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Mobilising the Machinery of Government: Interview with First Assistant Secretary Paula Goodwin

Edition: 2

On 5 December 2019 Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced major Machinery of Government (MoG) changes to reduce the total number of departments from 18 to 14 by 1 February 2020, and ensure greater collaboration and policy integration among related business areas. Shortly after, then-Chief Operating Officer of the Department of Environment and Energy, Paula Goodwin, was approached to lead the transition for her department.

In some ways Paula, a Fellow Certified Practitioner Human Resources with the Australian HR Institute and HR leader with many years’ experience, knew what to expect, and where to focus. Paula implemented MoG changes in other roles, and she understood that corporate functions – and specifically HR – are essential to effectively leading large-scale change programs. But where to start? And what to focus on?

The importance of HR and culture

“We all know that Peter Drucker statement, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’,” said Paula, now First Assistant Secretary at the newly-formed Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.

“With the organisation’s staff and functions being split across two new departments, I knew we needed to make sure that the culture change was front of mind. If HR were excluded from the process – if we didn’t properly engage our staff and drive positive culture – then we wouldn’t succeed.”

In practice, there are two parts to any MoG change – one is the logistical aspect, the movement of people, assets (building and IT infrastructure) or responsibilities. The second part is the strategic aims underpinning those changes – the Government intentions driving the shifts.

“If we don’t consider the culture change we’re trying to enact, then we’d just be shifting things around without actually implementing the intentions of Government. To deliver on greater collaboration and better policy integration among related business areas, we couldn’t forget the people side of the picture.”

In Paula’s experience, that underscores the unique value offered by HR.

“HR experts bring things to the table that other areas don’t. HR has to look at all elements of an organisation: the big-picture stuff as well as the detail, and know what’s happening on the ground.”

“They need to understand external environments, the internal environment, politics, form a picture and then put people at the heart of it, because it’s the people who are going to deliver the outcome.”

An agile approach to governance?

To an extent, MoG changes are clear, defined process changes that can be implemented by following the APS Commission implementation guide. Boiled down, it’s about reallocating money, assets, and people.

Within a six-week timeframe, Paula working with the MoG leads in the other departments, and her own specialist team led by Jessica Douglas were able to:

  • transition three Departments into two
  • amend six outcome statements
  • transition 5,500 staff from one set of industrial arrangements to another
  • move approximately 1,000 physical staff locations
  • reallocate millions in funding.

To make these changes, strong governance was an absolute necessity. But to make these changes in the timeframe, the team couldn’t afford to drown in unnecessary paperwork or procedure.

“It’s amazing how important good governance is,” Paula said. “When you’re implementing large-scale change like this, your instinct might be to ignore either the paperwork or the people to try to make change happen really quickly. And while people are the core of any change, and will ultimately determine its success, you just can’t ignore the need for structure, for a robust but lean governance model, to manage the detail. How are teams and branches organised? Who owns what responsibilities? How are funds allocated? Governance – lean governance – is essential.”

The key then, is finding the balance.

“At the same time, you can’t forget the people side. You have to be agile and flexible to bring people together, cut through the beige tape and be effective,” Paula said.

The challenges you expect, and the ones you don’t

The process was not without its difficulties, and Paula was faced with a number of challenges.

Foremost among these was culture – or, more specifically, the blending of different cultures.

“Each agency had very different cultures, different expectations, different processes. How they typically communicated with their staff, how they made decisions, everything was different. You have to blend things quickly and get people doing things differently to make sure the usual work still gets done, all while in the midst of great organisational change. This is a challenge not just for the organisations impacted, but of course, for the project teams leading the change as well. One of the real challenges of my work was being able to do that quickly and simultaneously to the change itself.”

Rather than an obstacle, Paula’s approach was to view this as an opportunity to begin building the new culture of the new Department.

“Relationships are really important. In the end, the people I was negotiating the elements of the MoG with were going to be my colleagues. Building trust and treating each other with respect as we worked through some of the complexity was a really important element to creating the culture I wanted to continue in the new Department.”

Similarly difficult for Paula were some of the unexpected challenges that still demanded her full attention in her ongoing job as COO.

“We had fires, smoke, the Christmas break, and then came the Canberra hailstorm – there were 256 windows smashed in our building and approximately 500 of our staff’s cars smashed, right in the middle of this transition. These were my responsibility to look after too. And as anyone in HR knows, you have to do all things at once – you can’t put people on hold!”

The challenge then as a leader, was to maintain the energy, positivity, and perspective that can help people through the change.

“No change is ever easy," Paula said. "Our tendency as people is to avoid or resist it. As a leader, you are constantly challenging yourself to keep grounded, to stay positive, and to rise above it and maintain perspective. That’s what a good leader does. You have to be the example for others.”

“That being said, I am really grateful for the opportunity to commence two new departments and to lead my colleagues through such a significant change program as this.”

Her next leadership challenge, Paula said, will be ensuring staff stay invigorated and motivated to continue delivering the best possible service for the Australian public, while truly integrating cultures, systems and processes.

Resilience from all sides

When asked what surprised her about the whole enterprise, Paula lauded the strength and dedication of her staff, even during times of great change and delivery.

“Corporate teams particularly are significantly affected by MoGs, because they have to carry out and implement it. You know it’s going to change the work they have, the processes they follow, the people they work with, and so much more. And you see them putting their own relationships and goals on hold. People put their own priorities aside to implement this government policy. The resilience from the people around me was extraordinary, what I saw was this incredible level of professionalism.”

A final word

For those HR professionals who are implementing large structural changes, Paula had this to say: “Be open-minded to doing things differently. When people ask you to do something that isn’t usually in the HR scope, do it. Because it allows you to learn more about the organisation, and once you do that you can be a much more strategic partner, and that will help you lead the organisation through significant change.”

Last reviewed: 
3 November 2020