2018 Helen Williams Oration: Ann Sherry on opportunities for women in the public sector

By Ann Sherry

August 28, 2018

The inaugural Helen Williams Oration was delivered by Ann Sherry, chairman, Carnival Australia in Canberra on August 23, 2018.

The Oration was hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia and introduced by Frances Adamson, the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and IPAA ACT President. She was joined by Glenys Beauchamp, the Secretary of the Department of Health, for a conversation on stage after the Oration.

It’s an honour to deliver the inaugural Helen Williams Oration and particularly pleased to be the first speaker in the women in leadership series.

Together we honour Helen as a groundbreaker in becoming the first female secretary of a federal department. I remember her as the Education secretary, personally engaging with people across the sector and arguing the case for widespread reform. And then as secretary of the Department of Tourism when such a beast existed!

It was impressive seeing one of the few female faces at executive levels, under much scrutiny, and out and about at the pointy end of change. She changed the sense of possibility for women in the public sector – “you can’t be what you can’t see”. She copped flack for only taking 6 months maternity leave and the term ‘femocrat’ was coined to describe her!

In paying tribute to Helen, we implicitly recognize the public sector as a groundbreaker in providing opportunities for women. When Helen was appointed there were no female CEOs in Australia – business had yet to make that leap, to be courageous enough to do so, because it does take courage. (interestingly of course when businesses did shift, they recruited many women executives here in Canberra, including me.)

This evening we celebrate women as leaders, as achievers and change makers. Helen was a quiet but forceful change agent – a leader of change to be celebrated.

I want to share with you some of my experiences as a change agent. I’m passionate about women driving change, whether at the helm of a department or as CEO of a business. I’m passionate about people. People in the organisation. People as customers. People in the community.

I’m also a passionate optimist about the future and the power of inclusion to shape the future of Australia.

So why did I join the public sector?

My start came after I graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in politics and economics and started looking for a role that could give me opportunities, or at least a job! But this was my first reality check on the strict boundaries that applied to opportunity at the time.

The job ads in the courier mail were classified as “men and boys” and “women and girls”. The former, as you’d expect, offered a diversity of jobs, of all pay scales, and spanning multiple sectors. The other? Limited and poorly paid jobs, most of them part time – “women’s work” as it was defined then.

I decided the public service was where I belonged. I applied via the main entry door – the public service exam. Today the exam seems like a quaint relic of long lost days, but essentially it measured your performance, gave you a ranking and matched you to the needs of the service. It was gender blind. And merit based. Once you got through the test, you were offered placements, then you could apply for jobs across the public service.

Is that really a relic? When you consider the exam as part of a talent system as a whole, was it a system ahead of its time and still relevant? Let’s return to that in a moment.

I became a graduate in the graduate program of the federal department of productivity, a new department, and the following years in the public sector gave me some amazing opportunities that I would never have had otherwise.

My passion for change was certainly well met – and I also learned you can make change at any level. You don’t have to be a CEO!

As the head of the office of pre-school and childcare in the Victorian government my challenge was to reform the children’s services systems, drawing together its many parts, which were disparate and disconnected. The system was out of date, broken really, and not able to serve the people who needed it most – the children and their parents – particularly working parents.

Later in Canberra as head of the office of the status of women my role was at a broader, federal policy level, improving the status – the opportunities – for women, ensuring women were accounted for in government decision making. The office gave women a policy voice at a micro and macro level. – and we produced the women’s budget to ensure public accountability.

The lessons from these years was that change happens when the time is right, or made to be right, and when it’s driven by strong leadership. It involves thinking about things differently. Being courageous, and taking the risk. Having ministers who are not risk averse also helps – a challenge of current times.

Sharing value with communities

Now I think about driving change more broadly – it is really about creating shared value. Companies prosper when customers get value and communities get value from the changes you make.

My time at Westpac in the late 1990s helped develop my belief in shared value as we moved from having the worst reputation in Australia to being no. 1 on the corporate reputation index. It was a journey lasting a decade and a journey that saw the business double and the share price grow even more — even more astonishing — the most significant changes were introducing paid maternity leave in the private sector and community engagement particularly with indigenous and rural communities.

