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A conversation with ANZSOG alum and Deputy Melbourne Lord Mayor Nick Reece

12 June 2024

News and media


ANZSOG Alum Nick Reece has worked as a lawyer, journalist, public servant, political adviser, academic, chair of Movember  and director of The Big Issue. He was elected to the Melbourne City Council in 2016 and is expected to become Lord Mayor of Melbourne later this month. He was part of our inaugural Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) cohort in 2003, where he gained a framework for understanding public value. In this interview he talks about what he learned in the EMPA, what ministers want from public servants, the challenges of delivering substantive policy reform and the role of cities in Australia’s future. 

You’ve had an extremely varied career, in and around government and academia. What’s driven you to do so many different things?  

I’ve always been driven by a sense of public service, I think that’s the thread that runs through everything I’ve done.  A desire to serve the community and create value for the community. The lure of a high salary has never really tempted me. The challenges and rewards of public service has always seemed to be the best way to spend my professional life – and without wanting to sound jingoistic – to give the most back to my city, my state, my country and humanity.   

I’ve also been very fortunate that interesting jobs have kept opening up for me, keeping me on the learning curve and really engaged. I have worked for two Prime Ministers, two Premiers, and two Lord Mayors – I’m not sure there are too many others who can say that. There has not been any masterplan or strategy behind these moves. It really has just been a case of new opportunities opening up, or an existing job coming to an abrupt end as a result of the electoral or political process.  

I have enjoyed being close to decision making at senior levels in government. I enjoy getting things done, solving a problem, fixing something, making a decision, getting it right and moving on to the next challenge 

 I have also been fortunate to see government up close at all levels. It means I can see the value of each level of government. I am never one to knock or belittle one level of government over the other. 

I’ve also come to have an enormous amount of respect for people who serve in high office, regardless of political allegiance. Knocking our politicians is a national pastime, and that’s probably healthy in a robust democracy like ours. But if you stop and think about our political class and then compare them to the political leaders of other nations you quickly come to appreciate that maybe we are better off than we tend to think. For the most part Australian political leaders are hardworking, competent, down to earth, and lacking the delusions and wild ideological impulses you see in other countries, including other democracies. 

It is often said, and its true, that Australia is well served by its institutions of government, our public service, our key government organisations, and the mechanics of our system. I have been fortunate to work alongside some absolutely outstanding public servants – truly remarkable, intelligent and compassionate people. 

You were part of our first EMPA cohort, over 20 years ago, what long-term things did you take out of the program? 

I’m very proud to say I was part of the very first EMPA cohort. It’s been fascinating to see the career journeys of some of the other folks from that year – I’ve stayed in touch with quite a few of my class mates.  

I came from the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and the Premier’s Office, I came from inside the ivory tower at the centre of government you might say. To then suddenly find myself in a classroom alongside such a diverse range of people and professions was great – from serving police officers, Defence Department personnel, Immigration officers, people working in Indigenous Affairs and so on. It was a wonderful reminder of the diversity of roles that people perform in public service. I loved it. 

The EMPA was one of the best educative programs I’ve ever undertaken. If I had to pick one thing that had a profound impact on me, and has really shaped the way I approach governing over the long term, it would be Mark Moore’s public value framework. I was taught that subject by Professor John Alford, who is one of the most inspiring teachers Australia has ever known. The way it makes the distinction between private value and public value, and the notion of public value being a far more complex concept than private value, harder to measure, and harder to create. It was a light bulb moment for me, providing an insight into what we actually do in government.  

The “creating public value” framework is a really practical model which I have used regularly over the course of my career. It is also quite an inspiring way to look at what government does. 

As a former ministerial staffer, what would be your advice to a public servant who wants to build a good relationship with a minister’s office? What is that office looking for you to do? 

Frank and fearless advice is the first thing. Politicians desperately need it, and all public servants should feel duty-bound to provide it. 

Point two, put yourself in the shoes of the minister that you are advising. Make sure you understand the context in which they are doing their job. Try to understand the various competing forces, constituencies, and dynamics that they are trying to manage. That doesn’t mean you should start trying to give political advice. But it’s vital to have an awareness of the dynamics and pressures which the minister is under, and shape your advice in such a way that it can be made to work within that environment.  

The third thing I would say is be brief. Brevity is next to godliness for busy people so really be concise in your advice. Follow the writing rule of George Orwell. If a word is not needed, remove it.  

A good public servant must also be able to answer the hardest question a minister can ask when it comes to public policy making: “What should I do next?” What is the very next step to be taken in tackling this problem, managing this issue, advancing this policy agenda?  

And finally, politicians admire public servants who are able to get things done. There are lots of people out there who are really good at analysing the problem, giving you the pros and cons. What most politicians are looking for is people who can help them get things done – and that is actually really hard to do. 

