Interview — Jane Halton AO PSM — The accidental public servant

  • Jane Halton, the former secretary of the departments of Finance and Health (and Ageing) often calls herself an accidental public servant. An accident that lasted three remarkable decades, during which she became the first woman to lead a central agency in Australian public service.
  • Jane Halton will speak at Governance Institute’s National Conference in Sydney on 2 September 2019.

Jane Halton

As the daughter of a senior public servant Ms Halton’s first instinct was to do something different from what her father had done all his life. Starting with a job at university she quickly realised that academia was not for her. Moving on to a role in public service is a fall back if you live in Canberra; so she thought she would do that for a bit while she contemplated what exactly she would really like to do.

‘As I departed public service 33 years later, I thought, clearly it has taken me a while to figure that out! But every time I looked around the corner and started thinking, well let me leave and try to do something different, there was always some absolutely fascinating thing to do next in public service. And so I thought, right I will stay awhile and do that.’ In her defence, it was a transformational time for the Australian public sector, from the deregulation of the economy and floating of the dollar to the resurrection of universal healthcare in its current avatar as Medicare and the founding of Centrelink. ‘Not that I was in any way involved in those decisions; but the whole move to find new ways to regulate; to reshape things that we now take for granted about how the government operates, how the economy operates. I was really privileged that all of the opportunities I had were challenging; sometimes difficult but always intellectually unbelievably interesting’

The pivotal moments for anyone with such a long career are often as much about personal milestones and revelatory moments as it is about historical events. ‘There are individual events that to others don’t seem earth-shattering which are formative in terms of careers. It is when you first start supervising people and think about the responsibility you have, to lead, to manage, to coach, to develop other people. Those moments when you phase into a new challenge. And of course for me, the day that I took on being the secretary of a department. That first day of turning up and finding there is no one to look up at, and realising that you are responsible for all those thousands of staff.’ Equally memorable are some of the things you work on; for Ms Halton there are numerous examples — they include key changes such as getting carers recognised for the first time in terms of government policy; people don’t even realise that there was a point not long ago where the word ‘carers’ was not used in policy, let alone deliver programs for carers. 

Since leaving public service, Ms Halton has taken on board roles in the private and community sectors. Most notably as a non-executive director for the ANZ Banking Group and as independent chair of the peak body for older Australians, COTA. This is not surprising given the wisdom of a long career, at least half of it in leadership roles, delivering key policy and national budget outcomes particularly in healthcare and finance. Her experience in public sector governance brings a fresh lens to these boards. ‘There are clear differences, particularly in structure. Also in the accountability to shareholders, and being regulated as opposed to being the regulator.’ But in terms of being stewards of resources, of history, of people’s livelihood, of outcomes for shareholders and stakeholders, the two sectors are not that different.’

If you peeled back what was going on in governance then, what you saw was a lot of governance that was lazy. It was incomplete.

‘The most obvious thing about public sector governance these days is that we talk about it. This is a shift from times when there were an assumed set of arrangements, which people did not discuss that much. Not different from the way that who or what a manager was, was just assumed and not talked about, which is why so many people were excluded. If you peeled back what was going on in governance then, what you saw was a lot of governance that was lazy. It was incomplete. For instance, risk was not a word mentioned very much. But these days we have risk practitioners as we should. We have risk committees and risk registers. We have proper risk governance arrangements.’ 

While the private sector goes through a sea change in governance practice following on from the banking royal commission and other reviews, the Australian Public Service (APS) is currently the focus of an independent review led by David Thodey AO. The review comes in the wake of an Innovation and Science Australia’s Report Australia 2030 — Prosperity through Innovation, calling for a transformation of public service to meet the challenges of a digitally driven economy. Given that its structure and approach are still anchored in the 1974–1976 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, this review is timely if not urgent. 

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There is a formidable range of issues that the review has set out to consider. One of the key priorities is the strengthening of culture, leadership and governance. The review seeks input on a shared value and purpose across the APS, steered by leaders who deliver the outcomes that Australians expect, with transparency, efficiency and accountability. ‘The challenge in a way is to focus on what the core business of the public service is. There is so much noise; there is so much going on that you can get quite distracted.’

Dr Gordon de Brouwer PSM, the former environment and energy secretary who is a member of the APS review panel said recently that one of the basic things to do is to ask, why is the public sector there. Ms Halton says, ‘It is there if you like as a plank of the good democratic process of this country. It is there as the independent adviser and impartial manager of government business. But the world around the sector is changing. You have modern systems to go with a modern workplace. Fast-moving communications, complex IT systems. We also have a modern notion of public service delivery that the public holds you to.’

