Kirsten Nelson spends her working day exposing and disrupting corruption and serious misconduct that may arise in Western Australia's public sector. As Principal Legal Officer with the WA Corruption and Crime Commission, Kirsten is tasked with ensuring that public officers act in the interests of the public.
“I will be assigned to a serious misconduct investigation team that will include investigators, financial analysts, digital forensic analysts, intelligence analysts and maybe an assessment officer. Together we decide how to approach the investigation,” she says.
“I see my role is to assist in directing the strategic focus of the investigation and to make sure investigators don’t stray outside our lawful powers to obtain evidence. Our investigation must examine all reasonable allegations of serious misconduct but in a manner that is as fair as it can be to the person of interest.
A major challenge is that an investigation has to be very discreet, even secretive.
“We can’t talk in any detail about what we do and as an in-house lawyer we have to retain a respectful distance to be able to give frank and fearless advice. You can’t become too embedded in the investigation,” says Kirsten.
Kirsten followed in the legal footsteps of her father and grandfather who were corporate lawyers. She instead found early on that she preferred the cut and thrust of being in court and the problem-solving aspect of advocacy and litigation.
“When I finished university, I got a job as an Associate to a District Court judge which was a fantastic opportunity. We travelled around country NSW and did two or three-week stints in country towns with pop-up District Courts,” says Kirsten.
“I sat in court all day, watched a jury trial unfold and I was hooked. I wanted to be a prosecutor. I was fascinated by the way in which the prosecution crafted a story and the defence then tried to dismantle it.”
While working for the Department of Public Prosecutions in NSW, Kirsten was posted to Lismore and remembers arriving for work the first day and finding 40 files on her desk – all cases to be prepped for court the following week.
“I struggled with not being a perfectionist but when you have that volume of work to get through you learn what you need to know and what you can let go,” she says.
Kirsten took on increasingly senior roles within the DPP and later moved to WA where she practiced as a barrister and solicitor at the WA DPP. After taking some time off to have her third child, she and her husband packed up their family and spent eight months travelling around the USA in an RV.
“But I still loved the law and when we returned to Australia I went back to work,” says Kirsten. She joined the public service in a regulatory role and then the position at the Corruption and Crime Commission came up.
“I thought it was perfect for me – it was white-collar crime and I could be involved in the direction of the investigation, not just receiving the investigative brief for prosecuting. I have recently been involved in the Perth Casino Royal Commission for several months as a junior Counsel Assisting. That was a fantastic experience because the inquiry was corporate governance focused rather than law enforcement. As well, I learned how to approach large litigation using a team-based model and how to manage large data sets. Document and information management is increasingly the key to an efficient public sector Inquiry,” says Kirsten.
While in her current role, in 2019, Kirsten enrolled in the EMPA program.
“ANZSOG allowed me to broaden my horizons, look outside the organisation and meet people working in the public sector who are not in law and law enforcement. Having a technical role as a lawyer, can become a quite specialised role. I wanted to understand how to solve public sector policy issues other than by applying a legal lens,” she says.
“I’d done a Masters of Criminal Law in my 20s but hadn't refreshed those qualifications and I felt that was a deficit. I wanted to open my horizons to what else there might be for me in the public sector, other than being a lawyer.”
Kirsten says the EMPA was demanding but impressive.
“We could parachute into different jurisdictions, be on the ground and see different policy approaches in action. It wasn’t just a theoretical learning experience - you were very immersed. When we went to New Zealand, we spent the first half a day learning about the way the public sector there integrates their rich Māori culture with the typical western cultural approach to public issues. I was astounded by how much richer their policy development process is because of that,” says Kirsten.
“The first week in Melbourne I admit I felt like an imposter. The people in my cohort were so accomplished, but that is the powerful nature of it. You sit in a law lecture and know everybody has the same base knowledge as you. Sitting at ANZSOG in the Melbourne Business School, there were only two lawyers in the room and everyone else had skills and experience I didn’t possess.
“It was a privilege to be exposed to a different perspective offered by participants from varied jurisdictions. Everyone was so generous in sharing knowledge and experience.”
Kirsten found the content on developing public value and managing public sector organisations has continued to help her day to day. As well, Kirsten is grateful for the close contacts she has developed outside the Western Australian legal bubble.
“Whatever I am doing, I stand back with a helicopter view and am clear about what the public value is that I want to achieve from that project. And I learned the importance of carrying your team using storytelling and capturing people’s enthusiasm and imagination,” she says.
“I don’t see myself leaving the public sector. If I was a lawyer in private practice I would be facing the world alone. In the public sector I am always part of team and can draw on the strength and knowledge of the group. A group working together is many times more powerful than a single individual, and I want to be part of something that has a bigger footprint.”
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.