Do you think that for our elected representatives the pressures are getting tougher, partisanship is higher, trust in government is declining? Is it possible to do good long-term policy in this environment?  

Yes, I agree with the premise of the question, and there’s certainly a good book to be written on this topic. It’s getting harder to make difficult but necessary enduring policy change in advanced democracies. I saw this to my great frustration during the Rudd-Gillard years. Many of the, I think, very worthwhile reforms of that period were unwound by the subsequent government. Particularly around climate action, we lost a decade on a really important issue for our country. 

I also think governing is getting harder because of the 24-hour news cycle, because of the rise of social media, the misinformation, because of the fact that everybody thinks they’re an expert and expects an instant response from government on every issue. I also think our electorate has become more fragmented as people disappear into information bubbles and don’t get exposed to the broader context or the broader range of arguments that they once did.   

So what can public servants, rather than political leaders, do in this environment, if they’re committed to getting good policy up, how can they work in this system?  

Firstly, public servants need to be the keepers of deep policy expertise and custodians of long-term policy development for Australia. As Victor Hugo said “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”. If you’re in the public service, you’re in the business of producing good ideas to serve our nation. A strategic public servant will wait for the right authorising environment, the window of opportunity to open for a good idea to be able to find political favour and public support and move the nation forward.   

I also think that public servants need to be constantly more agile in how they perform their roles. Once upon a time, the public service was the source of all advice to politicians outside of elections, and that’s no longer the case. So the public servants need to be able to bring deeper analytical skills to the table rather than just, what’s the factual answer to question? They need to be able to give broader strategic advice around how the right policy might be implemented in a fast-moving environment. 

We certainly need to be rebuilding the capability of the public service, after a period of decline. I hope that one of the legacies of the Albanese administration, and Glyn Davis’s period as Secretary of PMC, is the rebuilding of public service capability. The ability to provide strategic policy advice for Australia, policy advice that is fit for purpose, and a public service that can implement the governments agenda in a fast moving dynamic environment. 

Finally, I think the public service needs to be ever vigilant in trying to find better ways to deliver on the government’s agenda. A good policy with poor execution will result in a poor outcome. We should never underestimate the importance of being able to get the job done, deliver the service or program to high standard. We need to celebrate that more. 

Local government is often a bit overlooked in public debate, how do you see it fitting in to the bigger picture of the way Australia is governed? 

I think local government is fantastic. There is a lot to be said for being the level of government that is closest to the people, and until you’re actually in local government, you don’t have a full appreciation of that. You get the opportunity to think global and act granular. Translate a global challenge into real and practical change in your local neighbourhood and community. I also love the fact that you get to get stuff done in local government. You can get out there, crack on, and deliver projects. 

Something that really surprised me was the extent to which local governments are real little laboratories of democracy and policy experimentation in Australia. A lot of great ideas originate in local government. I never appreciated this when I was working in state and federal government. Now I regularly see local government running a small program to try and fix and problem – and it works. Next thing you know it is spreading to other local governments and getting copied by State and Federal programs which are basically the same but just on a larger scale. There’s a great PhD to be written by someone about these phenomena. 

What role are Australia’s major cities going to play in the future? 

In our rapidly changing world, cities are more important than ever before. Over half of the world’s population now live in cities. In Australia, we have always been a highly urbanised nation, the capital cities now account for two-thirds of the population and almost three quarters of GDP. 

Cities are where people and organisations come together, where investments are made, where new ideas are formed, where jobs are created and where most Australian lives are lived.  

Australia’s cities are going to be at the forefront of tackling the big challenges we face – from lifting productivity to climate action. Compact, well-planned cities provide a pathway to humanity being able to enjoy healthier, happier more prosperous lives while having a smaller footprint on our planet. Cities hold the key to humanity living a high-quality, prosperous life in a way that is sustainable. 

The City of Melbourne is the most densely populated municipality in Australia. And we sit at the heart of a city that is regularly rated as the most liveable in the world. Its a remarkable accomplishment. 

Finally, what it was like having been a behind-the-scenes adviser to now being an elected official? It’s not a path that many of our alumni have taken. 

As somebody who’s worked in the public service and a political office for a long time, nothing prepared me for the heart-racing terror and stomach-churning thrill, that is putting your name, and yourself, forward for election to public office. Until I did it, I must admit, I didn’t truly understand the emotional dimension that comes with it. It is truly a gut-wrenching exercise.  

Having overcome the electoral hurdle the rewards and satisfactions that come from achieving something worthwhile in public office is huge.  But then there is also the unrelenting and enormous pressure you are under from the media and the political contest. Add to that the sheer hard work, energy and commitment that is required. For a politician pushing for change it is a long hard grind.   

It goes back to my earlier point.  I have really come to have an enormous amount of respect for people who serve in high public office in our country, regardless of political allegiance. It is a bloody tough gig!