An interview with Professor Peter Shergold

Thursday 11 February 2016
Nic Crowther's picture
Co Editor
The Shaker

On Friday 5 February, A selected group of professionals gathered at Hotel Hotel for a business breakfast hosted by Silverstone Edge directors Melanie Kontze and Lucy Christie. The event served to launch the company into the Canberra market and demonstrate their capability in assisting other businesses with change management and strategic planning.

For many, it’s an ongoing challenge to define business goals, so services such as Silverstone Edge are becoming increasingly valuable.

As part of the morning, guests were treated to a rare talk from Professor Peter Shergold, former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and current Chancellor of University of Western Sydney and non-executive member of the board for AMP Limited and law firm Corrs Chambers Wesgarth.

Following his talk titled Creating a More Adaptive Government, The Shaker caught up with Professor Shergold to discuss the many challenges presented by the public/private sector interface.




Silverstone Edge Launch: Chancellor Peter Shergold AC (University of Western Sydney), Greg Boorer (CEO, Canberra Data Centre)


Good morning, Professor Shergold. You were at the top of PM&C during one of one of the most stable periods of Australian politics. What the hell happened?

(The former top Public Servant artfully dodges the politics to focus on policy...)

Lots. Change is never good for the Australian Public Service (APS). It needs consistency to be able to roll out complex and broad-ranging policies and programs. My impression is that the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has a good understanding of the APS and the role it can play in supporting good government.

When there is dysfunctionality in leadership it will always lead to the undermining of the performance of the APS.


Following your talk about making the APS more responsive, we wonder if is it’s possible for such a gravitational shift given the structures and systems appear intrinsic to what has to be delivered.

The most intrinsic element of the work done on any decision of Government is to manage risk. This is something that the APS does very well – both for the community and within itself.

The biggest question that governments need to be asking themselves is, “What is our appetite for risk?” If there is some recognition that a certain amount of risk is allowable, that can free up the APS to move more quickly and try new ideas as it works to implement to government’s activities.


Silverstone Edge Launch: Arthur Camilleri (Assistant Secretary - Long-Term Budget Policy), Fiona Paul (Partner - Silverstone Edge), John Kalokerinos (National Manager of Governance - Department of Human Services)


So, how does that look in terms of the APS' systems?

I don’t believe that the systems within in the APS are necessarily the problem. However, we need to be aware that bureaucratic silos can become a problem (especially when programmes and policies are delivered through multiple agencies) and can stymie imagination and creativity.

This is one reason why public servants can be irritated by the 'bright young things' in Ministerial offices who move with the freedom of being outside the bureaucracy and are interested in quick results and are more than happy to present alternate views. The two cultures don’t necessarily line up, but somewhere in the middle is a space where the office learns a little patience and the APS is forced to move a little more nimbly.


That sounds like an effective balance…

Indeed! But there is more to be done. In line with this sort of thinking there’s no reason why pilot programmes can’t be a greater part of the APS culture than they currently are. Rather than slowing down the roll-out of large-scale projects because the appetite for risk is so low, to bring pilot programmes into the heart of the APS means there is an opportunity to test and refine, rather than spend so long ensuring that everything is perfect.

There’s really good evidence of this working in The Department of Social Services, where the state government has introduced Consumer Directed Care through a number of trial programmes, and seem to have found the right path through this method of testing and refinement.


Silverstone Edge Launch: Lucy Christie (Co-founder & Principal - Silverstone Edge), Stuart Althaus (CEO - SME Gateway), Hala Batainah (Federal Director - Microsoft)


Most governments achieve the big ideas in their first two years, and then innovation tends to tail off. With five Prime Ministers in seven years, is this the reason for poor public policy outcomes in recent times? 

As I said, the public service tends to work at its best when there is consistent leadership. Now, this doesn’t simply apply to prime Ministers – it’s equally important in terms of the Departments under which the APS works. Having one Prime Minister for a decade is problematic if departments are being shuffles every couple of years.

Hawke, Keating and Howard delivered 23 years of stability for the public service, and its not hard to see the benefits that delivered in terms of some of the most important transitions – economically and socially – that were delivered under their terms.

It is much more encouraging for public servants to know that the policies they are working on will eventually be delivered. It’s important for the morale of the workforce that they see value and effectiveness in the work they do.


What does corporate Australia – itself prone to bureaucracy – consistently misunderstand about the public/private interface.

Plenty. I mentioned an important example during my talk this morning, and that is the importance of diversity in the workplace. The public sector is a long way ahead of the private sector on this, and there is plenty that can be learned from the APS in how to build more accepting workplaces that understand and accept the contributions of a wide range of cultures and styles.

Women are the first hurdle for the private sector, but there are plenty of other demographics in the private sector workforce that could be better utilised.

Mind you, the public sector has become increasingly corporatised through its management structure, and by bringing in a lot of those philosophies there has been great benefit for the APS.

Still, it’s remains far too risk-averse. That’s where the public sector could continue to draw on the experience and skills of their corporate colleagues.


Silverstone Edge Launch: John Kalokerinos (National Manager of Governance - Department of Human Services), Melanie Kontze (Co-founder & Principal - Silverstone Edge), Chancellor Peter Shergold AC (University of Western Sydney)


You’ve had a peek inside corporate Australia through your work on various boards. Can big business be as beholden to ideology than politics?

I’m not sure they are as beholden to ideology, but they can certainly become beholden to tradition. Of course, what keeps them honest is the fact if this happens, it can undermine the value of your investment value and corporate sustainability

The pressures of the market mean that even the biggest corporations need to constantly think of new ways to do business in order to find an edge on their competitors and look for new approaches.

A public servant is constantly exposed to alternative ideas that are presented by the opposition or even minor parties, but are directed by the government of the day to seek a solution that falls in line with the overarching policy direction.

If, say, you’re a corporation like AMP you need to keep looking at the big banks and new, digital-based competitors who are doing business in ways you may never have imagined. If you don’t respond, you’re finished.

No matter how big you are as a company, you can disappear very, very quickly.


The workplace traditions of senior management are very different to the expectations of graduates and those under-30 and the new crop of Millenials. How can management broach the gap between those two cultures?

If I was really going to be provocative, I would look towards the ‘Hollywood’ employment philosophy as a way to better cater for this style of worker.

In Hollywood, a director, some actors and a whole lot of technical experts – gaffers, camera operators, sound engineers – get together to achieve a single project. This may have been the first time any of them have worked together, but they recognise the opportunities presented by the project, and dedicate a couple of years to creating a movie. Once they're finished, everyone dissipates to pick up another project, with the experience of the previous movie under their belt.

If there was some way for the public sector to manage this style of recruitment, I believe it would lead to vastly improved energy and innovation. Younger workers are looking for projects where they see real value and results, and a lot of work undertaken by government is high value in that regard. There’s so much that can be done around environment and social issues.

Similarly, the public sector needs to be more flexible in allowing its workforce to leave for 12 or 18 months to gain experience in the public sector. Any skills they bring back will be valuable – no matter which department they are working in. 


Professor Shergold's review of the 'Pink Batts' programme - 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 is now available by clicking here