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More pressure, more accountability – why Deputies need to step up and change how they lead

25 October 2021

News and media


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The Deputy role has always been crucial in the public sector, but today’s deputies are facing greater pressures, greater scrutiny and greater politicisation of their roles, and are often under-prepared for the challenges of stepping up from a comparatively less complex executive role or transferring from the private sector.

This new phase of a career requires more than a new skillset. It requires a new approach to leadership and a new understanding of the environment they are working in.

ANZSOG’s Deputies Leadership Program will challenge participants to think more broadly about the potential of a Deputy role and show them how they can develop an integrity-based leadership style.

The program features practitioners with Deputy experience who will provide an opportunity to reflect on the challenges of the role and how to build a network of fellow deputies from across jurisdictions and agencies.

The Program will be directed by Kathryn Anderson, current partner at Cube Group and former Deputy Secretary at the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Department of Health and Human Services, and Martin Stewart-Weeks, an organisational consultant and digital transformation expert with 35 years of experience in the public, private and for-purpose sectors including roles as Chief of Staff to a Federal Minister and senior roles in the Commonwealth and NSW public service.

Growing pressure and responsibility

While the role of deputy has been seen as a ‘choke point’ within public sector organisations, both Ms Anderson and Mr Stewart-Weeks believe that the pressures on Deputies have increased in recent years – even before the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms Anderson believes the pace has intensified in recent years, with a changing media cycle and community expectations partly behind the shift.

“In many jurisdictions, the rise of mega-departments has meant that the scale and spread of what deputies are doing has grown – they actually have resources and budgets commensurate with where some departments used to be, and closer working relationships with ministers and their offices,” she said.

“One of the big differences from other senior executives is that you have much greater accountability for the functioning of entire organisations. Stepping into the Deputy role means you’ve got a seat at the table, and that can be a mindset shift.”

Mr Stewart-Weeks added that deputies need to meet political and policy goals, while responding to challenging issues that lead to added pressure.

“Many roads lead to the deputy secretaries’ offices, it’s a pivot point for organisations. The upside is you have an enormous capacity for influence and to get things done. The downside can be the accumulation of high pressure and high expectations,” he said.

He believes the role of Deputies within the political environment, including relationships with Ministers and their offices, has changed a lot in recent years and will be an important lens for many of the discussions.

“The first challenge for new deputies is that they get a lot more exposure to the relationship between bureaucracy and politics – for many the intensity and regularity of the relationship will be new,” he said.

“Dealing with that political context is always a challenge. The first thing Deputies need to do to succeed is around expectation management – when these relationships go pear-shaped there always seems to have been a misunderstanding around expectations.

“The second is to have a strong sense of self and your own integrity, with the self-confidence and the ability to hold your ground about what is ethical.”

Building trust, leading with integrity

A Deputy’s first challenge can be building trust with colleagues, balancing the need to be supportive and collegiate while providing the constructive feedback required.

“When you begin a deputy role you need to build trust – deliberately and actively – with your Secretary and your Deputy colleagues, and that is not always a given,” Ms Anderson said.

“You also need to think about collaborating more broadly – your responsibilities and accountabilities don’t stop at the door of your office. And your stewardship role extends across the entire sector, not just your own organisation, which is another dimension we’ll cover in this program.”

A strong sense of personal integrity is also vital at the Deputy level, she added.

“When we talk about integrity it’s not just about obvious issues of corruption, but more at a personal level. It’s about how you follow through, how you do what you say you’ll do and how you make sure your actions are consistent and back up your rhetoric?”

Mr Stewart-Weeks said a Deputy’s ability to incorporate personal integrity into their leadership can be the difference between success and failure in the role.

“You have to act in ways that earn people’s trust, people inside your agency, others you need to work with across the public sector, people and organisations in business or the community and of course with the Minister and their advisors. You have to be clear, straightforward and as open as possible.”

New skills and stewardship

Deputies need to understand how their role is changing as the public sector itself changes – they are stewards of the sector’s long-term health and capability, which is not easy in an environment often focused on short-term goals and immediate operational priorities.

Mr Stewart-Weeks said Deputies need three sets of skills to be effective:

Diplomacy: you need to be adept at the businesses of constructing and sustaining complex networks of relationships, across agencies and outside the public service.
Delivery: you need to be able to get things done, because this will still be a big part of your job.
Campaigning: you need to be able to prosecute a case and get an outcome for your agency and minister.

Stewardship is also a part of the program, with the co-directors set to explore the Deputy’s role in strengthening agencies for the long-term, including building a talent pipeline.

“If you leave your role and there is no one in your broader team who can replace you, that’s probably a sign you’ve failed in a key part of the role,” Mr Stewart-Weeks said.

COVID and public sector leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the capacity of the Australian and Aotearoa-New Zealand public sectors to work creatively under pressure while simultaneously placing a strain on people and organisations across the public sector. The post-pandemic era will be a challenge for Deputies as they help public services adjust to a new normal.

Ms Anderson said that public services had shown a new element of mobility and responsiveness in their work and needed to make that flexibility part of “business as usual”.

“What it demands of leaders is the need to set priorities and expectations, and focus on outcomes. We are not operating in a stable world, and the priorities that we had in January 2020 are not necessarily the ones we need now or into an uncertain and rapidly changing future,” she said.

Mr Stewart-Weeks said public services had shown they can move fast and be adaptable in the face of the pandemic. Leaders now need to recognise and retain what has been done well.

“It wasn’t just mantras about team-work and cooperation: we really saw it. There was an astonishing capacity to be relied on and rely on other people,” he said.

“We often see this with natural disasters, but much of the collaboration and agility they prompt often disappears pretty quickly. I think that with COVID, the nature of this pandemic, and the extent of it and the significant disruptions it has caused, things may be different. It could be one of the interesting opportunities and challenges of deputies to help make some of those changes stick.”

Deputies Leadership Program

The program will explore three themes:

Leading for change with integrity and trust
Performance and accountability
Stewardship in a changing public sector.

The program will also look closely at the role of Royal Commissions and the importance of understanding the digital transformation of government, especially from the perspective of the culture and capability of public sector leadership.

Ms Anderson said Deputies will finish the program with a greater sense of clarity about their leadership role.

“That involves helping them work out their own leadership and stretching their perceptions of the role and what it can entail, making sure they understand the breadth of the role and the expectations, the multiple dimensions of the Deputy’s role and how it links with others,” she said.

The program’s guest presenters and speakers include:

Robin Ryde, former Chief Executive of the UK National School of Government
Tom Burton, Government editor, Financial review
Oliver Freedman, Senior Vice President, Client Services APAC, The RepTrak Company
Penny Armytage, Chair, Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System
Emma Hogan (Secretary, NSW Department of Customer Service – and former NSW Public Service Commissioner)
and Margaret Crawford , Auditor General NSW, Audit Office NSW.

The Deputies Leadership Program begins with an orientation session on November 18 and is now open for nominations.

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