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Taking a different path to the top: Jacqueline McGowan Jones’s journey

4 July 2022

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Throughout Jacqueline McGowan Jones’s career she has held roles that focus on improving outcomes for children and young people – across education, child protection, Indigenous law and justice – both in the public service and NGOs.

Her current ‘dream job’ as Western Australia’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner gives her the chance to act as a voice on behalf of young people, speak truth to governments, and push for long-term reforms to protect the most vulnerable.

She says the role of Commissioner is a way for her to demonstrate to others the value of heart, empathy, and a culture of “serving”.

“In Aboriginal culture, we would say there is a role to “hold” or “look after” family and country and a “boss” is someone who “shares in order to look after their family and country”. So, for me, my jobs have always had an element of being personal – but none so much as the Commissioner role.”

“Every Aboriginal child is born to be an Elder one day and I feel a personal responsibility to ensure they can achieve this destiny. More broadly, all children are born to be Elders at some time – and that means they need all the support that is possibly required to live healthy, happy lives…  So, that is how I approach my role – we need to listen to our kids to ensure they have a say about their future.”

She said that government agencies, and society in general, needed to collaborate better to help children who were most at risk.

“We need to change our approach to dealing with issues. We have got a homelessness strategy, a drug and alcohol strategy, an out-of-home-care strategy, why wouldn’t you have a Child and Family Wellbeing strategy, because all of those things impact on wellbeing, we are only addressing the symptoms, and I am really keen to talk about that.”

“We need to demonstrate to governments that are so embedded in the election cycle that to see true change you need to fund both ends of the spectrum – prevention and aftercare – for at least one generation, and after that the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff is a lot less costly.”

Ms McGowan Jones is an Arrente/Warramungu woman who grew up in the Victorian town of Bendigo. She left school after Year 10 and has worked in a range of roles each with their own challenges.

“I once was asked to do a presentation on my career and I called it ‘The Accidental Leader’ – because I’ve never planned a thing and taken opportunities as they happen,” she said.

“But I never once said to anyone ‘that is not my job’, I’ve never said ‘I can’t do it I’ve got to go home, I’ve always said oh well I’ll give it a go and see what happens.”

“I have sometimes probably had an overly ambitious idea of what I might achieve, but I’ve put in long hours to try and achieve what I thought I was going to achieve.

Building experience and skills

After leaving school, Ms McGowan Jones held a number of jobs before moving to Canberra in the mid-1980’s to take on a role as Industrial Relations Manager on the Parliament House Construction Site.  When that project came to an end she undertook the role of CEO with an Employment Disability Service for 12 months, before friends she had made in Canberra suggested the public service.

“I started as a “temp” in the Health Insurance Commission, and over the years, I looked at opportunities and was truly blessed to have some amazing experiences – working in the Airport Sales Team when they privatised the Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth Airports; working on the Bringing them Home Taskforce; working in the Medicare Professional Review Division – all fabulous opportunities to build on my experience and skills,” she said.

“I stayed in the Public Sector until 2019 as it continued to offer me diversity, opportunity and challenges.  I left and found opportunities in the NGO sector – which I had done briefly in Canberra before starting in the Public Service and loved the opportunities to continue to grow and develop.

Ms McGowan Jones says one of the roles she is proudest of is her work as a Director in the National Network Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in the administrative arm.  A key part of the role was the provision of training and support for the elected representatives (Regional Councils) – the body was abolished by the federal government in 2005 – and says that despite the abolition of ATSIC the organisation lifted Indigenous capability and created a powerful network that is still active in Indigenous policy.

She also points to her work as an Executive Director in the WA Office of Aboriginal Education, where she led the development and implementation of the Aboriginal Cultural Standards Framework for Culturally Responsive Schools, which moved towards ensuring schools developed implementation plans to move toward culturally safe and responsive schools.

“We used an approach aligned to AITSL standards – creating culturally responsive schools, embedding Aboriginal culture in the curriculum and embedding Aboriginal perspectives across the curriculum. We made a real change to how people had the discussions around Aboriginal students and how to have that culture of high expectations,” she said.

Overcoming ‘impostor syndrome’ with an ANZSOG EMPA

Along the way Ms McGowan Jones undertook an ANZSOG Executive Master of Public Administration in 2012. She was able to do this after Curtin University agreed to accept her enrolment despite her lack of an undergraduate degree, in recognition of her professional experience.

“While I had work experience and lived experience and had been very lucky to have some great mentors who provided me with support and opportunity, to be able to successfully compete for senior roles I needed to solidify this experience with a formal qualification,” she said.

She said that the EMPA had taught her a great deal about herself and her own leadership, and the importance being engaged in her work

“I learned a great deal about myself. In particular, I sometimes privately suffered from the Impostor Syndrome – fear that somebody is going to work out I don’t know what I am doing – and doing the EMPA meant I had a recognised qualification that told me I was capable.

“I also learned how to better use “emotional intelligence” and I believe that the leadership units provided me with great learnings about my own approaches, how to expand my leadership approach and how to mentor others to develop their leadership skills, and re-think some of the ways in which I led a team.

The EMPA also showed me the importance of being engaged in work that you are passionate about We are not always that lucky, but I certainly learned that just “doing a job” meant that I was not operating at my most capable and was letting down others in the team.

Ms McGowan Jones says that one of the keys to recruiting and retaining First Peoples in the public sector is to invest in learning and development, because many had left school early or had not been to university.

There are other areas that she says need to be changed to attract and keep more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees, and ensure that they can make it to senior levels.

“One is that we need to show people that you are deskbound for the first few years while you learn, but you can then go to the next level where you are leading decision-making and be active in your community and being engaged,” she said.

“There should be a strong focus on how do we do cross-collaboration with the Aboriginal Community-Controlled Sector, and how we have opportunities for secondments between the two? If you are an Aboriginal public servant how do you take some of that knowledge and give it to an organisation? And vice versa – how can we give public servants the knowledge about what it takes to run an NGO.”

“The other part is truly doing cultural competence that would allow managers to be confident with Aboriginal staff and to hold them to the same standards as all staff and be honest about issues. Cultural competence is not just knowing history, but knowing how you engage in difficult conversations, and how you have a culture of high expectations for Aboriginal staff.

Giving frank and fearless advice

Ms McGowan Jones said that it was a tension for all bureaucrats that they had to implement the policies of the government of the day, and that her current role was a statutory authority which gave her more freedom.

“I think we’ve lost the Frank and Fearless advice bit in recent decades, and some of that ability to think outside of what the government of the day is doing,” she said.

“We do not do individual complaint investigations, but we can do inquiries and investigations into systemic issues.

“One of the key things is how do we get cross-government understanding about the need to do things differently and to work collaboratively?

“How do we get agencies who are impacting our kids, and society more broadly, to really understand those kids that are at the pointy end? Those kids who are not engaged in education, and are involved in the legal system, the kids that might be in the out of home care system, kids from low socio-economic backgrounds.  It is very disheartening to see our kids marginalised further as people define them by their living situation – something totally out of their control.

She said her other key issue would be advocating to make sure children and young people have a voice in the decisions of governments.

“I am constantly amazed at the keen insight our young people have and the way in which they approach problem solving and solutions focus.

“Kids and young people have amazing ideas and real concerns, and I would hope to embed the engagement of children and young people as part of program and policy design – because they are the people who will live with the decisions that we make today.”