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Premier Steven Marshall’s address to the South Australian Public Sector

This week the South Australian Premier Steven Marshall gave his first public address to the state’s public sector at the Adelaide Convention Centre, hosted by the Institute for Public Administration Australia, SA branch. He outlined his expectations for ministerial-agency relations and emphasised the importance of traditional public sector values and conventions.


Be open. Be honest. Be accountable. Be collaborative.

These are the words that I kept close when I was running my family’s furniture business back 20 plus years ago. But I didn’t just think about them, I firmly believed in them, and I constantly practiced them because as a team we had a shared responsibility to our customers, and just as importantly to each others’ success in the business.

As a leader it was my job to motivate, to inspire to ensure that we work together to get the job done. I valued my staff, their contribution and their commitment. I wanted every one of them to be driven by a purpose, to believe in what they what they were doing and be proud of what we’re are doing each and every day. In my experience our staff felt good and they were energised so were our customers about the services and products that we were producing.

So fast forward to today, my team is now just a little bit bigger. My responsibilities are significantly greater. But my attitude as a Premier to bring open and honest and accountable and collaborative remains precisely the same.

It is an honour to give my first public address to the team I am now privileged to be responsible for: the South Australian public service. I appreciate your attendance here and I thank IPAA for the invitation to address you. I’d like to talk in the main about two things. First, the expectations that I placed on my ministerial colleagues to govern well for all South Australians. Secondly, on the role I want the public sector to play in creating a stronger and a better South Australia.

It’s the IPAA’s stated objective to champion excellence in public administration, to provide leadership in the development of a high quality and professional public sector. I’ve been Premier now or almost six months. In that time I’ve already seen a lot of evidence which confirms that South Australian public is fulfilling IPAA’s objective.

During the transition my government asked a great deal of the public service in South Australia we were eager to shoulder responsibilities bestowed on us by the people of South Australia to get on with implementing the strong plan for real change for the people of this state have voted for. We didn’t want to lose the momentum of our election result had provided. Proceeding slowly simply wasn’t an option for us. We had a clear understanding of what they wanted to achieve. These are the challenges we face, that our state face, and the strategy we wanted to employ to deliver it.

Not withstanding our energy and eagerness, as you know with any change in government there are always early complexities involved in setting up a brand new administration. On this occasion after 16 years without a change of government, this transition was perhaps even more challenging than usual.

My government had I very different priorities from its predecessor. There was a major streamlining of the ministerial portfolios. This required extensive machinery of government changes. I thank Erma Ranieri (Commissioner for Public Sector Employment) for leading the way which made it everything appear seamless to the public from the time of my swearing in as the Premier within 48 hours of the election result becoming clear. It’s marvellous how democracy works on such occasions. Erma’s experience and leadership have been invaluable to me and to the entire Cabinet. I’ll say a more about her ongoing role in just a few moments.

While bedding down the machinery of government changes by July 1, the public sector was also asked to do one very important task for me. That was to work with us to implement our One Hundred Day Plan. It was an ambitious plan closely scrutinised by journalists who, quite frankly I don’t think that they thought we had the experience or the capability to deliver. Its implementation in full could not have been achieved without the contribution of many people who are present here alongside all of your agencies.

Just last week we introduced a first state budget. It contains many more new policy initiatives and requirements for efficiencies and savings as responsible budgets always must. Agencies have been practical and professional in working through the budget process. I thank everybody for being involved in this process. So on behalf of my minister as we approach of completion of our first half-year in office, I thank the members of the public sector here in South Australia.

In my view the South Australian public sector is something that each and every South Australian can be proud of. The work done in transition and preparation of our first budget has confirmed for me that our public sector is comprised of people who are passionate about our state, and keen to make a difference for their fellow citizens.

A proper Cabinet process encourages collaboration

Before talking more about my hopes and expectations for the public sector, let me make some comments about the expectations I’ve already put on each of my ministers. Relationships between ministers and public sector agencies and the community have evolved over time. As agencies have increased in size and scope, while the complexity of their tasks and responsibilities have become ever more challenging. But there are some enduring principles that simply can’t be ignored.

The community quite rightly continues to expect the highest standards of performance and behaviour by those employed on its behalf. Now in preparations for government therefore I spent a lot of time talking to my parliamentary colleagues about ministerial conduct and the lines of responsibility and accountability at the highest levels of government. This is necessary to avoid risky or inappropriate behaviour in the public sector and provide better services to the community.

As you know, on coming to government I immediately reduced the number of ministerial portfolios from 58 to the 16 now held by our 14 minister cabinet. These changes echo my commitment to provide accountability and also simplify reporting. Agency chief executives no longer report to as many as 7 ministers under the previous regime. Now chief executives report only report to one minister. They follow natural, logical alignments. It simply makes sense and that’s why we’ve done it. I made the changes because we need a focused and efficient administration to meet today’s challenges. And of course we’ve made these changes to pursue those tomorrow’s opportunities.

