Building networks and “speaking other people’s languages”
APS leaders are not formed overnight.
The tools and skills required to drive Australia’s policy and service delivery agenda are gathered over time and galvanised through experience.
For Helen Wilson and Rachel Houghton, diverse careers have equipped them to confront urgent and complex challenges. A big part of this toolset is a personal network.
Rachel Houghton is the General Manager of Service Delivery Capability at Services Australia. Rachel played a key role leading the mobilisation of the Australian Public Service during the first peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, during which Services Australia processed 1.3 million JobSeeker claims—a volume equivalent to a normal two and a half year period—while also responding to 3.7 million phone calls, 1.9 million service centre walk‑ins, and 250 000 social media interactions.
Rachel’s past roles in the Australian Border Force saw her move from corporate, human resources, and operational policy to operational roles in Brisbane, Canberra, South Australia and Darwin.
Rachel says the key to overcoming some of the toughest public sector conundrums is often at the other end of the phone.
“It is so much easier to pick up the phone to someone in your professional network and say, ‘hey do you know anything about this issue?’ I can only do that because I’ve worked in multiple departments and have had the opportunity to get to know a broad range of people.”
For Helen Wilson it was working in the private sector that really drove home the importance of personal connections. She says the value comes from diversity of thought and learning how others operate.
“Because of mobility, I speak other people’s languages,” she says.
Although not a statistician by training, Helen brings experience as an economist for a merchant bank, a small business owner, and an employee of Treasury, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and various other agencies to her role as Deputy Australian Statistician at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
“When you’re developing policy you’ve got to know who to talk to. And this collaboration is so much more effective when you speak each other people’s languages,” she says.
“I’m using my networks and helping the ABS understand their unique value-add to position us to really provide the data and statistics that helps government to develop policy.”