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Connection, customer and culture: ANZSOG Dean and CEO Adam Fennessy’s vision for ANZSOG

21 November 2022

News and media


Image of Adam Fennessy, new Dean and CEO of ANZSOG

I have commenced my role as Dean and CEO of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government at a time of both great change and great opportunity for the public sector and for ANZSOG. In their responses to COVID-19, the public services across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand showed they could rise to the occasion and be relied on to support the public when the rubber hit the road. This happened because of a long-standing culture of excellence, hard work and resolve fuelled by total commitment to serving the community. The challenge now is to learn from both successes and failures and embed them into the future work of governments across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. This will be particularly important in strengthening partnerships with our communities and grassroots organisations.  

For ANZSOG it is also a time of change, as we return to face-to-face learning and engagement and work our way through how we can best serve our government owners in this challenging environment. We work across a wide range of areas, from our flagship education programs such as the Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA), research and advisory services, custom education, thought leadership, auspicing a regulators community of practice, First Nations engagement and international programs across Asia and the Pacific. Our strength comes from being an organisation that is more than the sum of its parts, and from being able to use our networks and knowledge to build public leadership programs that no other organisation can. 

I want to thank the many ANZSOG staff who have helped with my transition into the role, with my particular gratitude going to Ken Smith AO, as the immediate previous Dean and CEO.  Ken’s leadership has made a lasting and significant impact on ANZSOG, and I will benefit from his many years of commitment, drive and public sector experience. I have spent many hours over the last few months hearing Ken’s thoughtful insights and advice on past, present and future challenges and opportunities for ANZSOG.  

In my initial weeks at ANZSOG I have had the opportunity to reflect on what are three initial priorities for me as ANZSOG Dean and CEO: connection, customer and culture.  

ANZSOG’s unique position is that we are an organisation that is jointly owned by the ten governments of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. We have a strong history of working with our owner governments to meet their current and future needs, and to help them to deliver public value to the communities they serve. We do this in close partnership with our globally connected university members and partners across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.  Maintaining those connections with governments and universities and that awareness of public sector leadership needs will always be at the core of what we do. 

In my first few weeks in the role, I spent three days on Arrernte country in Alice Springs for the Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand Public Sector Commissioners Conference, giving me the chance to connect with my former peers in my new role. I am prioritising connecting with our ten owner governments and 16 member universities over the coming months, and before the end of 2022 I will have visited all ten of our jurisdictions across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. 

I am energised by our focus on our customers.  As well as our members and owners, we support present and emerging public sector leaders and others working across the public purpose sector through our education and other programs. By creating quality public sector leadership, we ultimately serve people and communities by making governments better at serving their customers – the public. 

The way we work as public servants is within our control to a substantial degree – all the ways we interact with people and communities, the way we listen and co-design, the messy work of getting out there and talking to people. These are capabilities and practices that governments can and should develop and improve. Solving difficult community problems cannot be done by governments alone. It requires working with communities and stakeholders in a way that gives them genuine agency and influence over policy design and implementation. 

I was interested and encouraged to see the recent publication of the first ever State of the Customer report from the NSW Department of Customer Service. The report highlights the innovation and leadership of the NSW Government in ensuring the customer voice is part of the conversation for NSW Government decision making into the future.  We can all learn from this innovation. 

The importance of culture

I am a firm believer in the importance of culture for public sector organisations and that ANZSOG can play a role in building that culture. In my previous role as Victorian Public Sector Commissioner we measured culture relentlessly, and we shared learnings across public sector agencies about how to improve it.  A positive workplace culture internally will be the enabler for everything we do at ANZSOG. This will be my top priority as the new ANZSOG Dean and CEO.   

I had the moving experience last month of attending a memorial service in Canberra for the late Dr Allan Hawke AC, who passed away in August.  Dr Hawke had a remarkable career of public service and leadership.  He was Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Paul Keating, Secretary of three Commonwealth Departments including the Department of Defence; High Commissioner to New Zealand and Chancellor of the Australian National University; and chair of his beloved Canberra Raiders NRL club.  He was also a sometime mentor to me when he was Secretary of the Department of Transport and Regional Services, where I started my public service career as a graduate in the 1990s.   

Allan Hawke was renowned for his focus on people and culture, and was the first Secretary to have his Department accredited as an Investor in People. I learnt from Allan that culture comes ahead of strategy and policy smarts. If you invest in your people and your culture, you will become a high performing organisation and make an impact across communities.  I know Allan had a widespread and enduring impact on many public sector leaders, and we are grateful for his leadership and service. 

All governments are operating in turbulent times. To the disruptions caused by COVID-19 we can add growing economic and geopolitical uncertainty. There is a growing sense that the big problems that society faces – climate change, energy, social inequality and political polarisation – will not be solved by business as usual. 

There is a significant opportunity after the COVID-19 pandemic to reconsider how government workplaces and programs are designed. Under pressure of a global crisis, public servants had to innovate and cooperate out of necessity, and were able to respond much more quickly than in normal times. For example we had been talking about digital government for twenty years.  When COVID-19 hit, we were doing it within eight weeks.  

The challenge now is to capture and embed these new practices, and determine how we take the best of what we learnt about service delivery out of COVID-19 and blend it with the rigorous, process-driven way the public sector has traditionally worked. Part of that will be reimagining how exactly public service organisations work: how do we move to a ‘work from anywhere’ mindset that is based on outcomes for people, and captures gains in productivity and satisfaction from remote working, while maintaining collegiality and organisational culture. 

To assist this, I want to build on ANZSOG’s reputation for excellence in leadership education and research by enhancing our focus on practitioner-led learning and crisper translation of research insights. This is what I am hearing from our owner governments: they are asking for insights that are “short, punchy and current”.  To do this, we should continue our work in bridging the research gap in government and make it available to practitioners, in formats they can use, as quickly as possible. As part of this, we can dive deeper, as we should, to bring to governments the best national and global evidence-based research that tackles the big challenges facing Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.  

We have recently commissioned, completed and published two collaborative research projects that are directly relevant to post-pandemic governance – one with UNSW and NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet on place-based service delivery post COVID-19, and the other with UNSW Canberra and the ACT Public Service on flexible work. These are excellent examples of relevant research that ANZSOG has delivered in partnership with our owner governments and member universities.  

We have recently opened registrations for our First Nations conference to be held in Meanjin Brisbane in March 2023. This event is a unique forum that brings public servants, academics and First Nations communities together to share stories of success, build networks and discuss how governments can work with First Nations people to build the partnerships that are required for long-term change. This is an area where we are working with governments and communities to lead the transformation that Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand need to make. 

At the heart of what ANZSOG offers, are our education programs, in particular the Executive Master of Public Administration. The EMPA, like all our programs was required to shift online during the pandemic, and we are now delivering in a blended format. The value and quality of the EMPA has been confirmed by an independent review in 2021 and ensuring that it continues to meet the needs of governments, and the high-performing cohort that undertakes the EMPA each year will be a priority. Likewise, the Executive Fellows Program, Towards Strategic Leadership, Deputies Leadership Program and Public Leadership Masterclasses are highly valued programs which serve different needs of our owner governments. 

We are moving into a time where effective leadership in the public sector will be both more challenging to achieve, and more important. With a focus in ANZSOG on our connections, our customers and our culture, we can do it. Thanks to the work of my predecessors and the team at ANZSOG we are well positioned to be part of positive and significant change underway within governments across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand to transform the quality of our public sector leadership.