Closing remarks at the launch of Peter Shergold’s report

Closing remarks at the launch of Peter Shergold’s report

PM&C Who We Are The Secretary
Monday, April 11, 2016

The Hon John Lloyd PSM
Australian Public Service Commissioner

Martin Parkinson
Secretary, The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Closing remarks at the launch of learning Peter Shergold's report: Learning from Failure: why large government policy initiatives have gone so badly wrong in the past and how the chances of success in the future can be improved


Thanks Glenys and let me again congratulate IPAA on finding such a good set of issues to bring everybody together to have a chat about.

We've been given a lot to think about today, and I want to thank all of our speakers, but Peter in particular, for the quality of their thoughts.

One line in the report really stands out for me and that is quote: "Failure, and how we respond to it, is where leadership is born."

Leadership is not someone else's problem, so I don't want anybody in this room walking out thinking that was a really interesting discussion, and leaving it at that.

Leaders. Every one of you, in this room, is a leader.

You're a leader in your departments, your organisations, you're a leader in your thought communities, you're a leader of teams.

Every person, at every level, can and should be expected to display leadership.

Now as Peter said, and I just quoted, failure and how we respond to it, is where leadership is born. 

Yet often we characterise leadership in terms of success, or at least the perception of success.

But it's a very rare leader who has never failed. And, I'd argue, in fact, that it's a bad leader who never admits to having failed.

Our ability to reflect actively and progressively on our decisions and our performance is critical to our role as public servants.

But as Peter said also, we have to acknowledge our own personal contribution to failure.

Peter's report also says that public servants are often seen as an impediment:

"They can be perceived as cautious, guarded, [and] even unimaginative. They can seem risk-averse. Yet their circumspection is based on the knowledge that the rollout of major national programs is fraught with danger. I want to come back to that point in a moment about 'danger'.

But I want to start with thinking about, well, what is a public servant? What is an effective public servant?

To me, an effective public servant is always asking the question, how can I do things better, what can be changed in ways that improve effectiveness, reduce risk, and deliver better outcomes for the people of Australia?

If you see the APS through that prism, you recognise that we are not an organisation that can allow ourselves to be driven by fashion or by personal hobby horses.

A good public service provides impartial, evidence-based advice. It advocates for better outcomes, focusing on improving the wellbeing of Australians.

So what do we, as leaders, do to create environments where this can happen?

First, we've got to be able to balance rigour and pragmatism, we've got to be imaginative, but realistic. We've got to find ways where we're seen as impediments but as partners.

So how shall we do that?

Well first, we should not see failure as a directive to curtail our thinking. Blue sky thinking is critical to good policy and effective delivery. We are capable of finding innovative solutions by drawing on the resources that are available to us, but those resources are much broader than just those within our department, or indeed in the wider community. We can pick up ideas from everywhere including from abroad.

Yet from where I sit, too many departments, and too many individual public servants, stay within their own sector. They do not open themselves up to ideas outside of their existing knowledge base. This is a failure of leadership. [And] this is a failure of their own personal leadership.

When we neglect to reach far and wide for ideas we open ourselves up to a lethal combination of arrogance and ignorance. And that's not acceptable in any context, but particularly not, in a modern public service.

Once we come up with ideas though, wherever that we have garnered them from they should be rigorously questioned. This isn't about putting people through the wringer and saying, "I'm smarter than you" it's actually about testing and refining ideas because by testing and refining you will find the best way to ensure their success. Open, candid discussion winnows down ideas to find those that have the greatest probability of being able to be implemented successfully. And involving a wide group of people in blue sky thinking gives not only a broader set of perspectives but it gives every person a stake in making the resulting decisions work.

Second, our thinking should always be built on a foundation of dispassionate, objective and evidence‑based analysis. For this to be successful, we have to create safe places – one where everyone feels free to advance ideas, knowing that we prize collegiality, cooperation and creativity because we believe that those things help us achieve our collective objectives.

For ideas to be compelling, one must strive to identify the underlying problem and propose solutions, advocate for one's ideas until a decision is made, at which point whatever is decided gets implemented.

And when Governments make decisions, whether they've adopted our ideas or not – we should work faithfully to implement that decision to the best of our ability.

But importantly, we should always be continuing to collect data and evidence because even if we think that the right decision has been implemented we won't actually know unless we go looking for information.

Peter made the point as well that, "[t]oo often delivery matters are given tokenistic treatment, or settled without proper consultation with those who best understand the environment in which a policy will be delivered."

He's right. As the person who was given a home insulation program and some other programs to try and clean up, it was very clear that execution was not built into policy design. It was treated as an afterthought. Implementation should never be seen as the poor cousin of policy development in the APS.

We have to engage with risk, but when we do we have to be honest about it. To quote my colleague, Elizabeth Kelly, in another context, "Hope is not a strategy."

One last thing I want to touch on is Peter's suggestion that our Freedom of Information settings need to change. He highlighted the failures at many levels to put advice in writing. He highlighted the relationships we have with our Ministers, and the information they base their decisions on, require that we give them the best possible advice in writing. I couldn't agree more. I think Peter is absolutely spot on when he said the FOI Act does not afford sufficient protection to public servants to do that. As leaders we need, as Gordon [de Brouwer] said, to use exemptions appropriately but I would support going further and advocating for changes to FOI laws, to protect the deliberative process. Not to reduce our accountability, not to protect us from stuff ups we may have made, but to enhance the capacity to give truly frank and fearless advice that good policy design needs.

I mentioned earlier Peter's remarks about public servants perceiving the rollout of major national programs as being fraught with danger. So what danger do we typically perceive?

I think we worry about reputational risk—quite sensibly. I think we worry about damaging the relationships with ministers at times. What we rarely do, is to stop and think about the consequences our actions have beyond the APS. I think of this in the context of the NDIS rollout. I think of it in the context of VET fee help. And I think of it in the context of the home insulation program. Danger is not hypothetical.

Four young Australians lost their lives due to the failings of the Home Insulation Scheme.

  • Matthew Fuller was 25.
  • Mitchell Sweeney was 22.
  • Marcus Wilson was 19.
  • And Rueben Barnes was 16.

Not one of those four young Australians are now ever going to have the opportunity to sit in a room like this, to dream the dreams that you and your children and my children, and hopefully our grandchildren ,will be able to do.

It's our responsibility as leaders to ensure that conditions that led to their deaths cannot happen again. We cannot erase our mistakes, but we can learn from them and we have to.

I want to thank Peter again for the effort that he's put in to the report and to thank Glenys and IPAA for hosting what I think is an incredibly important session today.

Thank you very much.