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EMPA shows Joshua Watkin how to navigate an uncertain environment

19 May 2022

News and media


Image of EMPA Alumni Joshua Watkin


Sydney is a city in the midst of major transformation, particularly when it comes to its public transport system. Sydney Metro is currently leading a near $50 billion infrastructure portfolio featuring three mega projects.

The Sydney Metro City & Southwest project is extending the existing Metro North West Line under Sydney Harbour, creating new underground city stations and extending south west to Bankstown.

Sydney Metro West will feature a new underground railway to connect Greater Parramatta and Sydney CBD. Construction work on the new 24-kilometre metro line began in 2020.

Finally, the Sydney Metro – Western Sydney Airport project will become the transport spine for Greater Western Sydney and will connect to the new Western Sydney International Airport and the surrounding region.

Helping keep these projects on track is Joshua Watkin, Deputy Executive Director of the Project Management Office at Sydney Metro. He leads a 220-strong team responsible for key elements of these projects including cost estimating, cost management, planning and programming, risk management and reporting.

“Our teams are embedded in each of these projects day-to-day and they help control, manage, improve and optimise the delivery of these mega programs,” says Joshua.

“The scale of what we’re working on is the biggest challenge of my role. We do a lot of benchmarking globally and mega projects of more than a billion dollars are quite rare. To have three of them being delivered concurrently is generally unprecedented. Our programs and schedules have hundreds of thousands of activities in them, each linked and interdependent to be delivered over the course of the next ten years.

“We have been keeping pace with a very ambitious program and delivering on a month-to-month basis, even under the COVID restrictions. Other than construction pause periods where all activity was stopped, we’ve kept an incredible momentum going while we’ve faced global supply chain disruptions and workforce shortages. The scale and pace at which we are operating is remarkable.”

Joshua finds the pace and reach of his role exciting.

“There is a really significant volume of business as usual in delivering megaprojects, but naturally there are always new and unique challenges that constantly come up. There’s always an opportunity to do what we do better. We work in an evolving field of practice and a little bit of curiosity goes a long way,” he says.

Joshua grew up in Brisbane and a week after his 17th birthday he enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy. He served for 12 years as an Officer undertaking multiple deployments around the south west Pacific and around the world.

“I thought it would be easy to stay within my comfort zone, and study and work in Brisbane but I wanted to see the world and do outlandish, incredible things for a few years. We led humanitarian training exercises around the south west Pacific, encountered and dealt with pirates off the Horn of Africa, went through the Suez Canal and spent time on iceberg watch in the North Atlantic. My time in the Navy has given me an amazing and rare breadth of experiences and perspectives – as well as a lifetime of dinner party anecdotes!” he says.

Joshua later worked for the Commander of the Australian Fleet in Sydney that exposed him to meeting senior leaders, dealing with complex strategic issues of training and sustainment. The combined experiences were useful when he decided to leave the Navy in 2014 after another deployment to the Middle East.

He decided to return to study and completed a Masters degree in Peace and Conflict Studies. Not long after this, he joined Sydney Metro.

“They wanted someone to tie together the day-to-day governance of the agency and its projects, and to look ahead 30 years to the transport strategy being developed. Drawing on principles around long-term strategic decision making, and enterprise change and transformation were consistent with what I’d been doing,” says Joshua.

In 2019 he returned to the classroom once more when he enrolled with ANZSOG to complete the Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA).

“I was having more cross-government relationships and wondered how I could better appreciate the perspective of other agencies,” says Joshua.

A number of elements of the EMPA have resonated for Joshua, like how to govern in a volatile and uncertain environment and being comfortable operating in the ‘grey’ without a perfect sense of certainty.

“I really benefited from learning how to design government programs with incomplete or evolving information. At the start of the second year of the EMPA, COVID arrived which upended all traditional assumptions. But I felt comfortable going into something and saying ‘we don’t know everything but this is what we do know, here is how we can make that work’,” says Joshua.

Managing public sector organisations and discussions on how to be a change champion and frame a change journey have also been helpful. Joshua says the networks formed through group work activities broaden views and perspectives.

“Our work-based project was based on biosecurity mitigations and looking at what policy frameworks might be appropriate to strengthen Australia’s biosecurity arrangements. We identified stakeholders across government to talk to and when we started in 2019, it was mostly theoretical. Then the pandemic arrived and our academic work became a really pressing piece of the puzzle,” says Joshua.

“My work-based project team from the EMPA are still in contact. One is a senior leader in Victoria’s ambulance service and others work in defence technology. We all have a network of people to tap into for insights and experiences. I appreciate what I learned more and more each day.”

Find out more about ANZSOG’s Foundation Programs

Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA)

A part-time postgraduate qualification developed and delivered by ANZSOG exclusively for high-performing public sector managers.

Executive Fellows Program (EFP)

A program that challenges senior public service executives working in the public domain to develop new leadership perspectives in a contemporary and highly interactive setting.

Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL)

A unique program that helps public service leaders develop the qualities needed to thrive in a senior executive role: a strategic outlook, political astuteness, personal resilience and the ability to reflect and learn continuously.

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