Mobilizing around purpose

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EY - Chris Eccles
Chris Eccles, Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in the Australian state of Victoria

Chris Eccles is Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in the Australian state of Victoria. Here, he tells Dean Yates, EY Victoria Government and Public Sector Leader, that the Public Purpose Sector is the future for government in Australia.

Dean Yates: Chris, you’re in the unique position of having led three State public sectors in Australia. Tell us about your career.

Chris Eccles: I think of myself as an accidental public servant. I’ve always been driven by a sense of purpose, so I never over-planned my career. Rather, I’ve been drawn to positions that offer interesting work alongside thoughtful and dynamic people. That open-minded, “go with your heart” attitude might be unconventional in senior leadership, but it has led me to interesting places.

I started my career as a lawyer in private practice. However, I quickly realized I wasn’t good at it and took up an opportunity to work as a legal officer in the Commonwealth Department of the Environment. I was working on conservation and world heritage issues for the Franklin River and Daintree Rainforest. This was all happening in the mid-1980s, a time of environmental activism and conflict over conservation. I found myself working on some of the most contemporary and high profile environmental matters, and I just fell in love with it.

Since then the public service has continued to provide me with the opportunities to work on areas of public policy that can deliver meaningful change and profound impacts on the lives of individuals. The work is as complex as it is rewarding and I find that hard to walk away from.

DY: What is the purpose of the Victorian public sector and how do you align your strategy and operations with that purpose?

CE: The purpose of the Victorian public sector is a moral one, defined by the impulse to create a better society. Our shared vision is to drive high-quality public policy, public administration and public sector performance for the benefit of all Victorians.

The seven departmental secretaries, together with the Chief Commissioner of Police and the Victorian Public Sector Commissioner, meet fortnightly and provide coordination and collective leadership to meet this vision. We use a model of truly collaborative leadership, premised on shared power and authority. We are determined to work as one, bound by the strength of common purpose and mutual trust.

Together, we are responsible for the stewardship of the public sector and ensuring it is fit for purpose now and into the future.

DY: You recently raised the concept of the Public Purpose Sector (PPS). What is it and why do we need it?

CE: The public service is no longer the sole provider of policies, programs and services. In practice, we work alongside non-state actors to deliver public value. In other words, there is a broader “public purpose” sector comprising government, business and civil society.

In Victoria, there is sizeable opportunity for what the PPS can achieve in concert with public, private, community and academic players. We have a strong community sector with many of Australia's national not-for-profits headquartered here. We have a vibrant business sector deeply connected to the public sector and civil society. We have an academic sector comprising eight universities made up of both “sandstone” and “technical” leaders. And we have a public sector that presides over an extremely robust system of cabinet governance and has a deserved reputation for national policy leadership.

If we can harness the strengths of each sector and build genuine partnerships between these sectors, there is enormous potential to create increased public value.


EY - Mobilizing around purpose interview

Chris Eccles (left) with Dean Yates, Victoria Government and Public Sector Leader, EY


DY: Sceptics would say the public sector has always been focused around purpose. What’s different about the PPS?

CE: Having a clear moral purpose is a pre-condition for any major public policy endeavor. What’s different about the PPS is that the purpose is not just what motivates us, it is the mechanism through which we organize ourselves.

DY: What are some examples of the PPS delivering, where a more traditional public sector approach would not?

CE: In Australia, the National Disability Insurance Scheme is the poster child for the PPS. It’s a case study for successful policy development: a powerful moral case demonstrating need, muscular and effective community advocacy, independent endorsement and evaluation from the Productivity Commission, the development of coalitions of support, parliamentary bipartisanship, and legislative and administrative follow-through. The success of the National Disability Insurance Scheme hinges on all sectors coming together around a shared purpose.

In Victoria, we employed a public purpose approach when a Royal Commission into Family Violence offered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to examine our system from the ground up and rebuild it with victim survivors at the center. The traditional public sector approach would not have achieved this, so we used the opportunity to activate a PPS approach around the needs of service users.

The Royal Commission had found that, despite increasing demand for crisis accommodation and the use of motels as a stop gap measure, the vacancy rate of refuge rooms was reported to be as high as approximately 30%.

