EMPA teaches Shoena Messner to deal with complexity

Image of mining site in Australia
  • Published Date: 18 May 2022

In August 2020, the city of Beirut in Lebanon was rocked by an explosion caused by tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the port. More than 200 people were killed and, a year after the blast, much of the affected area of the city was still in ruins.

Shoena Messner remembers watching the news reports of the explosion with keen interest.

As Director of Major Hazard Facilities with Work Health and Safety Queensland, Shoena has intimate knowledge of the potential risks associated with storing products like ammonium nitrate.

“In Queensland, we license facilities that store ten to 30 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion in Beirut - it supports the mining industry,” says Shoena.

“Any facility that stores significant quantities of very toxic, explosive or flammable materials needs to demonstrate it will be safe before I licence it. It can take a year or two for the operator of a facility to prepare their safety case and it takes my team about six months to do an assessment for the licence to be issued. I’m also responsible for ensuring there is an appropriate inspection regime of those facilities, too, so the local community is kept safe.”

Since 2009, Shoena has worked in a series of roles with Work Health and Safety Queensland including as Senior Safety Advisor Major Hazards and Director Hazardous Industries and Chemicals Branch.

But she began her career in private industry, working in Kalgoorlie for Western Mining Corporation and then in Commissioning & Operations for BHP Billiton at Port Hedland.

“I graduated from a small country high school in NSW and my highest marks were in English, then History, Maths and Chemistry. I went to university and studied Engineering for two years, took a year’s detour into Science and then returned to complete my engineering degree,” says Shoena.

She graduated from the University of Sydney with a double degree and First Class Honours.

“When I graduated in 1992 it was at the peak of a recession, so I took the job in Kalgoorlie and stayed in WA until moving back to the east coast which fitted my family’s lifestyle better. I saw a job on Seek which looked like a consultancy role but was actually for government and I’ve remained within government ever since.”

Since joining public service, Shoena says the challenges and rewards have been diverse and plentiful.

Recently her role has seen her become more involved with helping to safely manage the emerging hydrogen industry.

“With the push to carbon zero, there’s a lot of interest in using hydrogen and hydrogen-containing substances for energy. I’m spending a lot of time with different departments working on the appropriate safety requirements for that industry as it evolves,” says Shoena.

“My role has a couple of key challenges – one is keeping technically relevant. We are assessing how facilities operate so we need to have substantial knowledge about those operations. We are also aware that technical aspects are only one part of complex government decision-making.”

One of Shoena’s proudest professional achievements so far is her role in responding to the parliamentary into coal workers’ pneumoconiosis – known as ‘black lung’ – that uncovered the Queensland cluster of people debilitated by silicosis.

“By uncovering and understanding that cluster, people affected by silicosis had access to help and we’ve made sure the risks of silicosis associated with the cutting of kitchen stone benchtops is now properly recognised and there are standards in place, so people no longer get hurt,” says Shoena.

In 2016, feeling ‘a bit stale’, Shoena requested to study ANZSOG’s Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA), but it wasn’t until 2019 that her scholarship was approved.

“I began to be aware of a need to better understand government processes. I wanted to know more about policy, and I was curious as to how decisions were made that sometimes seemed to be illogical. As a technical person primarily, I felt thwarted. I wanted to have a greater say and I thought the EMPA would give me greater understanding of the context in which I was working and therefore a greater voice,” says Shoena.

Shoena says she has taken much away from the EMPA.

“The exposure to political science, different perspectives and insight into what policy people were thinking, was valuable. Our cohort was diverse and as we went through the program, different people within the group stepped forward to contribute their experience,” says Shoena.

“The introduction to complexity theory is something I have since applied to my work every day. It enabled me to recognise that from a public sector perspective, all public sector projects are complex because there isn’t a single line of accountability, and the authorising space constantly changes.

“I rely on that theory every day to understand a situation from multiple individual perspectives as well as the institution perspective. It has broadened my view of where I am, what I am working towards and where my unit fits in.”

Shoena has no plans to leave the public service and sees plenty of scope for further projects and challenges.

“In industry, you can get things done more quickly and simply, but in government you are part of something much bigger. I get an immense sense of satisfaction knowing my team and I are able to influence public policy and make it better,” she says.

“My goal is to keep people safe while at the same time enabling Queensland to have a flourishing industry.”


Find out more about ANZSOG’s Foundation Programs

Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA)

A part-time postgraduate qualification developed and delivered by ANZSOG exclusively for high-performing public sector managers.

Executive Fellows Program (EFP)

A program that challenges senior public service executives working in the public domain to develop new leadership perspectives in a contemporary and highly interactive setting. 

Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL)

A unique program that helps public service leaders develop the qualities needed to thrive in a senior executive role: a strategic outlook, political astuteness, personal resilience and the ability to reflect and learn continuously.