In 2007, in a totally different industry, Carnival Australia was recovering from severe reputational damage. A coronial inquiry was underway after the death of a passenger and we were the tele front page day after day. Some advised we should rebrand the cruise line altogether or close it down.

Rather than rebrand, the challenge was to return to giving customers what they wanted – a great cruise holiday – and focus on how we could deliver it and fix the issues the inquest identified. At the same time, we needed to build the future of the business with the people we impacted – the communities we were visiting in the south pacific.

We particularly needed to bring our communities along with us in our transformation, given the impact – good and bad – that a large cruise ship can have when it arrives on an island, in the short and long term.

Three things are paramount to our transformation

One is, we want people to want us to come – that creates a great customer experience.

The second is the places we go should be better as a result of us visiting, not worse. Our legacy must be to bring value to those communities, through things they wouldn’t have otherwise had – jobs, businesses, services.

Third is our obligation to share knowledge and information and perhaps find new opportunities – perhaps via partnerships.

For instance, creating jobs in the pacific for the long term, in hospitality, that wouldn’t be there.

The shared value is that people as a result of your engagement will get real jobs. That changes people’s lives and community wealth.

Ultimately companies only do well when the communities in which they operate do well.

We have a partnership with DFAT creating innovation in how to deliver aid to the pacific – the innovation exchange. We were the first company to sign a MOU five years ago and I have no qualms in saying it was hard work.

Despite the desire, we spoke different languages. We operated in quite different timeframe. Our speed of decision-making was completely different. We had to learn a lot about each other.

Our people in Carnival had to comprehend the concept of “the minister’s office wants”, and DFAT had to understand we couldn’t wait for months while documents were reviewed, revised, approved to get things signed off. Our way was to just do it.

The learning on both sides was worth it because we agreed that what we were trying to achieve was better than different pockets of money appearing in the one small location, trying to do the same thing, only differently. Better to collaborate.

Collaboration though takes work, and it takes understanding and it takes time. Essentially, it’s time to build trust, perhaps the most valuable commodity of all. The more we understand each other, the better relationship we have, and better the outcomes.

Again, it’s the people that are at the heart of change.

People and the APS

It comes as no surprise – and I’m pleased to see – that people are embedded in the mission to transform the APS.

Several of the objectives of the APS review seek to improve the service’s talent base and modernise the way government engages the community and provides services.

“Collaborating with the community, business and citizens” to tackle complex challenges is one – essentially that’s listening to and partnering with your community.

“Improving citizens’ experience of government” is another. This is being close to your customer – knowing them – so that you can develop the services people are asking for, and most importantly in this era of technology, how to deliver them.

A third is “acquiring and managing the necessary skills and expertise” needed to fulfil your responsibilities. A biggie. Attracting and keeping people – it’s paramount to your success.

The review has other broad objectives, relating to the economy, policy, and foreign and security interests among others, but looking at these through the prism of people, how do you achieve them?

Some thoughts.

The community – please engage!

To borrow the mantra from the Clinton era, it’s the community, stupid! We have to engage, engage and engage.

The world is changing rapidly, the need for information and understanding of government is changing with it. Community expectations of their government are shifting resulting in a disconnect between government and people.

Technology gives government the ability to listen to the community in ways not previously possible, or even imaginable, and it’s something to be embraced rather than frightened by. The people who have commonly complained of their voice “not being heard” can be given multiple channels to voice their information, ideas, opinions, recommendations.

Technological tools enable government to reach the people who might not necessarily be tuned into politics and policies. Instead of ‘kite flying’ policy ideas via leaking to the media, we can fly our kites openly and gather views directly from people. It’s a two-way engagement, one that excludes the filters of others.

Internationally, engagement is happening on many fronts. Online portals, for instance, are enabling people to submit ideas to government, express views on challenging topics or respond to calls for information.

Citizen juries are happening as one means of decision making, with the idea being to enable groups of people to deliberate together, and reach a consensus on an issue. The cost of doing this via traditional channels has been too high to be feasible. Technology is needed.

