IWD: The learning curve in public sector delivery
To help celebrate and acknowledge International Women’s Day, we're pleased to present this career profile and interview with government executive, consultant and author Liana Downey.
Liana Downey, currently Executive Director – Delivery with the NSW Department of Education, has worked in strategy for most of her career. She began in the non-profit space and then worked as a strategic consultant at McKinsey for 10 years, where she helped establish the public-sector practice. She then joined the (then) NSW Premier’s Delivery Unit, leading work on crime reduction strategies and red-tape reduction for police and education, and also acted as a special advisor to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
For seven years, Downey ran a boutique advisory firm specialising in strategic advice for non-profits and government organisations, with clients in Australia and in New York. She also taught leadership at New York University, wrote Mission Control — a book on strategy and delivery for governments and non-profits — and served as a board director.
In this interview, we find out what she’s working on now and learn her philosophy for success in government service.
What does your current role entail?
I have been at the NSW Department of Education now for a little over a year, where the role and work has grown over that time. My current role involves helping the Department drive improved student outcomes through setting clear objectives, and supporting those with the right resources and routines to support impact. I also have carriage for the communications, policy, governance and strategy portfolios, as well as being responsible for a number of complex cross-departmental projects … including our disability strategy, our human capital management program, the reform of our staffing approach and reducing the administrative burden in schools.
Can you describe a project you are working on and the key challenges you have faced?
One of the projects we are working on is to reduce the administrative burden on schools. When I first started, we were a very small team, and we used our early time to talk to and visit as many schools as we could, asking principals, “If the Department could do one thing better to help improve student outcomes, what would be it be?” One of the very common answers was the need for the Department to become better at coordinating and prioritising the rolling out of systems designed to support schools.
In addition to a lot of listening, the very first thing we did was to bring the project owners and the end users together — to build empathy and understanding and do some joint problem-solving. We did a lot of planning and set-up, and ultimately had two days of great, open and powerful conversations, which helped project owners understand the complexity and volume of change we were drawing out.
We did this because we felt it would be easier if people could hear this first-hand from schools. So we put up a big picture — we called it our ‘traffic control map’ — of all the things planned for rollout and let the principals share their reactions. It was really powerful for people to hear first-hand about how daunted and overwhelmed they felt.
When I first joined the Department, I asked for the central source of truth on what the Department was rolling out, and there wasn’t one. I tasked one of my very intrepid directors with developing the traffic control map and it continues to be one of the most powerful pieces of work we have done.
Even in that time we were able to solve some pain points for people, had real quick wins, with a phone call on the day to stop some major irritants — it shows the power of having people in the same room.
Overall, we set ourselves three tasks:
- Address the imminent project rollouts and identify potential collusion.
- Improve the projects rolling out (and connection to schools).
- Work on our governance to shift the culture and approach to do a better job of coordinating and rolling out change.
The last one is, of course, the toughest one and it is still ongoing. We benefited from reaching out to a wide array of organisations to learn from their experience, both in the public and private sectors. We probably learned the most from the Bank of Canada, Woolworths and Officeworks about how they addressed very similar challenges of rolling out way too many changes for their field staff.
One challenge we all had is that, of course, every project owner wants their project to go forward (and first). But if you do everything, without coordinating, it is just too much — some of the principals we spoke to were in tears. We needed to help schools make better choices and help them to prioritise. It was a bit hard because we were coming in on the middle of many of these projects, but things are really starting to shift. We try to make sure the positive feedback gets back to the project owners who are working hard to adapt and prioritise.
What did you learn from this project?
One of the things we learned the hard way, was not to assume that information shared with senior people is filtering down the chain and getting to everyone — the NSW Teachers Federation told us that even the good news wasn’t always cascading down. We’ve had to think much more broadly about mass-communication strategies. Even though I know it to be true, it’s a good reminder — you can never over-communicate.
The other thing we knew, but worked hard to keep in our sights, is that this is not ‘us’ running this project, but rather us working with many, many stakeholders across the Department to help them run the most effective, impactful projects they can. [And] staying clear on the idea that every single one of our colleagues is passionately committed to helping improve student outcomes. This meant we had to think about what is making it harder for them to do that effectively, and what roadblocks can we remove. We also have to stay vigilant to make sure that, in trying to help, we are not getting in the way.
What’s your advice for someone looking to further their career in government?
Get some experience outside of and across government. Otherwise you don’t know what you don’t know. I have benefited greatly from moving around and working across organisations — the most successful leaders I’ve seen in any sector are always looking to steal the best ideas from everywhere and anywhere!
What are you most looking forward to about the Public Sector Innovation Show 2019?
I can’t wait to meet other passionate public sector colleagues, learn more about what other people are working on and benefit from other people’s experiences and wisdom.
The Public Sector Innovation Show will be held on 26 March at the National Convention Centre, Canberra. Full details of the program and registration are available at events.publicsectornetwork.co
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