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Why Gordon de Brouwer is the right person for the integrity challenges facing the public sector

16 May 2023

News and media



This article written by ANZSOG Dean and CEO Adam Fennessy PSM first appeared in the Mandarin.

Australia has had a number of recent reminders of the importance of an independent public sector being able to offer frank advice to governments, with a range of challenges across Australian jurisdictions in navigating the ever-shifting interface between politics and the public sector. 

At the commonwealth level, we are seeing a new emphasis on integrity, with the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, and we have been shaken by what we are seeing and reading coming out of recent hearings of the robodebt royal commission. 

As Dean and CEO of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) — an organisation that works to lift the quality and integrity of our public services — I greeted last Friday’s news of the appointment of Dr Gordon de Brouwer as the next Australian Public Service commissioner with much optimism. 

I welcome the experience and continuity he will bring to driving reform as well as building on the work of outgoing commissioner Peter Woolcott on the capability and capacity of the Australian Public Service (APS). 

I have been impressed with Gordon’s long-term commitment to integrity and the role of a professional and impactful public service, going back to when I first worked with him in 2013. At that time, he was secretary of the commonwealth Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (SEWPaC) and I was secretary of the equivalent government department in Victoria. 

While we were secretaries serving governments of differing political persuasions, Gordon and I were committed to strong working relationships between our two departments and jurisdictions. At the same time, as professional public servants, we supported the implementation of the respective policies and programs of our separate ministers and governments. 

This approach to working across jurisdictions for strong public outcomes exemplified by Gordon is based on the values of respect, integrity and trust, and is critical to the healthy functioning of our Australian federation. 

I kept in touch with Gordon after his time at SEWPaC, when he was appointed national president of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA). He also went on to work as an honorary professor and distinguished policy fellow at the Australian National University. 

While at ANU, Gordon contributed closely to the work of the Thodey review of the APS commissioned in May 2018 by the then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Through IPAA and ANU, he pursued important research into countering negative behaviours in the public sector workforce. 

I joined many public servants across Australia in welcoming Gordon’s appointment in June 2022 as the inaugural secretary of public sector reform. In that role, Gordon has been central in designing and driving the national reform agenda for the APS focused on four pillars: an APS that embodies integrity in everything does; puts people and business at the centre of policy and services; is a model employer and has the capability to do its job well. 

Now, with his appointment as the new APS commissioner, Gordon will bring a strong focus on public sector integrity, which is as important as ever across Australia. 

This has been brought into focus by a range of recent reviews across Australia, including: 

  • the 2022 review into culture and accountability in the Queensland public sector led by Professor Peter Coaldrake; 
  • the 2022 integrity review into the John Barilaro recruitment process in NSW by Graeme Head; 
  • a joint review by the Victorian Ombudsman and the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) into allegations of serious corrupt conduct involving Victorian public officers and members of parliament; and 
  • IBAC’s more recent Operation Daintree report (April 2023). 

Now we wait for the report of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, having watched with a mix of grim fascination and concern at the public cross-examinations by royal commissioner Catherine Holmes and her counsel assisting a number of senior commonwealth public servants as well as former ministers. 

The handing down of the robodebt royal commission report will constitute a moment of reckoning for government and public sector institutions across Australia, and an opportunity to refresh and invest in the capability and integrity of the public service. 

Integrity in the public sector is not just an important end in itself. Independent public sector organisations that work with integrity and provide independent, evidence-based advice to governments of the day provide better services for our citizens and communities across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Being able to advise politicians what they don’t always want to hear — including the word ‘no’ — makes government better for all of us. 

This is why public sector integrity remains a critical priority and capability across our jurisdictions. This is why public sector values and leadership are a key focus for the APS, ANZSOG and other jurisdictions across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand as a lived set of capabilities for public servants: it makes a difference to people’s everyday lives. 

The importance of integrity is one of many reasons why I welcome the appointment of Gordon de Brouwer as the new Australian Public Service commissioner. He has a strong track record of public sector leadership and reform, as well as being a decent and thoughtful person. 

His appointment will help support and drive not just the quality and strength of the APS. It should, in supporting a stronger APS, keep communities and businesses at the centre of government policy and services and ensure the APS acts with integrity and fairness, leading to a more inclusive Australia.