Technology is also key to succeed in the policy of fighting fraud in the public sector. How can we fight cybercrime when we’re deficient in cyber capability?

Technology, while always enticing, poses the challenge of skills, management and cost. Government needs to understand both how the technology works, and the way people use it. One drives the other.

It’s difficult for government as it’s a completely different approach to policy making or managing service delivery and requires a shift in mindset.

But it’s really fundamental – it has to happen.

Customer experience – understand us

Next is customer experience. Understanding your customer. They want to sign in once, not every time they touch a piece of government, whether it is family benefits, Medicare, tax.

To people, it feels like they should be interacting with one government, but they encounter many different structures, beasts of bureaucracy. How many passwords and digipasses does it take?

In company terms we call it “know me”. If a customer has signed in once they expect to be known.

We find ourselves in a strange situation where the government has to find its way when it comes to openness and secrecy. At the moment when it’s about engagement it’s about secrecy. It’s ironic the government knows more about most of us than anybody else, but it can’t leverage that. Does it know anyone?

And demands are different. Older Australians are more concerned about privacy than younger Australians. Younger people and busy people want convenience and speed. Government has to balance the needs of both.

Talent for the future – attract and keep

This brings me back to my public service exam and Helen’s appointment to secretary, the question of how to attract and keep skilled people in your ranks.

In the past, government has led the way on the recognition of merit. It’s led the way in achieving gender diversity in the most senior ranks of agencies, and more broadly in the way it has attracted and managed talent well.


When the sector actually applied its own policies to itself. Merit selection panels with three people. Clarity in what the jobs were. A fair set of clear selection criteria. It was documented and managed before most companies did so. There’s a lesson there.

The public sector actually has a massive competitive advantage because it offers jobs with purpose and that resonates with people today, particularly young people. Can it build on that advantage now?

It seems the public sector is now constraining itself by choice. The recruitment of graduates, for instance, is being done at the agency level as are the salaries being offered.

There is much more store housing of talent rather than sharing of talent. This might seem sensible, but if you were a keen employee looking for new challenges and experience, would you really want to be stuck in one agency rather than being free, or encouraged, to move?


In diversity terms, if you’re trying to attract culturally and gender diverse people restricting opportunity is a dumb policy. Capable talent is in demand and mobile, they’re looking for opportunities and if it doesn’t come easily in the public sector they’ll get it elsewhere.

That warehousing was happening to me many years ago when the private sector came hunting; it would be disappointing if that’s repeated today. Beware becoming the hunting ground for the private sector and losing your most capable women. Unless of course it’s Carnival who comes looking!

The leadership group particularly needs to be diverse. Business knows that we have to reflect the community in which we operate. The more homogenous your leadership group is the fewer new ideas come to the table. It becomes self-reinforcing, not open to change!

When the former CEO of Westpac bob joss arrived in Australia, he famously looked around and said – “where are the women?”

Similarly, when our CEO Arnold Donald looked out to the Carnival world he asked, “where is the diversity?” Diversity came quickly! Within a very short period, there were three women running big brands, and two African Americans in the global leadership group. There was no African American in any leadership position until Arnold became CEO in the us.

Rather than talk rhetoric about diversity, he made it happen. That is leadership and courage!


Let me conclude with some challenges.

The challenge for the APS is to be really serious about talent management. Recognise the value of your people, what they will bring into your organization and the future they give us.

The challenge for all of you – think like a groundbreaker! Opportunities won’t be just given to you; you need to grab them. Helen Williams was a groundbreaker and we have an opportunity to build on her legacy and the legacy of people like her.

On diversity, we can’t be complacent and assume opportunity will continue in the way we have come to experience it. There are many female secretaries, but the number of women has waxed and waned.

Let’s keep opportunity on top of the agenda – and have the courage to broaden our diversity!

And the lesson in achieving change is to be more curious – relentlessly curious – about what could be done better – every day in everything we do…and then think about creating shared value in a more holistic way and measuring impact.

It’s the future.

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