With the Benefit of Hindsight

With the Benefit of Hindsight: Valedictory Reflections from Departmental Secretaries, 2004-11

John Wanna
Sam Vincent
Andrew Podger
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: ANU Press
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    With the Benefit of Hindsight
    Book Description:

    Secretaries of government departments in Australia are the bureaucratic leaders of their generation. They are ambitious, highly-talented executives who have risen to the very pinnacle of their chosen vocation - public service to the Australian nation - usually after having spent most, if not all, of their professional careers dedicated to the public service. They serve governments as their top advisers and in policy terms are often some of the most important decision-makers in the country. This collection brings together the valedictory speeches and essays from a departing group of secretaries (and one or two other equivalent agency heads) who left the Australian Public Service between 2004 and 2011. Over this period of time it gradually became accepted that departing secretaries and heads of significant agencies would present a valedictory address to their peers at a public farewell function. The first two speeches in this collection were initiated informally and given at functions organised by their agencies; in 2005 the process was formalised with the Australian Public Service Commission acting as organiser. These contributions contain reflections, commentaries, occasional fond memories or key turning-points in careers, critiques of changes that have occurred and an outline of the remaining challenges their successors will face as the public administrators of tomorrow. From the outset it is clear that there is no uniform message, no single narrative levelled either in praise or in criticism, other than pride in the public service and strong belief in the contribution it makes to the Australian community. They have their own personal 'takes' on how the public service looks to them, on its performance and on the challenges confronting public administration into the future. Most spend some time looking back, reflecting on the extent of change that has occurred over the length of their careers; but equally importantly they look forward, anticipating future policy dilemmas and capacity challenges. John Wanna holds the Sir John Bunting Chair of Public Administration at the Research School of Social Sciences at The Australian National University and is director of research for the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). Andrew Podger is professor of public administration at The Australian National University and adjunct professor at Griffith University and Xi'an Jiao Tong University. A former Australian Public Service Commissioner and secretary of the departments of Health and Aged Care, Housing and Regional Development, and Administrative Services, he retired from public service in 2004. Sam Vincent is a Canberra-based freelance journalist who contributes to The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald, The Age and Inside Sport magazine.

    eISBN: 978-1-921862-74-8
    Subjects: Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. 2012 Valedictory Series Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Steve Sedgwick

    The Valedictory Series, first published in November 2006,¹ affords the public service the opportunity to honour some of our most distinguished leaders, retiring Secretaries and agency heads.

    Like previous publications this edition contains words of wisdom from a diverse group of people with a range of different styles. Without doubt all sixteen papers provide a thought-provoking experience for the reader and an insight into the views of some highly effective leaders and communicators about public service craft – leadership stories, career reflections and their ideas for the future.

    This publication, prepared in partnership with ANZSOG, compiles edited versions of the...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    Andrew Podger and John Wanna

    Secretaries of government departments in Australia are the bureaucratic leaders of their generation. They are ambitious, highly-talented executives who have risen to the very pinnacle of their chosen vocation – public service to the Australian nation – usually after having spent most, if not all, of their professional careers dedicated to the public service. They serve governments as their top advisers and in policy terms are often some of the most important decision-makers in the country.

    As bureaucratic leaders they also sit atop a very large pyramid. At any point in time no more than twenty individuals hold these esteemed...

  5. 1. Yes, minister—the privileged position of secretaries
    (pp. 1-6)
    Roger Beale

    Early in my career I was lucky to be taken under Sir Frederick Wheeler’s wing as one of his ‘young people’ when he was Chairman of the Public Service Board. As a result I was privileged to observe in action many of the great post-war figures of Australian public service – Wheeler himself, Wilson, Crawford, Randall, Tange, Bunting − as well as some lesser-lights such as Donald Anderson, Lenox Hewitt, Crisp and so on. Coombs I only saw at a distance.

    I have met every secretary over the last thirty years or so, and worked with many of them. Against...

  6. 2. My fortunate career and some parting remarks
    (pp. 7-14)
    Andrew Podger

    I have indeed been blessed with a fortunate career in the Australian Public Service. From my beginnings at the Bureau of Statistics to the departments that immediately followed − the Social Welfare Commission, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Social Security (my first SES job and the most enjoyable period of my career) − I serendipitously worked in a series of remarkable teams.

