Even as we increasingly embrace high tech, “people-to-people connections still remain so important”, says Victorian Public Sector Commissioner Paul Grimes. He chats about leadership, flexibility and growing up in remote areas.
Dr Paul Grimes has had a long career across several agencies and jurisdictions.
He’s been at his current job heading up the Victorian Public Sector Commission since January. As Agriculture secretary, he famously fell out with his then-minister Barnaby Joyce over integrity questions surrounding the latter’s conduct.
Armed with three economics degrees, he spent a long time in the budgetary agencies.
“For a very significant chunk of my career I probably would have been typecast as the traditional Treasury and Finance bureaucrat, which of course is exactly what I was,” he tells The Mandarin.
“How can we take the learnings of what we’re doing well and then spread them among the public service as a whole?”
Across all his different workplaces — which have also included Commonwealth Treasury and Finance, SA Treasury and the ACT Treasury, as well as lecturing briefly at the ANU — Grimes believes the common thread is “people”.
“I think back over my career and the thing that comes to mind is experiences of working with people, working in teams. The camaraderie that comes with good teams that are sometimes doing some difficult things,” he says.
Grimes jokes that he’s worried about coming across as a “geek”. It’s clear he’s passionate about public policy.
“I’ve always found the jobs I’ve done in the public service interesting and engaging. All of them,” he explains.
“I do think it is one of those secrets to a happy life. If you can get engaged in the work you’re doing, that’s a terrific thing, and I’ve fortunately been blessed with really becoming very engaged in the issues I’ve worked on.”
His advice to younger public servants is to “keep your mind open to the different possibilities” and “be prepared to try new things”.
“I never expected that I’d become incredibly engaged in the world of environmental regulation — absolutely loved it. Never expected that the world of agricultural policy would be an area I’d spend time in — absolutely loved it as well.”
Distance and technology
It all started with an interest in policy early in high school, when even keeping up with the news was challenging in some of the remote places he lived. Often it was only a fortnightly shipment of newspapers or shortwave radio that linked him to the outside world.
Meeting as we were on the day Malcolm Turnbull was ousted from the prime ministership, he remembered another period of political turmoil during his time living on Christmas Island:
“If you were following events like the events today you would have been having to tune into a shortwave radio. In fact I can recall listening to the dismissal in 1975 over shortwave radio.”
Reflecting on his move from Canberra to Melbourne, geographical distance comes up again.
“In this modern day and age we keep talking about new technology and how new technology is going to change the way in which we work.
“And it is changing the way in which we work — but at the end of the day people-to-people connections still remain so important. They can really have an impact and influence on the way people and organisations work,” says the commissioner.
“Here in the VPS you’ve got all the departments quite closely located next to each other, in a geographically compact area. I really do think that’s quite a strength for the VPS. It facilitates greater engagement, and I think it’s one of the things that underpins that strongly collegiate ethos of the VPS.”
Another strength of the Victorian Public Service is that, unlike in Canberra, there is only one enterprise agreement. This means staff are paid similar rates across departments.
“You don’t have the complexity that the Commonwealth faces with those multiple enterprise agreements across departments, then overlaying that with machinery of government changes and the challenges that presents for senior leaders within the APS,” he says.
A servant leader
Grimes conceptualises the role of the Victorian Public Sector Commission as that of a servant leader that can facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing about best practice.
“Something we see as being very important … is our role knitting together the work that’s being done across departments,” he explains.
“For us as a commission what’s really important is effective engagement — engaging well, being outward-focused, and seeing the commission as an institution that supports and promotes new approaches being adopted by departments and us learning from each other. How can we take the learnings of what we’re doing well and then spread them among the public service as a whole?”
Earlier this year, the VPSC released a strategic plan to guide its activities to 2020. Its four headline priorities are promoting workforce reform, developing outstanding leaders, promoting a diverse and inclusive culture, and improving public trust. Grimes adds to that list promoting greater participation of people with disability in the public sector.
The commission will soon be launching a new executive education program for EO3s — equivalent to the Commonwealth Band 1 — which will be followed by programs for other executive levels. It will be a 12 month course, breaking away from the model of sending everyone away together for a few days.
It’s about “having something that’s sustained and focused over a 12-month period that allows executives to be able to integrate the work that they’re doing through that program with their real-life work,” he says.
Modelling for culture change
Grimes is happy the VPS is making progress on flexible work, but concedes that policies are not always carrying through into practice.
“It is something we have to keep working on. It is longer term cultural change. It’s changes in the way our organisations operate, and finding new ways to ensure we really are promoting flexibility within our organisations,” Grimes explains.
“It’s culture change, working with middle managers. It’s embracing technology, and making sure we have the infrastructure to support more flexible ways of working, and embracing that in more mature ways.”
He paid tribute to former secretary Adam Fennessy‘s efforts to demonstrate that flexibility was possible, both as a man and a senior leader.
“One of the things I think is really important is modelling the success stories within each of our departments, so really taking that approach of getting the success and then spreading the success over time,” he says.
“As you see in the lived experience that flexible work can provide those dividends in terms of better wellbeing for workers in the public sector, better wellbeing for all of us, better outcomes, better performance, and as you can see that can be done very well, some of the resistance to change or concern about change will start to evaporate away.”