I recently interviewed Professor Glyn Davis AC, currently CEO of the Paul Ramsay Foundation and, before that, Vice Chancellor of the Universities of Melbourne and Griffith.
The interview formed part of a series I have conducted over the past 12 months of current and former public sector leaders.
Others I have spoken to include Peter Shergold (former head of PM&C and Chancellor of Western Sydney University), Sarah Pearson (now a Deputy Secretary responsible for the Advance Queensland program and formerly Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Scientist at DFAT), Mike Pratt, (NSW Treasury Secretary and the inaugural Service NSW Commissioner) and Mary Ann O’Loughlin, currently deputy Secretary in the Department of Education in NSW and, amongst many former roles, social policy advisor to Prime Minister Paul Keating).
The series explores with these leaders the lessons and insights abut the art and practice of leading they had gained in their careers, inside and outside the public sector.
I spoke with Glyn Davis in January this year, on the edge of what has turned into something of a cliff top from which we seem to be hurtling at a great rate into confusion and anxiety following a furious summer of fire and flood to be rapidly chased by the unsettling dislocation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
You can read the full transcript of the interview with Glyn here (it’s for The Mandarin Premium so it is behind a paywall).
The conversation was prescient in a number of ways, most particularly in its reaffirmation of many of the virtues and values of good government and great public work we have been mistreating or at least undervaluing in recent times.
Amongst those virtues and values, all of which are called out in one way or another in Glyn’s thoughtful, polite, self-effacing and penetrating reflections about his craft, are respect for deep technical and policy expertise, the need for robust, relevant and respected public institutions capable of confronting deep challenges to the public good and the ability to mobilise knowledge, authority and the capacity for rapid, but discerning public action.
Glyn doesn’t look much like a revolutionary.
But his reflections on a journey in and through policy and public administration that started, accidentally, in 1982 and is still going, albeit in his new guise as leader of Australia’s largest and newest philanthropic venture, are radical.
And they are radical not because they are extreme or way out. Quite the opposite. They are radical because of the uncomfortable contrast between their common sense reiteration of some standard propositions about the way good government and effective, confident public service should combine and the contemporary conditions of bitter ideology and crude, political contest which have damaged them.
As I have been following especially the COVID-19 responses, and with many of Glyn’s observations fresh in myu mind, I find myself thinking that, just at a time many of those same politicians are reaching for their strength and redemptive value, at least some of these traditions of good public work seem dangerously weakened.
There’s a story to be written about what the conditions of the past few months, and the period of enormous uncertainty into which we are sailing, teach us about public work and public purpose.
And I might have a crack at that myself in later pieces.
But for now, I offer the Glyn Davis interview in its edited transcript form or in this article I wrote from the interview, and which I’ll post in a couple of segments to make it easier to digest.
If you care about what it is we mean in contemporary and emerging conditions about ideas like public work, public purpose and what it even means now to be committed to a sense of “public” (and we all should be), you will find Glyn’s insights timely and troubling.
This is the part 1 of the interview article…
Perhaps after a 35-year plus career of policy making, academic research and university leadership, especially in these unsettled, volatile and occasionally bizarre times, you might imagine some of the fun and excitement of public policy and management might have worn a little thin.
Not a bit of it.
For Glyn Davis, recently retired from an 17 year stint as Vice Chancellor of first Griffith and then Melbourne Universities, two periods as the head of central agencies in Queensland, academic researcher and writer, facilitator of Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit, member of the recent independent review of the Australian public service (the Thodey review, his third stab at advising on big public sector reform) and co-author of one of the standard texts on Australian policy making, the attraction remains.
Quite simply, it’s the best game in town.
Hemmed in often by a tangle of institutional, political, organisational and financial constraints and more or less impenetrable thickets of personality and process, enthusiasm for the quiet, often unnoticed work of mobilising people, ideas and resources to solve problems for public purpose remains high.
And it’s an undimmed energy that is now animating a new role, as CEO of the Paul Ramsay Foundation, very much Australia’s largest, and one of its youngest, philanthropic funds.
In fact, it turns out that, for this wonkiest of policy wonks, the new role holds out the promise of bringing to a lifetime’s enthusiasm for the policy game a chance to test new boundaries of risk and creativity in service of a big ambition – to break cycles of entrenched and complex disadvantage.
Glyn Davis claims to be an accidental public servant, ‘like lots of people”. It’s instructive, perhaps, that many of its best and most proficient practitioners have encountered the world of policy and public management unexpectedly and, in this case at least, stayed connected long enough to be both successful and influential.
[Note to self: this isn’t the first time I’ve heard that story in this series of interviews, of accident and serenity blossoming into stellar achievement and sustained leadership. Note to others: this is a game that needs to be played long and with some facility for patience and endurance.]
He started doing some research work for the Reid Review of the public service commissioned in 1982 by then PM Malcolm Fraser, whose Research Officer Grade 1 salary paid a lot better in 6 weeks than a rather ascetic stipend for his ANU scholarship.
As it turned out, the Reid review experience was the first of three major public services reviews (and there have been quite a few of them in the last 20 years) on which Davis played an increasingly significant role. The others were Ahead of the Game (the Moran review in 2010) and the Independent review of the Australian public service (the Thodey review, 2019).
Over that long arc of engagement, including intermittent, but sustained contributions at the academic, practice and leadership levels, (including a much-treasured opportunity to learn from, and work with legendary policy thinker and writer Aaron Wildavsky), Glyn Davis has held posts as head of the Cabinet Office and head of the Premier’s Department in Queensland.
But a thought occurred to me as the interview progressed.
Nothing about Glyn Davis suggests he is a revolutionary, but that is exactly what he is – a patient, erudite and generous subversive.
During an interview that appeared to be all about the past, as we sketched out the contours of a lifetime of activity and leadership in some of Australia’s most complex public institutions, it became obvious that he was in fact delivering, with trademark intelligence and self-effacing politeness, a trenchant critique of the present and a clarion call for a future the familiarity of whose contours and attributes masked their revolutionary promise.
And then it struck me even more forcefully.
These ideas he was describing, as we interrogated the bare bones of an extraordinary CV, only sounded revolutionary because of the distance between some of these ideas about government, policy making and the work and culture of the public sector and their apparent erosion, even disappearance, in contemporary circumstances that seem increasingly indifferent, even hostile to their value and importance.
Take this description, for example, of his experience working with then Queensland Premier Peter Beattie on Bettie’s “smart state” strategy.
“Peter Beattie proved a fabulous premier to work for,” Davis explains, “because he was respectful of public service and never asked officials to do anything that might be construed as political. He never tried to interfere in public service appointments and was as committed to the principles of merit as as any public servant. That’s a gift for any head of a Premier’s Department. Queensland was lucky, since in my experience Wayne Goss shared these same values.
[Another note to self: isn’t it interesting how often the truly gifted and successful put their achievements down to serendipity and luck, reinforcing the insight that luck so often seems to seek out those with talent and substance – “I was just in the right place at the right time, extraordinarily fortunate”].
Glyn’s career has been all about public institutions, policy and leadership in and through the public realm. And it’s been a career oscillating between theory and practice, thinking, writing and researching on the one hand and, on the other, enjoying opportunities to ground himself in practice.
He recounts a story of former federal LNP Minister Gary Hardgrave who was a student of his and who, years later, admitted to Davis, with some surprise, that much of what he had learned at Griffith turned out to be a pretty good match with the reality of policy and public management.
[To be continued]