Kathy Leigh used an IPAA ACT secretary series speech to share what can be learned from the mandarins of Australia’s capital.
Last week, Leigh told an audience of public servants that her bureaucracy’s ability to deliver a COVID-19 response to the community hinged on the effective use of collaboration, communication and hybrid work.
“COVID is a clear example of while you might find a solution in a silo, you’ll always find a better one by working across the whole of government,” Leigh said.
“With our ‘one service’ approach already well embedded, we just stepped straight into whole-of-government mode.”
Daily meetings with the territory’s 10 directors-general were re-oriented to have a COVID focus, and Leigh established a unit, led by a coordinator general, of deputies who kept their ordinary roles but also worked across the directorates to solve problems iteratively.
ACT representatives sent to participate in commonwealth-state COVID meetings were also across directorates depending on the topics included in the agenda.
“At the highest level, we had a whole-of-service focus,” she said.
“COVID has been the real proof of the pudding of the value of a ‘one service’ approach.”
Surge workforces were also deployed, sending teams of public servants whose ordinary functions were hampered by public health restrictions to other areas groaning from extra service demand.
“At the federation level as well COVID necessitated a much higher level of collaboration,” Leigh said, noting the replacement of COAG with the national cabinet.
“Public servants too worked across jurisdictions — from the first secretaries and first deputies groups that worked on the issues that were directly before national cabinet to the national coordination mechanism established by Home Affairs to address all of the practical issues that arose from supply chains, people movement, etc to the office’s meetings that were supporting the full range of ministerial councils that were tackling the implications of COVID.”
Leigh was the first woman to lead the Australian Capital Territory’s 22,000-strong public service when she was appointed director-general of the directorate for the chief minister, treasury and economic development in 2018.
Having previously held the position of first assistant secretary in the commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, and then taking the reigns as boss of the ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate, she emerged as one of the prominent public sector leaders in Canberra when Katy Gallagher was the chief minister.
Noting the implementation of the ACT public service review report published in 2011, Leigh said the territory’s bureaucracy was not in a position to waste resources and withhold what should be shared knowledge.
Very few government issues fit into one silo anyway, she argued, and a whole-of-government approach to any one problem tended to be the most effective way to tackle complexity.
“We’ve worked really hard to establish a culture of collaboration and taking this approach means that, as a small public service, we don’t need to duplicate skill sets or reinvent the wheel to address issues,” Leigh said.
“It also provides more satisfying work for our staff because they’re not frustrated by artificial barriers.”
Examples of effective collaboration, be it across government directorates or between the levels of federal, state and local government, was worth preserving, Leigh added. To this end, she also called for a framework that supported secondment opportunities for public servants across Australia’s bureaucracies.
“I think we can build on it further to ensure that the collaboration is two-way so that we tackle issues with the full range of skills and experience available to us across the commonwealth and the states and territories,” Leigh said.
"It's very important that the public service does not become politicised." – Kathy Leigh FIPAA, Head of the ACT Public Service and Director-General of the ACT Chief Minister, Treasury and Economic Development Directorate. pic.twitter.com/DPpElc9v4s
— IPAA ACT (@IPAAACT) November 2, 2022

The director-general’s speech was followed by a Q&A moderated by secretary for public sector reform Dr Gordon de Brouwer. He described Leigh as a “great public servant and leader”.
Leigh told the audience in Canberra that by definition public servants served the interests of the wider community because they worked for the people who were elected to government.
“The skills and knowledge of the public service are a precious and critical public resource,” Leigh said.
“It’s our responsibility as public servants to ensure that those skills and knowledge are continually developed and reinforced. If this resource were lost or became ineffective, Australia would be significantly weaker.”
The work of ACT public servants includes a huge remit — comparable to that of the Victorian or NSW state governments — but is equivalent in workforce size to the Brisbane City Council.
Leigh said the ACT government’s budget was 100th that of the commonwealth’s and a 15th the size of the NSW government.
“We provide advice to ministers, we provide services to the community on their behalf in a wide range of areas: from growing the ACT and the regional economy, including international investment, commonwealth-state relations; policy debates on human rights, justice, education, health environment to name a few; the planning of our city; to providing schools, hospitals, care and protection services, courts, correction centres, emergency services, transport parks, and many others,” she said.
Leigh added there was no better career that allowed people to work on fundamentally important community issues and was intellectually stimulating.
“It’s clearly a challenge to provide this breadth of outcomes, but we do it. And we’ve done it by taking advantage of being small to work as ‘one service’ and trusting our staff at all levels without layers on layers of supervision to get out there and deliver,” she said.

Director-General: If you think collaboration is key for the public service, make mobilisation easier
Melissa Coade is The Mandarin’s Senior Journalist based in Canberra’s parliamentary press gallery. She has had various government, communications and legal roles, and has written for the Law Society of NSW Journal (LSJ) and Lawyers Weekly.
People: Godron de Brouwer Kathy Leigh
Companies: IPAA ACT
Departments: ACT justice and community safety directorate ACT Treasury and Economic Development Directorate Attorney-General’s Department Home Affairs
Tags: APS Australian Capital Territory Australian public service COAG covid-19 front-line IPAA ACT national cabinet national coordination mechanism National Portrait Gallery public servants secretary series
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