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Helping people be the best they can be – how Jacqui Curtis built her public sector career

21 October 2022

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Image of ANZSOG Alumni, Jacqui Curtis

Since ANZSOG was founded in 2002, thousands of public servants have benefited from our programs and courses. Many have gone on to senior and highly influential positions in public services across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. To celebrate ANZSOG’s 20 years of working with our owner governments to strengthen the quality of public sector leadership in Australia, this series of profiles looks at the achievement of our alumni, why they chose the public sector as a career, their views on how to lead and the importance of having a high-quality values-driven public service. 

Jacqui Curtis didn’t initially consider a career as a public servant, but a chance encounter led to ANZSOG alumni starting a career in the Australian Public Service in 2003. Two decades later she is Chief Operating Officer at the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), and also leads efforts to raise the profile and capability of Human Resources across the public service as the inaugural head of the Australian Public Service’s Human Resources Profession. 

Her philosophy of giving things a go and taking every opportunity to be involved, as well as a focus on people-centred leadership that helps people to be the best they can be, and a fascination with managing change, has seen her rise to senior roles and be awarded a Public Service Medal earlier this year.  

Moving into a public sector career 

Working at the Canberra Institute of Technology as business development manager, her career changed after a training consultant told her she could be contributing more in the public service – and urged her to apply for a job at the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC). 

“You don’t always realise what you have to offer, or where the possibilities are, because you haven’t stopped to think about it,” Ms Curtis said.  

“I couldn’t believe it when I was offered the position. I literally had to get books, and get on the internet, and read about what the Commonwealth Public Service does. It was an opportunity I was nervous about taking up because it was such a big change for me, but I thought they must see something in me, so I’ll give it a go. I’ve never thought ‘I can’t do it’ if people believe in me. 

“I signed up for the Executive Master of Public Administration within a few months. It was a difficult thing to do with four-year-old twin daughters – but worth it. If you want to have a career in the public service, you need to know what it is, what its core functions are, what makes it different to other sectors and in particular, learn public sector craft. You need to look at the whole system, not just your role and your department’s remit.  

“One of the great things about starting at the APSC was that I had visibility of every agency, and had interactions with most agencies, so I got that broad picture. Everything I had a chance to be involved in, I got involved in. Even if it wasn’t my business I’d go and find out about it, because I was super inquisitive and passionate about what I was doing. 

“The public service underpins civil society in Australia and it is often a ‘hidden’ thing in the sense that the public generally don’t fully understand it. We have a high performing public service in Australia and that is one of the main reasons why we have a great standard of living and way of life” 

Bringing people along with organisational change 

Joining the ATO in 2013 as Deputy Commissioner ATO People, Ms Curtis’s experience in leading major transformations supported the success of ‘Reinventing the ATO’ – a program of change to modernise the organisation and transform the ATO into a leader in government services.  

“So many projects come undone because people don’t think about how to bring people on a journey of a change. They think it’s too hard, but my experience is that there are things you can do that enable change and make change comfortable for people. 

“The Commissioner recognised that you wouldn’t get the right outcomes unless you got people to engage with the change –embrace the new processes, new technologies and ways of doing things – and responsibility for leading this was given to the Head of People.” 

The program has been widely-praised as a successful example of delivering change in a large organisation, and Ms Curtis said there were several reasons why it had succeeded. 

“The ATO had been around for 105 years and had a strong and deep culture that we needed to shift. One of the things we said at the outset was that there must be positives in that culture. We spent six months talking to staff about what was good about the organisation, and what we should recognise and celebrate. By the time we developed the characteristics of the new culture that we needed to drive us further, we were able to say to people that ‘this is the culture that you have identified’. 

“I’m really proud of being part of the change in the ATO, the effort that we have made to change the culture and the reputation of the organisation, from the community perception of ‘David and Goliath’ in our interactions with citizens, to one where we’ve shifted the culture and the experience that people have with us and where people feel proud of what the ATO does.  

“You can get fantastic results if you enable the cultural change that goes with process changes, because in the end it is people that will make lasting transformation possible.” 