I’ve also restored strong cabinet government back to South Australia. Any deliberate sidelining of Cabinet only encourages poor decisions. So no more deliberately walking in submissions at the last minute in an attempt to prevent adequate consideration by ministerial colleagues and of course other agencies.

Our decision-making process is supported by an effective Cabinet Office, lead by Ruth Ambler, providing proper analysis of proposals including risks, costs and benefits from the whole of government perspective.

A robust Cabinet system is essential because recommendations can have unintended consequences in other areas of government, or externally, the Cabinet must be aware of before they make these significant decisions.

For this reason as well, I will also establish a range of Cabinet committees to encourage more interaction between ministers and the public service before proposals come before the Cabinet.

A properly functioning Cabinet process improves the quality of decisions, avoid unnecessary costs imposed by poor decision-making and enhances government accountability.

The buck stops with ministers, not at the departmental door

Another principal I insist all my ministers uphold is recognising and respecting the independence of the public sector. For more than 90 years, IPAA and its predecessor organisations have been custodians of this vital tradition.

It always works best when there is a partnership between elected leaders and senior public officials through which the boundaries between politics and the public service are clearly set and understood by all.

I would not expect any chief executive to frame advice for a minister through a purely political lens. Such advice must remain independent, frank and fearless. The politics must be left to the minister. This includes taking ministerial responsibility for decisions and actions of agencies. This is another essential principle of the new government.

Ministers must be ultimately responsible to the public and the parliament for the quality of services funded by the taxpayers and for the actions of those providing it. If serious errors, or worse, occur in agencies, the minister takes responsibility. Particularly where there is evidence of warnings or maladministration not acted upon or ignored.

I’ve told my ministers they cannot expect to remain in Cabinet if they see nothing, hear nothing and question nothing. Ministers have to be inquisitive, inquiring and challenging. Responsibility ends on the minister’s desk, not at the departmental door.

Ministerial staffers who lean on public servants won’t be tolerated

The proliferation of ministerial staffers is one reason why boundaries between politics and the public service have become increasingly blurred in recent years. Recognising this my government has at last count 49 fewer staff and ministerial officers than our predecessors had.

Those we have employed know there will be no room for staffers that they can lean on a department to give a particular recommendation or change a submission or generally try to intimidate public officials to give purely political rather than professional advice to the government.

At the same time I do not regard the remit of the public sector to being limited to delivering services and implementing policy that officials have no part in developing. I want to encourage the public service to be more active in creating policy as well.

In initiating and analyzing options before proposals come to ministers and Cabinet, unlike other professions, with a narrower focus, you in the public sector have the continuing opportunity to put the interests of the wider community and the state first and foremost.

You have wider perspectives and I want more of your thinking brought to the very centre of this government.

I want working in the public service to be accepted as an opportunity to make a major contribution to the delivery change and action that impact people’s lives for the better, right across South Australia.

While final policy decisions must always be made the responsibility of the minister in Cabinet, the process can, quite frankly, only benefit from greater input from people right across the public service.

Our community cannot afford for us to be working in silos

I spent a little time talking about what I wanted my ministers and their advisors to do and also what I don’t want them to be doing, now let me talk a little bit about you the people in this room.

I referred briefly at the beginning of my time in business. Before my election to parliament 8 years ago, all of my work up until that time had been in the private sector. During that time I always understood our most important asset not on the corporate balance sheet. It’s the same in the public sector.

The most important asset of any organisation is its workforce — and that’s you. It was your determination and dedication and commitment, and pure grit at times, that helped me and my ministers to hit the ground running on March 17. That’s why our strong plan for real change is already underway. You and your colleagues are playing a critical role delivering this very significant reform agenda.

Our plan is big. It is bold, but I firmly believe it is the right one to set South Australia on a path to prosperity and to enable us to contribute much more to our nation’s prosperity. With collaboration we can do this. If we are open to new ideas and accountable to the people that each and every one of us in this room serve.

By its very nature the public service driven by what our citizens need. As members of the public sector every day, they tap into the community’s pulse, to listen, to learn and to act. South Australia’s public service must feel empowered to make bold decisions. To do that they must operate as a single team. Our community cannot afford for us to be working in silos, to duplicate effort, to impose too many rules and too many regulations or administer them inefficiently. We, you and me, are responsible for providing efficient services to more than 1.7 million people. The quality of our public services is critical to our state’s economy.

