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Ken Smith’s farewell address as ANZSOG Dean and CEO

7 October 2022

News and media


Ken Smith at desk

The following is an edited version of the farewell speech given by ANZSOG’s former Dean and CEO Ken Smith in Melbourne on 29 September, 2022


I would like to recognise the Traditional Custodians of the land we are meeting on, the Kulin Nation, their elders past and present here in Melbourne and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across Australia, and Maori in Aotearoa. Tēnā koutou, Tēnā koutou, Tēnā koutou Kātoa.

Difficult years and opportunities

The last few years have been difficult for all of us individually and organisationally. We have adjusted amazingly, but at an incredible price.

We will no doubt be responding personally, at home and in the workplace, to the impact of the pandemic and its aftermath for years to come.

I vividly remember the team meeting in our old Lygon Street offices in February/March 2020 and discussions about what this COVID business was going to mean for us.

But this afternoon gives us the opportunity to reflect on ANZSOG’s short but amazingly successful 20-year history with fellow ‘FANZSOGs’, to not just celebrate but also embrace the challenges we will face over the next few decades.

All of us in this room have dedicated most of our lives to public service, public value or ‘the spirit of service’ – that apt term that our friends from Aotearoa use, as a unifying concept to emphasise the importance of ‘heart’ (or what you might call collective emotional intelligence), as well as technical intellect.

Strong organisations like ANZSOG develop in response to a variety of challenges over time. I have always believed change in any organisation tends to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

ANZSOG’s reputation remains strong, but as with any organisation, needs ongoing attention to remain at the top of its game.

A personal reflection on leadership

We all come to leadership positions with various objectives in mind to take a place in certain directions, some we can achieve with the support of others, and some great plans get caught up in external ‘events’, like those of the last few years.

I am reminded of former UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s response when asked the greatest challenge to his administration: ‘events, dear boy, events’

I would like to reflect on where we are after 20 years and a few of the challenges ahead.

How a federated structure on steroids with 26 members across two nations operates effectively, continues to surprise and inspire me. Like any Federated structure, it requires patience to manage negotiations and ambiguity across very different and highly autonomous structures.

ANZSOG was created with a clear purpose and support by the authorising environment- the governments of the day. In particular, the governments of Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

As you all know, if getting the authorising environment and purpose aligned is hard, the third part of the Mark Moore strategic triangle – building ongoing organisational capacity to ensure successful implementation – is also difficult. Keeping all three aligned in real time is of course the toughest challenge.

Sometimes leadership feels like ‘dancing the Pride of Erin with an elephant in a room full of treacle’. Often, we study leadership and its role in change processes intently. But, as Robert Caro so eloquently describes in that magnificently evocative biography, Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, leadership, in this case the US senate, can be just as successful at stifling progress, often at complete odds with the democratic will.

So, various fires have been started over the last few years:  and are hopefully now contained. It will now be up to successive Boards and my successor, Adam Fennessy, to either or douse the flames (depending on events), do some protective backburning as well as starting some new controlled outbreaks.

A few reflections on priorities

I would like to make a few more specific reflections on what I believe is vital for ANZSOG’s continued strength, reputation and relevance.

1. Making sure that all ten owner governments are fully engaged is vital: that’s why our unique status of being owned by and working for the governments of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand is so crucial to our positioning.

Having said that there is a strong case to re-negotiate the compact with all governments going forward beyond individual transactional activities.

2. Ensure university members are confident that ANZSOG is totally committed to the highest standards of quality: this will allow us to engage the universities as partners to develop joint opportunities beyond the EMPA.

3. Maintain and strengthen governance systems at Board and organisational levels: we all share the dictum that good process leads to good decisions, and I think this is an area in which ANZSOG can be proud, having developed comprehensively and with a high degree of professionalism, eye to detail and determination.

The ongoing strength of our balance sheet is a major asset (excuse the pun!) which if we continue to manage well will mean we will still be around for decades to come. Building necessary income to cover our regular operations and investment of our endowment, primarily in R&D, is essential to provide stewardship to a strong capable future.

4. Continuing our journey on what is a strategic difference and advantage for Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand: the recognition of and advancing First Nations public administration issues in all our work.

We have made some small steps in the last few years, likely not fast enough for many, but still a solid legacy to build on. The ability for the two nations to learn from each other and take lessons forward within the Pacific Fale, ASEAN nations, the Sub-Continent and Central Asia provides some great opportunities for positive differentiation of ANZSOG domestically and internationally.

5. Focus on being ‘demand led’ whilst informing demand: with the variety of issues impacting on our government owners, this can be easier said than done.

We have been able to shift the dial in this regard. It’s been tough driving this change, but the foundations are there with significant growth in research and advisory, custom education and established structures which attempt to ‘herd the cats” to support good public administration across all ten jurisdictions.

But much still needs to be done to institutionalise this relationship with government and re-establish the compact with governments about how they want to commission or contract ANZSOG’s services to ensure greater consistency across and within jurisdictions,

6. Recognising the changing nature of government: particularly its relationship to the broader public purpose sector. We need to understand that much of government is about commissioning, procuring and contracting of services. Partnerships are therefore increasingly important and there are no hard red lines but a wider transitional zone between government and civil society in particular. This has major implications for ANZSOG going forward, and finally

7. Doing much more to build public administration faculty, both academic and practitioners: this requires innovative thinking and investment in faculty, recruitment and development. ANZSOG has deployed some major financial incentives in this space, but we have a long way to go to recruit new talent.

This isn’t just an Australian phenomenon, as Frances Fukuyama states in a recent article on The Decline of American Public Administration. He says that there is a:

“Crisis in public administration as a field…PA programs have ether disappeared or have been folded into public policy programs with increasing focus on policy analysis rather than practical skill building.

I came to the position highlighting this major problem and I leave without having a clear path to resolution, despite the increasing cohort of highly educated and talented people that make up the ANZSOG alumni.

Concluding comments

In conclusion, I would like to sincerely thank the chairs and board members of ANZSOG over the last 20 years who have led the boards strategically shaping and crafting this wonderful organisation, which has delivered so much, but yet has much more it can achieve in focusing our public services to deliver greater public value.

In particular, Glyn Davis who preceded me as Chair, Helen Silver, Chris Eccles, Finn Pratt, Peter Hughes – the first from Aotearoa – and the current Chair Peter Woolcott who has consolidated ANZSOG reputationally in the midst of an international pandemic and helped us position as we, hopefully, slowly emerge from the COVID fog.

To my work colleagues across our offices here in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, Wellington, and Brisbane, both staff and faculty, it has been an absolute joy to work with such a professional, smart, dedicated and hard-working crew. I would particularly like to recognise those I have worked with closely on a day-to-day basis.

We can be very proud of our many achievements, often at the most difficult of times in our organisation’s short 20-year history.

In the end, we all retain one thing in common through ANZSOG:

We are committed to lifting the capacity of the public service as a key pillar of our societies’ democratic institutions, so we can better serve the community with independence, professionalism, and humility.

Tēnā koutou, Tēnā koutou, Tēnā koutou, Kātoa.