes sense to Bradley.

“The common theme across my work, and it’s very common for a lot of other people, is systems. When I think about the frameworks around microeconomic reform, they were a big part of my early career working in rail reform and electricity and gas,” Bradley explains.

“Find the career sweet spot between what you find rewarding and what best contributes to the community.”

“A lot of those issues were establishing systems supporting the realisation of the public policy purpose, the outcomes the consumers were after, and it wasn’t too dissimilar for me when I then went into working in water, dealing with Queensland’s water security during the millennium drought, to be thinking about the systems and institutional structures that were supporting better outcomes for consumers.

“It’s not a too different bridge then to think about the environmental portfolio and natural resource management as systems. So there are some common themes there, as odd as it might sound to have a background in utilities and environmental and natural resource management.”

Keeping an open mind and being prepared to be mobile opens many doors, he thinks. Find the career sweet spot between what you find rewarding and what best contributes to the community.

“If you’re open to applying your expertise and skills in good public policy, project management, community engagement and effective communication, those common skillsets will really allow you to go anywhere across government, but they’ll also set you up to move into other sectors and jurisdictions.”

He was also, in 2011 and 2012, director general of the Queensland Department of Premier and Cabinet.

“It’s challenging as the CEO of a government agency when you’re leading a significant department with multiple portfolio responsibilities, but it’s almost a different role again when you’re in those central agencies and you’re working with the breadth of government on collective activities.

“I worked for a minister in the past who used to refer to ‘trying to make the elephant dance’ as being the objective of a minister, and I think sometimes that the director of the Department of Premier and Cabinet has to make all the elephants dance, or help the elephants to dance.”

Diversity and breadth of mega-department

Since starting as secretary at the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, a mega-department employing over 3400 staff in 81 locations, one of the things that’s surprised Bradley has been the “diversity and breadth of the department’s touchpoint with the community”.

This includes everything from protecting the mountain pygmy possum to water catchments, the development of Melbourne, safeguarding the water supply against climate change and the operation of state forests.

Victoria has just seven departments, so many of the portfolios that would have their own agency in other jurisdictions are collected in the one structure. While it might make it difficult to remember DELWP’s full name, the mega-department approach allows for more effective coordination across policy responsibilities.

“It’s an absolute strength of the Victorian system and an absolute strength of our department that we have responsibility for such a broad set of activities that are all interrelated,” says Bradley.

It means DELWP needs to be proactive about making sure issues don’t fall between the cracks of this giant bureaucracy, but the benefits outweigh the risks.

“When we think about the potential across planning systems, water catchment management and supply, across energy, environment and climate change, local government responsibilities, and then forest fire and regional service delivery, the coordination of all those activities in a really agile way gives us the ability to deliver some great outcomes for the community at place.

“When you think about the fact that the same agency has responsibility for the government’s renewable energy targets and planning frameworks and climate change, this has to be a great opportunity for synergies across our agency.”

DELWP is currently undergoing a big shift in its working style, giving communities a stronger say on issues that affect them. Backburning is one such area.

“We’re bringing them into the planning process and making explicit to them in some way what our criteria are for how we’re going to manage planned burning and protect the community from bushfire risk — the tradeoffs and choices,” Bradley explains.

“There’s a dimension of ecological impact we need to manage really carefully, there’s community safety, then there’s issues of economic activity where you have vignerons and others who are really conscious of the impacts of planned burning and want to be carefully consulted, or tourism destinations that will have concerns if we’re not carefully engaging them in the decision-making process by which we do planned burning.

“All of those things are transforming a model of fire management and planned burning which previously was just done within the agency and just delivered to the community as an outcome to the community. It’s bringing the community in a participatory way into how we make those kinds of decisions.”

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