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Advice in a political age

22 February 2019
Image of Belinda Hutchinson

We asked panel member and Sydney University Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson to share her thoughts on this review and the Australian public service.

As custodian of another heritage institution with a track record in business, the not for profit sector and philanthropy, Belinda brings an important perspective to this work.


1. What was the appeal for you to work on the independent review of Australia’s public service?

The Australian public service is such an important institution for this country.

We’ve got more than 150,000 people administering an extraordinarily large annual budget of over $450 billion, to deliver policy, regulation and services for the Australian people.

The APS needs to be empowered to do the best work it can.

I have worked with the public service before. I was on an advisory board for Treasury and saw the very good work being done on organisational change there.

When I was president of Chief Executive Women, I consulted with heads of departments to focus on more leadership opportunities for women. That’s something I would like this review to make a contribution on in addition to providing more opportunities for those from indigenous and minority backgrounds.

I find there is a really strong sense of mission among public servants. People are doing this work because they want to make a contribution to their country.

I respect that and it means you’re up for a challenge.


2. What similarities and differences do you see between the Australian public service and your organisation?

That sense of mission is something I also see at Sydney University. We are also a heritage institution which has served the people of Sydney and beyond for over 160 years.

We’re facing the same challenges — globalisation, technology and digital innovation and changing expectations from the people we serve. So we’re working on changing our structure, culture, operating model and our education curriculum, so our graduates can lead in a rapidly changing world. Our research strategy will provide multidisciplinary solutions to complex societal problems.

It’s interesting to think about how institutions with such long lives can confront, adapt and empower themselves to improve what and how they deliver to meet the changing requirements of their key stakeholders.

There is one other thing which is both a similarity and a difference. The university and the public service have a strong sense of independence, value freedom of speech and the ability to pursue and answer difficult questions without interference.

I think it’s more challenging for our public service to be frank and fearless in its advice, take risks and learn from failure in the current environment.

It’s very difficult today to give advice without it being politicised. The service operates in a public conversation where there seems to be limited focus on listening and respectful debate.

At the university, we talk about learning to disagree well and providing an environment for respectful debate where people are encouraged to listen and be balanced in their views. This is a major issue across our society. But in a way the public service is hampered by its legislatively required allegiance to the government, parliament and the people. Serving this tripartite group is difficult to navigate.


3. In your opinion, what does the Australian public service do really well and need more of in the future?

In an environment of polarised debate it's easy to focus on one off failures in the public service but on the whole the service does an excellent job.

For example Medicare and the public health system is one of the best in the world and the social safety net in this country is by global standards strong. Australia has had 27 years of continuous economic growth and that can’t happen without a strong public and private sector.

The vast majority of our public servants do their job to serve the nation and it’s that sense of purpose which contributes to the delivery of good policy, regulation and services.

The review has, however, identified a number of significant internal and external impediments to the public service being able to deliver to the very best of its ability. There is clearly no silver bullet, no single thing which will overcome these impediments-otherwise they would have already been implemented! However there are changes this review can recommend which will make life easier for everyone.

We will put forward a range of actions which we believe will enable the service to work better together, to build stronger relationships with the people it serves, and have you working in a system which can shift and change and it needs to.


4. What do you see as the single biggest challenge for Australia’s public service in 2030?

The service does a good job, but like any large and complex institution it will not be fit for purpose in 2030 unless changes are made. This will be a journey for the service. It will be transformative and will take time.

Your leaders will need to be committed to change and then it’s about how you execute and implement.

As for this review, our challenge is getting support for our recommendations and investment in the service. I am hopeful we will have bipartisan support and governments which are prepared to stay the course.


5. What has been the most interesting thing you’ve discovered about the Australian public service through the review?

The feedback to the review from the submissions, survey responses and forums have clearly demonstrated the widespread genuine commitment to serving the nation and to change. In the leadership group we’ve been talking to, there’s a real sense of engagement and a desire for change.  

I have been surprised by the growth in ministerial staff. I knew this was happening but wasn’t aware of the scale. 


6. Is there something you’d suggest people read or listen to?

The review has commissioned research in four areas by the Australian New Zealand School of Government and I highly recommend reading these when we share them next month. There is one that has really interesting insights into interactions between the service and its ministers but all the papers provide valuable analysis and options for change.

I’ve also been reading the fascinating book Countdown to zero day over the summer break. It’s the story of a cyber virus which undermined Iran’s nuclear program. Protecting our systems and data is such a massive issue for the government, universities and every company with which I’ve worked. This book sheds some light on how vulnerable institutions are today and how we need to invest in protecting our data.