    My good fortune continued when I joined the Department of Finance in 1982 under the stewardship of enormously strong financial reformers including Mike Keating, Tony Harris, Pat Barrett, Tony Blunn, Malcolm Holmes,...

  7. 3. Performance management and the performance pay paradox
    (pp. 15-28)
    Allan Hawke

    Leaders often define themselves by the issues on which they take a stand. My seven-and-a-half years as a secretary in three departments of state spanned an era when performance-based pay became the order of the day − a fashion I resisted for the reasons outlined in this chapter. The essence of my argument is that:

    performance pay is at odds with public service culture;

    performance pay ignores the complexity of how the public service actually works;

    performance pay is bad for morale and teamwork; and

    performance pay gives senior leaders an excuse to avoid real leadership.

    My experience suggests a...

  8. 4. Thirty-eight years toiling in the vineyard of public service
    (pp. 29-42)
    Ric Smith

    I am honoured to be the first retiring Australian public servant to have been invited to give a valedictory address. Many more distinguished colleagues have retired without such an opportunity. Let me start with a disclaimer. In preparing for this occasion I have been conscious that in other realms, and perhaps especially the United Kingdom, there is something of a tradition on occasions such as this of great oratory built around grand visions of the civil service as an institution; visions in the UK case conceptualised around the triumph that was Trevelyan and the wonder that is Westminster. If you...

  9. 5. The last count—the importance of official statistics to the democratic process
    (pp. 43-50)
    Dennis Trewin

    In this valedictory address I will reflect on the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) − both past and future − before making a few comments on the APS more generally.

    I started work in the ABS in December 1965 as a vacation student and then as a statistics cadet before starting work full-time in 1968. At that time, the ABS was actually the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics and a Branch of Treasury rather than a statutory authority (but largely independent except for budget considerations). The Australian Statistician was referred to as the Commonwealth Statistician. Four out of the...

  10. 6. Balancing Life at Home and Away in the Australian Public Service
    (pp. 51-60)
    Joanna Hewitt

    It is a special honour for me to speak today, close to my point of departure from the Australian Public Service and my departure from Australia for the next three years.

    My resignation takes effect a little earlier than I had expected, a few months short of my three-year term as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF).

    As some of you will know, I will be leaving with my fifteen-year-old son, Tom (and our golden retriever, Stella), to join my husband, Mark, who has been in Washington, DC, on posting since the beginning of this year....

  11. 7. In the national interest
    (pp. 61-72)
    Peter Shergold

    I was born in Crawley New Town, England. For an idea of its repute, one need look no further than the interestingly titled tourist guide, Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places to Live in the UK. Most of my childhood and adolescence was spent there. My dad being in the Royal Navy, many of his postings were around Portsmouth. According to the guide, visitors ‘sit glassy-eyed...staring out at the grey horizon and wondering, presumably, how to end their lives.’ If that doesn’t sound bad enough, my wife Carol and I went to university in Hull, which was actually ranked worst...

  12. 8. Impressions, observations and lessons from a Canberra outsider
    (pp. 73-86)
    Robert Cornall

    My appointment as a secretary in the Australian Public Service was as much a surprise to me as it was to officers of the Attorney-General’s Department. It came about in this way. The outgoing Secretary, Tony Blunn, rang me one day in November 1999 in my office at Victoria Legal Aid in Melbourne. He told me he was going to retire and he wondered if I was interested in being considered for his position. At that time, I had been the first managing director of VLA for four hectic years. It had been a hard and controversial task establishing that...

  13. 9. An unlikely secretary — a boy from the outer agencies
    (pp. 87-94)
    Mark Sullivan

    My time as CEO of ATSIC was the best and worst job I had in my life, both at the same time. But it must also be said that the highs of that job far outweighed the lows. Like others who have become involved in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, it was an experience that was personally rewarding, knowledge-enhancing and friendship-building. To engage with and listen to the Dodsons, Pearsons, Yuis, Ross’s, Perkins, Andersons, Scotts and the many community leaders across their lands was enriching.

    It taught me the value of storytelling and the importance of wrapping a message...

  14. 10. As if for a thousand years — the challenges ahead for the APS
    (pp. 95-106)
    David Borthwick

    In April 1971, two years before I joined the Australian Public Service, the first meeting of Victoria’s Land Conservation Council was held in the old Cabinet Room of Melbourne’s Treasury Building. At that meeting, the Minister for Conservation gave a rousing speech and impressed upon the twelve new councillors their historic responsibility to make recommendations on the use of public lands ‘as if for a thousand years’. The minister believed that the best conservation outcomes would be achieved if the councillors took a longer-term view.²

    The minister was my father, the late Bill Borthwick. Today, I pinch myself that I...

