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Public value or profits? Why I chose a career in the public sector

11 February 2018

News and media


Andrew Nicholls

Andrew Nicholls has always been interested in public value, not private profit. That’s why he joined the NSW public service in 1985, and began a long and varied career which saw him awarded a Public Service Medal (PSM) in this year’s Australia Day honours list.

Along the way, he has worked across land management, natural resources, ports, environment, transport and insurance, and found the time to complete a ANZSOG Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) and be part of the ANZSOG Executive Fellows Program.

“The public service was very much my career choice from when I left school,” he said.

“I have a strong commitment to the ethic of public service and I’ve always been attracted to roles which focus on generating public value not private value. I’ve never been interested in a role where the focus is on bottom-line profit rather than building a better society.”

Mr Nicholls received his PSM for his service to NSW over many years, particularly his leadership of reforms in transport and insurance, such as fare and taxi reforms, and most notably his work in the reform of NSW’s flawed Compulsory Third Party (CTP) insurance scheme for motorists.

The CTP scheme – designed to compensate people injured in car accidents – had become expensive and inefficient with less than half of payments going to people who were injured. In addition, there was a significant level of systematic fraud, leading to massive price increases for motorists.

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The NSW Government made reform a priority in 2015, and Mr Nicholls, then Executive Director, Motor Accidents Insurance Regulation at the State Insurance Regulatory Authority, was a key player in creating workable policy solutions.

Mr Nicholls says the CTP was a clear case where reform was needed to create value for the public, accident victims and premium payers.

“Everyone agreed there was a need to be addressed, but there was deep disagreement as to what the solutions would look like, he said.

“What made reform more difficult was that there were many vested interests who had made money from the system over the years, such as insurance companies and lawyers, who stood to lose out in any comprehensive reform.”

Mr Nicholls said the key was not going in with pre-conceived ideas, but ensuring that every perspective was listened to, and that all stakeholders were engaged with and treated as people with value to add.

The process took 18 months and the legislation was passed unanimously by the NSW Parliament in 2017. The Government expects the new system will cut insurance premiums by an average of more than $100 and see a much greater proportion of the premium returned to accident victims.

Mr Nicholls said that the key lessons from the process were that persistence pays off, and that you can never over-consult.

“Just because people’s views are different doesn’t mean they don’t have value in understanding the problem you are trying to solve,” he said.

“You can’t be daunted by what looks like an impossible problem. With political will and hard work you can come up with a solution.”

He said that the reforms were a great example of getting the detail and big picture right.” To successfully deliver major reforms like these you need to focus on the big picture, juggling all the stakeholders and broader ramifications, but you also need to have a tight focus on execution risk. Sometimes we focus on one and forget the other,” he said.

It’s this kind of thinking that is helping Mr Nicholls in his new role as Executive Director of Strategy and Performance at the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage where he is driving an alignment of strategy and business delivery.

The CTP changes were also a reminder to public servants not to accept orthodoxy, Mr Nicholls said.

“If public value isn’t being delivered by the current system, don’t shrug your shoulders. It is up to you as a public servant to try and find a better way. That’s why we join the public service.”

Mr Nicholls said that, despite media criticism, the public service remained a great environment for people wanting to benefit the community.

“There is a strong level of integrity and ability in the public service and it remains a very important and valuable institution.

“Society is changing fast and right now is probably one of the most exciting times to be in public administration with so much social and technological change happening.

“We often get unfairly maligned as grey and bland or self-interested but I’ve found the public service to be full of terrific people with great intellectual capacity and tenacity. We are having a positive impact on the lives of millions of people and that is a great thing to be a part of.”

He said that his time studying the EMPA in 2007 had been a critical step in his career.

“It gave me a strong grounding in the breadth of skills required to be a senior public servant – both hard skills and soft skills. It was a foundation for me, and doing it all in one program provides for well-rounded development, which you would not get trying to do it all separately. You also see what other people are doing, and that they are dealing with similar challenges to you.

“The EFP, which I did ten years later, was an extension of what I did in the EMPA, it really enriched those skills, and helped me become a senior leader of people, equipping me for ongoing success.”

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