“To do it well takes inspiration and passion”: Commissioner Briggs gives her thoughts on leadership from time as Medicare CEO

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The speech – delivered in mid-2011 on the Commissioner’s retirement from the Public Service and titled ‘Boss in the yellow suit [a reference to a yellow woollen suit that she wore in the Social Security Department as a Division Head]or Leading Service Delivery Reform’ – addresses the reforms that she and the heads of the Department of Human Services and Centrelink made between 2009 and 2011 as they integrated their separate departments into one.

Commissioner Briggs makes several key points I felt were worth sharing.

The reforms were driven by changing consumer expectations:

While Australia had a quality national health and welfare system, people expected more.

“They expect to be treated like individuals with particular needs, rather than to be treated like everyone else and told to take it or leave it, or to go somewhere else to get something that they might need. They expect to be treated with respect and courtesy and they expect to be able to trust the public sector to support them when they need it,” she said.

The need for a ‘vision’:

They quickly realised however that for the reforms to resonate with their staff and the community, they needed a clear vision of what the community wanted from them – and it had to have genuine leadership commitment to promote it.

“Convenience, correct information, sound advice, less bureaucracy, great service, helpful staff, efficient service, delivering results, joined up services, and getting paid on time, all morphed together into the catchphrase ‘easy, high quality and works for you’,” she stated.

“Our Minister took this further and decided that easy, high quality and works for you should not become another dry policy statement; it should be the basis for our entire approach to service delivery reform. And so, the vision was born, and we had our rallying cry for transformative change.”

Their new model put the consumer at the centre:

“Design and delivery of services would be “outside in”, with Australians telling us what they want and need—as opposed to the more traditional internally driven “tell you” model—and with the service offer being based around people’s life events and needs and local issues, and not the requirements of the support programmes involved.”

This required the three CEOs and their staff to engage in “co-design” – involving the community in the design of services via surveys, research and focus groups.

“For me co-design is all about power – a transfer of power from provider to user. This is one of the touch points for truly transformational leadership. A shift in power is often not willingly given or comfortably managed. Transferring power involves a shift in obligations and responsibilities, something that has to be negotiated between us and the person receiving the service. To manage that shift properly, we need to understand the people we assist – seeing the world and the situations they are in as they see them.”

Focusing on outcomes, not processes:

The Commissioner argues that while providing services is important, but the focus of leadership needs to be on knowing what the outcome is that is being sought.

“For too long our key performance indicators have really been about management information – how long did the phone call take or how long was the wait time at the counter – rather than whether the interaction met its purpose – did the person get a job, did the homeless kid get referred to a service that could actually help her, and was the elderly carer connected to support services?”

Embrace complaints – and empower staff:

Commissioner Briggs added that they always saw complaints as an opportunity to improve their services – and that extends to focusing on a “can do” culture for staff.

“If complaints are opportunities to improve services, so too mistakes can tell us where we need to direct attention, and what works and what might not. Obviously, no one sets out to get things wrong, but nor will we change behaviour by doing all the same things and punishing attempts to do things differently.”

“Just as a shift in power is a necessary external component of service delivery reform, a shift in control is equally as necessary internally to bring this ‘can do’ focus to the fore. Control is anathema to the creativity and innovation we need from our people to get true transformation. They obviously need to work within the law and the parameters set by the Government, but they also need the room to create real, local solutions.”

Reforming service delivery involves revolutionary – not evolutionary – leadership:

The Commissioner says that transformational change can spark fear and the worst aspects of leadership can happen when people are afraid.

“It is easier to manipulate fear than it is to harness passion, heart and good spirit, but any outcome achieved that way isn’t worth having. Modern leadership takes people to a better place. Modern leaders work with and within the cultural fabric of an organisation to bring out what is best in their people.”

Their approach in integrating the various services was to acknowledge that the fears of the community and staff are real – and then stop and think about the best way forward.

“You deal with customer comfort concerns by treating all of our customers with respect and courtesy and by setting a standard for your offices, call and online services that any Australian would be proud of – tatty is simply not good enough. You deal with staff fears, by active and sustained engagement with them about the change and what is to come, and by delivering on the promise of the future.”

Their engagement with staff was based around three initiatives: regular communication; quality learning and development; and talent management.

Leaders must ‘walk the walk’, not just ‘talk the talk’:

The Commissioner reflected that to achieve major change, walking is far more important than talking.

“Studies have shown that people will do what they see a leader do; even when that leader tells them behaving that way is unacceptable.”

“We knew we needed to be united and supportive of each other. Everyone’s eyes were on us, and our confidence, commitment, united focus on the vision, and energy were fundamental to the transformation.”

Leaders must be prepared to change themselves to achieve transformational change:

Commissioner Briggs notes you can’t expect your staff to embrace change without embracing it yourself.

“From day one, Carolyn Hogg [the former Chief Executive Officer of Centrelink]and I knew we were doing ourselves out of a job. We could have sat back and waited for the legislation to bring that about, taken care of business as usual, and then let the new Secretary take charge on 1 July this year. To do that would have not only 18 wasted months but been an abject failure of leadership.”

“So, without the niceties of being a single agency, we merged our human resources and other enabling functions. We had people working in each other’s agencies, performing functions in one but formally reporting for accountability purposes to someone in another. With enormous goodwill from our staff, we forgot our structures and worked around our agency boundaries.”

It worked – they devised  a new ICT plan, merged governance arrangement and delivered 10% savings before the merger even took place.

Culture is critical to implementing change:

The new department continued the transformation by focusing on the culture of the new organisation.

“We are reporting back to staff what they have told us in co-design sessions and surveys about what they want in our culture, and we are using that as a lever for change. We also appreciate that if you want to change culture, you change work and that changes behaviours, which invariably changes attitudes and….cultures.”

They also made a commitment to their senior management to help develop their own leadership capabilities and encourage their innovations.

“That is the approach that we want all of our senior leaders to adopt with their staff as well, so that everyone has more room to move and more chance to improve the lot of Australians. The fact that the senior executive service has, in turn, committed to the vision of easy, high quality and works for you and to ‘engage and empower the public we serve’, will drive cultural change.”

Leadership takes inspiration and passion:

The Commissioner concludes that the leadership is about more than ‘bricks and mortar’ – implementing a set of projects, reorganising structures or changing funding .

“Leadership is emotional, and to do it well takes inspiration and passion. That passion will ignite the efforts of those whom we lead; just as surely as its absence will see those efforts flicker, but little more.”

“This encapsulates the heroic leadership concept I raised at the outset: passion, emotion, personal commitment, character, personal attributes, and empathy are all too dryly described as emotional intelligence. If you appreciate that these are all elements of great leadership, then you will see what I have believed throughout my public service career that we should all aspire to as leaders.”

Suddenly, many of the Commissioner’s comments during the Royal Commission make more sense.

You can read the full speech HERE.


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