The public judge service delivery not by how they experience other government departments. They judge it by the best service delivery experience they have had somewhere else in their lives. They expect things to be digital, switched on 24/7, easy, intuitive. People are expecting a more transparent, accessible, place-based governance system that enables seamless service delivery. How fit-for-purpose is the public sector? How fit for the times? ‘The sector has to innovate quickly. It must also have the money to invest in the people and the systems that will deliver innovation. That is partly a question of the gift of government, in terms of the money they have available. But it is also about being prepared to go out on a limb rather than waiting for things to be proven elsewhere, so that you can adapt.’

I think culture is a communicable disease.

Are there lessons coming out of the royal commissions and reviews in other sectors on trust, integrity and accountability that public sector reform can draw on? ‘I think that there is more accountability in the public sector’, says Ms Halton. ‘The process of Senate estimates, of being grilled by Senate Committees, which is a part of the approach to public sector governance. So I think the public servants are more familiar with what I call the front page of the Daily Telegraph test than perhaps other sectors. When it comes to trust, firstly you’ve got to see the problem. Secondly, you need to be transparent in calling things out and calling them out early and being prepared to put the hard work in to fix them. That is what I think the sector has to take on board.’

With over 160,000 employees it is a tremendous challenge to implement and monitor culture within the public service. There is no substitute for visible, audible leadership. Leaders have to practice what they preach. They also have to talk about the kind of culture it takes to deliver the best outcomes. ‘Cultures don’t develop in a vacuum. I think culture is a communicable disease. You catch it from the person at the next desk. And it is really interesting to me that cultures persist in an organisation even if there is staff turnover. The only way you develop a new culture or reinforce the strengths and minimise the negatives over time, is if you are constantly, calling out what is not good and talking about what is good. The culture stuff is never easy. But it is so important. And this is not dissimilar to the private sector. The conversations I have now around board tables are exactly the same. The question of culture, the question of ethics, the question of not just the bare minimum being adequate. Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we stand for? What are our values? That conversation is going on all over the place.’

The digital revolution has made the public service less opaque and more accessible and connected. It also then exposes them to greater stakeholder scrutiny. ‘That’s a good thing. However, you can have a view about what matters or discussions you should be able to hold closed. There are people who sit on various parts of the spectrum on that discussion. My personal view is that the deliberations of government should be able to occur in private. Because then that doesn’t impede people from freely expressing views. There is something about that free flow and uninhibited exchange of views within the department that can lead to better decision-making. However, I do think a capacity to then scrutinise how things are then done is critical and leads to better governance, management and administration’.

As one of the women who shattered the proverbial glass ceiling in public service, Ms Halton’s is one of the shoulders on which future women whether they run the Department of Defence or the Treasury or Foreign Affairs will stand on. ‘I think all women regardless of where they work, from time to time or in some cases all of the time, deal with gender bias, both conscious and unconscious. I don’t think we can claim victory and move on yet. As some of my colleagues remind me, it is even worse if you are a woman from a non-English speaking background or a woman of colour or of the First Nations People. We have some way to go yet in terms of the genuine representation of our community in the ranks of our leadership. You still have to ask yourself if your leadership numbers are below 30 per cent how hard it is for those women who stand out like no one’s business. I know that there are many women, and I was one of them, who thrive on the podium. But for every one of those women somebody is looking up and saying, "I just can't do this". And that should not be the case.’

One of the key things about leadership is you can’t be somebody else. You can’t mimic somebody else in the role of a leader. You have to be authentic.

Not surprisingly, there have been times when Ms Halton had to navigate difficult policy decisions or government action, only to then have to pivot to an entirely new policy with a new government at the helm. In her valedictory address to the Institute of Public Administration Australia in 2016, Ms Halton reflected on those times as the points at which the ‘apolitical public servant’ must shine through. ‘You don't get the job and the big bucks to do the easy stuff. You are there to do challenging things, sometimes to deliver difficult messages. One of the key things about leadership is you can’t be somebody else. You can’t mimic somebody else in the

role of a leader. You have to be authentic. You have to be open. You have to be humble. You have to be prepared to change your mind if it turns out that you’ve taken a wrong position or a wrong direction.’

And most of all you have to listen. The art of successful negotiation is that you have to learn to listen. ‘Leadership is the same. Learning to listen, really listen. Because you can’t find your way through what are often very tangled and complicated issues, and the complexity of the organisation you are running, unless you can authentically hear and communicate with the people that you are working with.’

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