The new government’s ambitious reform program is essential create the right environment for business to invest in our state and to grow employment and to generate prosperity for all South Australians. And that’s why we need to look at the best ways boost productivity and to encourage agility and match the right skills to the right projects. Ladies and gentlemen, I am absolutely passionate about South Australia, what South Australians need, and what they deserve. We must ensure that we’re in touch with what the community cares about, what is important to the people of our state.

In our first 100 days, we were loud and clear that South Australians is open for business and ready for real change. Last week’s budget showed what the government wants to do, what we believe is the right thing to do. To deliver urgent economic reform for our state. Reform to provide a strong foundation for the future for all the citizens of the public service and the wider community here in South Australia.

In carrying out this vital role for all South Australians we, you and I, must ask ourselves what more can be done to deliver good public service in South Australia. How do we work together to make the public service more confident and more responsive so that we can activate real change in our community.

I ask myself these questions every day and I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I do know the power and the value of collaboration, of working together, of building a culture of shared success and shared responsibility in delivering for the community that each and every one of us serve.

Working as one team for the community

Making sure that members of the public sector are equipped to do their job, and giving you the tools to do so is absolutely crucial our success. Whether its the IT equipment on your desk, or training, development and career progression opportunities, implementing our strong plan for real change relies on your skills and your capacity. Your commitment, your motivation and your drive. Your willingness to show up with good ideas every single day. We need people at the coalface and in our administration to work as one to deliver for our state.

I want our public service here in South Australia to be synonymous with all the elements of an employer of choice. An employer that attracts and retains the very best people, the best leaders. People equipped and ready to serve South Australians well.

Over the past few months I’ve already seen your agility, and your spirit, putting new policy directions and actions in place takes courage. It takes tenacity. It takes integrity.

When I hear discussions about machinery of government I immediately think of this massive wheel — the wheels of government, with each gear powering. When you start to think about the size of this massive machine of government we have in South Australia — we make up South Australia’s largest employer — we can sometimes imagine just how many gears and cogs it takes to keep this machine ticking. On their own, they don’t work, but together they can turn even the biggest and most complex wheel.

As well as the machinery of government changes, other actions are smoothing the way ahead. The Senior Management Council, comprising the most senior leaders of the public service now meet twice weekly — exactly as the new Cabinet meets, twice weekly. This means your chief executives, your leader are collaborating much more.

Across sectors, across jurisdictions

But collaboration doesn’t stop here. We’re building on this momentum. We have renewed focus on intergovernmental relations, on collaboration with the federal government and other jurisdictions around our country.

During 2018-19 we’re active participants in discussions to advance key intergovernmental agreements on critical areas to our state, for example energy policy and Defence and also schooling and health.

The Murray-Darling Basin and the new Closing the Gap framework will also be front and center on the intergovernmental agenda.

Closer to home, we’re encouraging further collaboration between the public and the private sectors for our plans for the introduction of Infrastructure SA and South Australia’s very first Productivity Commission, which will be underway very soon.

These are tremendous opportunities for South Australia to make it easier and simpler for everyone, including the public service to do business. They are examples of reform which will remove barriers and cut red tape for productivity, growth, jobs and investment.

I make no secret that it is absolutely essential that the public and private sectors must work together to deliver the best services for our community.

As I announced in July the new head of Premier and Cabinet is Jim McDowell. Jim brings to this new role decades of international business experience in industries that are critical to the state’s future prosperity. Also appointed Dr Chris McGowan to Health and Carol Mealor to the Attorney General’s Department as the new chief executive. Recruitment for Environment and Water and Infrastructure are well advanced, and hopefully we will have some announcements to make in that area very soon.

Renewed focus on building leadership

Before the election I committed that a Liberal government would value and utilise the public sector as a prime asset for our state as a further demonstration of that I’ve expanded Erma Ranier’s role as the Commissioner for Public Sector Employment.

Erma’s new sphere will have responsibility for strategic workforce and leadership development right across our public sector. Her work will be critical in supporting you as a robust and capable workforce delivering for our state. As I’ve emphasised today this will only happen if we all work together.

My government values each and every one of you as a member of our workforce and for your commitment to serving South Australians, guided as I know you are by the public sector’s values and behaviours and your code of ethics.

I truly believe that when we are open and honest and accountable and collaborative, we can drive real change so that South Australia’s confidence and competitiveness and productivity will grow.

We all have a role to play to make sure that our state, South Australia, achieves its full potential. A strong and confident resilient public sector will set our community and the South Australians that we serve on a path to sustained prosperity.

This is a lightly edited transcript of Steven Marshall’s address at the Adelaide Convention Centre on September 11.

Photos by John Krüger Photography, courtesy of IPAA SA.

Author Bio

Steven Marshall

Steven Marshall is the 46th Premier of South Australia. He was elected to office in March 2018, and has served as leader of the South Australian Liberal Party since 2013.