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Finding a common language for public servants in all tiers of government: David MacLennan

23 July 2019

News and media


Image of David MacLennan facing the camera and leaning against the wall.

David MacLennan has seen it all. He is that rare public servant who has worked in every tier of government from federal to state to local, as well as spending time as a foreign diplomat and even once seconded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to the Peruvian Government.

A career public servant who worked at the highest levels within Parliament House in Canberra and now finds himself Chief Executive Officer of the City of Vincent in Western Australia.

He also completed the Australia and New Zealand School of Government’s Executive Fellows Program (EFP) in 2015 and says that his wider perspective of the public sector at every level has allowed him to see the unique benefits of ANZSOG’s work.

“What ANZSOG has done really well, and I think it was one of the aims, is it’s given policy makers and public servants a shared language, in which to communicate between government departments. ANZSOG is starting to cultivate this shared language, which is essential for good communication and relationship building, as well as trying to get agreements on policy direction and program delivery,” David said. 

“You start speaking about the strategic triangle of public value and the role of the modern public sector manager and it helps identify the common threads between what could otherwise be seen as very diverse portfolios or departments within a Federal or State Government bureaucracy or between local governments.”

The EFP is a three-week intensive course for elite public sector executives that brings together leaders from every level of government, as well as not-for-profits, other public sector roles and an international cohort.

David said he can now judge whether a fellow public servant has had ANZSOG training. “You can tell pretty quickly if someone has had exposure to ANZSOG because you start off with a common language and you talk about similar challenges in the same sort of language, picked up either in the EFP or exec manager’s course (the Executive Master of Public Administration),” he said. “The discussions then run faster and in the same direction because you’re not trying to work out what specialist technical language each other is speaking because they’ve come from a different regulatory or different public sector discipline.”

David said his unique perspective on every branch of government meant he was enthusiastic about the community-facing nature of his current local government role.

“Every time I move between federal, state and local government, people ask what the differences are. I have always felt that people tend to exaggerate the differences between neighbouring countries like New Zealand and Australia even though there are a lot more similarities. Because we pronounce the words ‘six’ and ‘fish’ slightly differently, we spend hours debating how different we are, but there are far more similarities than differences in my view and it’s the same between federal, state and local government. We’re doing the same thing from a slightly different perspective, or different tier of government, and we have very similar objectives and outcomes, but there is an obvious difference in scale.”

David signed up for the EFP when he transitioned from being a foreign diplomat to working in the WA state government. He was keen to build some multi-level government relationships and better understand the mechanics of state government policy and project delivery away from the federal level.

“If you’re in a policy area in the Commonwealth Government, you’re dealing with smaller numbers of staff but in state government, you might be doing more service delivery, so you’re dealing with larger numbers of staff and managing larger resources and projects where you’re much closer to the delivery. 

“The EFP was quite useful from that aspect, about how to go about managing the communication and consultation aspect of policy making and program delivery. It can be easy to get the theory right and craft a perfect public policy in a vacuum but communicating that policy to the community and communicating the need for change is an art form in its own right.”

David says a big challenge facing all levels of government today is infrastructure delivery, because of the major risks involved in community acceptance of major projects. But he also said this is where he enjoys his local government role, because in this digital age of global communications, and being plugged in 24/7, there is a parallel desire for people to feel that they belong to a community and are involved in local projects, facilities and groups.

“The key, which the EFP addressed, is how you engage and navigate around that community aspect of our work,” he said. “Local governments do that every day because we’re in charge of most of the roads, the parks, the sidewalks, the public buildings and many community services. The federal or state government might build it or fund it, and deliver it, but the infrastructure usually ends up being a local government asset to manage and maintain. Government should not underestimate the value that local communities place on their unique places and spaces.”

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