A PPS approach was deployed to address this issue with a consortium of government, not-for-profit, and private sector providers. The Department of Health and Human Services; the not-for-profit crisis accommodation coordinator, Safe Steps; and Conduct HQ, a Melbourne-based digital developer, were funded to co-design a real time online register system that provides visibility of capacity across the sector’s service providers.

This PPS approach delivered a digital tool that allows better and faster allocation of refuges to women and children. It also enables policymakers and service providers to gather data to better understand the health of the system and allocate resources to better respond to the evolving demands of service users.

DY: How can public service leaders bring the PPS concept alive?

CE: Bringing the PPS concept to life requires new institutional frameworks, an expanded view of capability and a new networked approach to accountability. The biggest shift is in the way we conceptualize “sectors”. Under the PPS model, there are no third-party contributors. We are instead collaborators, co-designers and co-deliverers.

A shift in mindset will be required to achieve a networked approach for shared accountabilities and responsibilities. The model of linear accountability is outdated. Instead, we must embrace the model of collective leadership. This is the shift my colleagues and I are driving in the Victorian Public Service.

DY: What contributions do non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector need to make to add to the dialogue and create a sense of trust and purpose in this way of working?

CE: NGOs and the private sector need to unite with the public sector to build a network of trust. The foundation for trust is acting with integrity and accountability. My advice to the NGOs and private sector is the same as the advice to my own staff. Earn trust through your behavior and your service to the people of your community. Then double down and set out to earn it again and again.

DY: How can creating a broader PPS add value to the careers of public servants?

CE: A PPS means that public servants do not have to give up what motivates them to experience other workplaces. Instead of the sectors competing for talent, the sectors can collaborate to share talent.

Also, more employment options across and within the PPS could lead to a greater diversity of people turning their minds to a career in the PPS. It is important to have diversity of cultures, ideas and experience in any workplace, but particularly in the public service. We will be better able to serve our community when we are more representative of it.

DY: Where do citizens feature in the PPS and contributing to problem solving?

CE: Citizens are also essential stakeholders in defining problems and designing solutions. The most effective public purpose organizations and networks engage their community early and often, asking questions and listening deeply. They stay connected to experts, to the workforces they rely upon and the communities they serve. They also build coalitions motivated by a shared purpose to co-design and co-create better outcomes.

As a result of outsourcing, the public service has lost much of its direct intelligence into what is going on at the local community level. We’re not everywhere all the time, the way we used to be. Without public servants delivering services directly at the local level, we’ve lost that network of seismographs that once gave us important early warnings about the effects of gradual economic and social change. As a result, we perhaps know less than we should about the needs of some of our most battling communities. Joining up the PPS helps to reunite us with the pulse of what our communities are feeling, experiencing and demanding.

DY: What accountability mechanisms will we need in the PPS?

CE: Effective public purpose organizations must have a clarity of purpose, a culture of inquiry, and routines to innovate, deliver and maximize value – all underpinned by a culture of accountability. This will require a cultural change from all involved parties.

Our non-government partners will need to become better at accepting responsibility for the co-design and collaborative achievement of broad societal outcomes, rather than seeing themselves as responsible for delivering tightly-defined services.

Within the public service, we will need to be more adaptable in building shared accountability into the way our public services operate. Building a true partnership of accountability will require effort to adapt our budget strategies, our performance management, the way we manage and share information, and how we assess what works and what doesn’t among competing policy options.

The Victorian Public Service has made progress in many of these arenas. We have established the Victorian Centre for Data Insights to help transform the way government uses data. The centre is currently focusing on the foundations, developing legislation to clearly outline how data can be shared for policy and service design, and to provide protections and safeguards to make sure it is used in the right way. Eventually, the centre will work to enhance our understanding about what works, and why, leading to more integrated and effective policies and services, and ultimately, better outcomes for Victorians.

DY: Fast forward 10 years and let’s assume the PPS is adopted in Victoria. What would success look like?

CE: To build a successful PPS, we need a structure in place that unites us and drives cooperation. The mechanism is organizing ourselves around the outcomes that matter. Pursing outcomes will provide clarity about our shared purpose and our objectives – it will help us all to step away from the siloed, portfolio driven approach.

We must keep in mind that the outcomes we seek are not numbers. They are not data points to be plotted on graphs and put on PowerPoint slides. Outcomes are about people. They are about helping people and communities to achieve their full potential.

That is the ultimate success for the PPS, making our communities better places for people to live better lives.