  15. 11. Reflections of an ‘unabashed rationalist’
    (pp. 107-116)
    Peter Boxall

    The Secretary of the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, Peter Boxall, says he really likes his job as head of DEWR. ‘I had a background in labour economics, had an interest in it and I find the job intellectually stimulating’. He also has a reputation of being one of the ‘economic rationalists’ in the public service. ‘I’m proud of it’, he says when this is put to him. ‘I like to think of myself as a classic liberal. I think that the market has so much to offer and that there are a few areas where the government might...

  16. 12. Our custodial role for the quality of advisory relations at the centre of government
    (pp. 117-124)
    Patricia Scott

    I have had the privilege of serving five years as a secretary, four prime ministers and fourteen other ministers. For more than a decade, over the Keating and Howard governments, I was a frequent cabinet note-taker. Throughout this diverse experience I gained insights into the strengths of the Australian version of the Westminster system based on a rigorous, well informed cabinet process; and insights into the risks and problems created when good cabinet process is abandoned.

    Also of vital importance to good governance are: clear lines of ministerial, ministerial adviser and public service accountability; respect for the respective strengths and...

  17. 13. A road less travelled — reflecting on three professional pillars of support
    (pp. 125-134)
    Michael L’Estrange

    This perspective on my years as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2005 to 2009 is more a brief personal reflection than any attempt at a thorough-going assessment of the professional relationships and decision-making processes that shaped the carrying out of my responsibilities in that period.

    It is inherent in the positions departmental secretaries hold that many personal confidences are entered into with the expectation that they will be respected in both the short and longer term. Departmental secretaries are involved in many frank and sensitive exchanges of view, often leading to significant policy or administrative...

  18. 14. There’s a telegram for you — fashioning Australia’s unique model of public administration
    (pp. 135-148)
    Ken Matthews

    In January 1975 my wife Margaret and I stepped off a plane after backpacking around Europe in the months since we finished university the year before. We were handed two telegrams (they still had telegrams then). The first offered Margaret a job as a teacher in Hoxton Park in the western suburbs of Sydney. The second offered me a job with the Department of Defence in the Australian Public Service in Canberra.

    Frankly, I could not remember having applied for a job with the Department of Defence. Indeed I had spent the last few years at university ‘railing against the...

  19. 15. The opportunities, challenges and policy responses for the Australian economy
    (pp. 149-164)
    Ken Henry

    In 1930 the legendary Tasmanian economist Lyndhurst Falkiner Giblin (1872‑1951) wrote a series of articles in The Melbourne Herald called Letters to John Smith. These letters attracted widespread attention, becoming influential in developing a broad understanding of the challenges facing Australia during the Great Depression. In a series of ten letters, Giblin explained, in simple language, the economic issues facing Australia at the start of the Depression and described a pathway by which the country could find its way back to prosperity.

    In Giblin’s honour I will attempt in this valedictory to outline some of the challenges facing the Australian...

  20. 16. The boss in the yellow suit — leading service delivery reform
    (pp. 165-176)
    Lynelle Briggs

    Leadership is about setting a vision, devising a strategy to deliver on it, and putting in place mechanisms to motivate people to get you there. But transformational leadership is much more than that − it is closer to the concept of heroic leadership.² It requires passion, belief and trust if it is to be successful. That means leaders need to motivate both the hearts and minds of those travelling with them and convince the fellow travellers that they can be relied upon to deliver what might actually be beneficial to everyone involved.

    Service delivery reform is one of those transformations....

  21. 17. The challenges for the public service in protecting Australia’s democracy in the future
    (pp. 177-188)
    Terry Moran

    Democracy has at its heart a simple goal – government by the people. Power and authority rest with citizens, not with a narrow elite. The people’s interests are sovereign. The idea is simple, but the practice of democracy has grown and changed over the centuries. Australia’s system of parliamentary democracy has its roots in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in Britain of 1688. Democracy looked different in those days. For one thing, the elections themselves were much more arduous and time-consuming. Orders to conduct the election were issued and carried to every town in the realm by men on horseback. They were...

  22. Appendix: Details of the movement of retiring secretaries since 2004
    (pp. 189-194)