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MartinParkinson

Martin Parkinson wants PM&C to be liked, not feared. ‘That’s our ambition’

Martin Parkinson wants PM&C to be liked, not feared. ‘That’s our ambition’

Martin Parkinson is the Prime Minister’s primary adviser. He sits at the pinnacle of the public service. He is privy to the nation’s defence and intelligence secrets. Yet the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has a self-defying aim for his agency: to lose its arrogance. “That’s our ambition,” he says.

Parkinson is overseeing a cultural transformation that is reshaping the department’s very spirit. The Mandarin Model is going. Incoming are three Cs: collaboration, conversation and consideration.

The department that co-ordinates the government’s work and implements the prime minister’s agenda has decided to stop bossing around the rest of the public service. Instead it wants to be the older brother who helps less influential, although usually larger, departments do their jobs. PM&C, as it is known throughout the Canberra bureaucracy, wants to be liked, not feared.

Leading the change is the man in charge. In meetings, Parkinson wants the most junior person in the room – often the subject expert – to speak up. Not just to talk but to push back when challenged. He doesn’t want deference. He wants contributions.

"I try to keep an open mind and I test ideas," MartinParkinson says.

“I try to keep an open mind and I test ideas,” MartinParkinson says.

Rohan Thomson

“I try to keep an open mind and I test ideas,” Parkinson says in a boardroom on the fourth floor of the department. “I will probe and put a counter view. People have to understand when the secretary says something it is not an edict. We are exploring an idea.”

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He expects all managers in the department to follow the example. The people at the top of the organisation – especially him – don’t have all the solutions and mustn’t pretend they do.

More voices must be heard

Call it participatory democracy, public service style. Small groups of staff with common interests have started holding lunchtime meetings to discuss policy, giving them useful insights into problems their colleagues are grappling with.

In the national security division, which deals with border security, organised crime, defence strategy and security crises, meetings have been held on how to conduct meetings. By breaking down the traditional office hierarchy, more voices can have an input. Women, who make up two-thirds of the department, junior staff and people from different backgrounds should be heard. Different views should improve decisions by covering off on more possibilities, the department has concluded.

Parkinson was settling into a post-government career on boards when Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister and recalled him.

Parkinson was settling into a post-government career on boards when Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister and recalled him.

Alex Ellinghausen

Departmental leaders won’t say it, even off the record, but they are clearly working to break down the dominance of middle-aged white men who have led the public service throughout its history. Kylie Bryant, an assistant secretary in the national security division, says recruiting people of different racial backgrounds hasn’t been easy. Security checks have taken longer, creating delays that the division has had to suck up, she says.

In an institution at the centre of the political process with a long history of powerful male leaders, advancing what some would call a “diversity agenda” carries a political risk.

Some conservatives allege that Parkinson promotes public servants from minority backgrounds at the expense of talent. They accuse him of pandering to left-wing critics of the traditional public service. His appointment of the chairwoman of the left-wing Australia Institute think tank and former Greens political candidate Lin Hatfield Dodds as a deputy secretary for social policy upset some Liberal MPs.

“Good people are overlooked in the name of diversity and that causes division and resentment,” says Liberal MP and former cabinet minister Eric Abetz. “I hope that the emphasis is on professionalism, capacity and value for money for the Australian taxpayer.”

Parkinson's appointment of former Greens political candidate Lin Hatfield Dodds as a deputy secretary for social policy ...

Parkinson’s appointment of former Greens political candidate Lin Hatfield Dodds as a deputy secretary for social policy upset some Liberal MPs.

Lannon Harley

“This is not about social engineering,” Parkinson says. “Diversity is not your objective. The idea is to get ideas raised and tested robustly so you get better outcomes.”

Parkinson is a veteran of the politics of the senior public service. In 2007, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd created the Department of Climate Change, Parkinson was the first secretary, a job that took him deep inside the Labor government’s tumultuous attempts to price emissions of carbon dioxide.

Unlikely diversity champion

Four years later he was promoted to Treasury secretary by a Labor government under assault over rising debt and a never-ending budget deficit. After the Coalition won power, then prime minister Tony Abbott sacked him. Parkinson was settling into a post-government career on boards when Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister. He was recalled to the lucrative post, which pays an annual salary of $896,400.

Parkinson says he is noticing a shift in attitude towards his department across the public service.

Parkinson says he is noticing a shift in attitude towards his department across the public service.

Rohan Thomson

Trained to be an economic rationalist, Parkinson seems an unlikely diversity champion. He received a first-class degree in economics from the University of Adelaide, and a master’s degree and PhD from Princeton University in New Jersey. He served on the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia and worked at the International Monetary Fund.

One of his early decisions in the department was to commission a “cultural audit” in 2016. The report is confidential, but staff basically criticised their own department for not paying enough attention to the Australians they were trying to help. They also called for a workplace where everyone felt comfortable speaking up.

Parkinson took over a department suffering growing pains. Under Abbott it absorbed responsibility for Aboriginal Affairs from across the public service. Staff went from 500 to 2500. Nine workplace agreements and multiple computer systems had to be combined. The high-level policy focus of the prime minister’s bureaucrats was different from the on-the-ground work of many public servants trying to help Indigenous communities.

One change the department is proud of is simplifying scholarships for Indigenous students. Staff outside Canberra had complained that many Aboriginal families didn’t understand the Abstudy and boarding school scholarships.

Parkinson, a former board member of the Reserve Bank of Australia, with the bank's former governor Glenn Stevens.

Parkinson, a former board member of the Reserve Bank of Australia, with the bank’s former governor Glenn Stevens.

Louie Douvis

A policy paper was workshopped to fix the problem. Staff in remote areas helped rewrite the scheme, says Elizabeth Hefren-Webb, an assistant secretary overseeing education, community safety and health in the Indigenous Affairs group of the department.

As for the cultural changes being made to the department, she says: “This is a work in progress. I think we are improving – we think about the end user.”

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is in a decade-old building between the Office of National Assessments, the prime minister’s intelligence adviser, and the Attorney-General’s Department.

The atmosphere is upbeat. A short walk to Parliament House, the department knows that it is at the centre of a sprawling bureaucracy tasked with executing the prime minister’s agenda. The staff look happy and busy.

Even though the department can, and has, used its natural authority to push other agencies around, Parkinson wants a more collaborative approach.

Broader impact

“PM&C used to be seen by other departments as part of the compliance we have got to go through,” he says. “We want to change that attitude to ‘we want PM&C involved because we see the value offered.’ PM&C has to be a knowledge authority. You make yourself valuable to others.”

Over the long term, Parkinson’s changes could have a broader impact. As the central agency, its example could be followed by other departments, both federal and state, if perceived to work.

Parkinson, far right, with Treasurer Scott Morrison and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Parkinson, far right, with Treasurer Scott Morrison and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Andrew Meares

Gauging an agency’s influence is subjective, and public servants are usually wary of publicity. But Parkinson is noticing a shift in attitude towards his department across the public service.

Three of his first assistant secretaries – the third rung in the public service hierarchy – have recently been appointed deputy secretaries of other departments, including Hefren-Webb, who is going to the Department of Social Services. “It hasn’t happened for quite a few years,” he says, proudly.

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