Strengthening leadership through times of change 

Leading through disruptions like COVID-19 was an extension of Jacqui’s work implementing cultural change at large organisations. 

The pandemic in 2020 saw the ATO – an organisation with more than 20,000 employees across the whole of Australia – shifting to remote work, while adding the administration of billions of dollars of payments in economic stimulus such as Jobkeeper to its tax collection roles.  

“At the time our first thoughts were – how bad is this going to be? People were talking about how many deaths there might be, how sick people would get and what the response would be overall. These are big things when you are accountable for the workforce and their safety,” she said. 

“I drew on all the experience I had in dealing with crises and I tapped into all the networks I had. I looked back at EMPA and what I learnt from Professor Paul ‘t Hart about the importance of being visible and available, and the importance of communication. 

“I wanted to be really deliberate about getting the right people around me to help provide advice and develop a plan. Because I always feel that the more you can say what you are certain of, the easier it is to say ‘we know about this, but we’re still working on this’. In other words, you need to build confidence by being seen and transparent at all times.” 

She said that her COVID experience changed the way she leads personally and showed her how innovative and flexible the public service could be. 

“One of the things that I got out of this was more authentic and regular engagement with people. In the past I was more business-focused, and from that you get a different type of relationship with people. I’ve always tried to look at things through other people’s eyes – but I am better at it now and make it more of a focus. 

“Because we were under constant pressure to deliver at pace, we actually had to empower and trust people more. This demonstrated, not just to me, but to the ATO leadership team, that you can let go and people will do the right thing. People will blossom in that environment. 

“The better collaboration that we’ve seen across the public service during the pandemic has held up to a large degree, but I think there is a risk we are slipping back into old ways of working, the siloes and the competitiveness, which is not a place I think we should be.” 

Broadening the public service, recognising what Human Resources can contribute 

The Thodey Review into the APS in 2018 identified endemic gaps in public service capabilities. One of the responses was the creation of the APS Human Resources Professional Stream. In October 2019, Ms Curtis also took on the role of the HR Head of Profession which gave her the chance to pursue another passion: improving the capability of the Human Resources profession and awareness of the expertise and deep capability it can bring to organisations. 

“There are more than 4000 people who are part of the HR professional stream who now will have a greater sense of being valued and better recognised for what they are contributing, and who are better positioned to contribute to the public service through their work,” Ms Curtis said. 

She said there are many challenges facing employers at the moment. One of these is finding ways to attract people in a tight labour market. 

She said that some public service agencies are still using outdated recruiting processes that worked against some types of diversity, including people with different kinds of intelligence or creativity, and this would hamper them as they competed for talent. 

“We still have some conservative methods of recruitment and the result is we recruit people from a similar kinds of background, and often filter out diversity in the process of recruiting,” she said. 

“Where are the creative thinkers, the people who can bring a different perspective? Even if you do get them as soon as they join, we risk smothering them with rules, red tape and hierarchy.  

“In recent years, I think we’ve not put enough focus on building the capabilities that we need, and we are now trying to sprint to catchup. Things like digital and data, change management, diversity, and being able to innovate at pace – we’ve left it until two minutes to midnight.” 

Ms Curtis says that she has tried to lead by example and invest in staff and create a culture that supports staff. 

“I’m very proud of being a leader that builds really strong teams, I’m proud of helping people to be the best that they can be. I get a real buzz out of watching people that I’ve worked with go on and be happy in their work, and realise their potential,” she said. 

“Being able to help people with their lives – and to help people to be the best they could be – that’s something I’ve always held as a personal value.” 

“If there’s one thing I’d like people to say about me as a leader it’s ‘she really meant it when she said you have to invest in and support your people’.” 


Find out more about ANZSOG’s other Foundation Programs

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. 

Deputies Leadership Program 

A program designed for new Deputies in the public sector with a focus on frank conversations with practitioners and helping participants to grow their understanding of their leadership styles, their drivers and their aspirations – and building resilience to lead with integrity.