Peter Shergold was the accidental public servant. Apprenticed to a titan at the age of 40, he learned to lead through listening. His own legacy is the reimagining of public impact
By Martin Stewart-Weeks on Wednesday, October 9th, 2019
Features in QESP NewsletterVolume 31 , Issue 10 - ISSN 1325-2070
(QESP Editor’s Note: The following is a brief extract from The Mandarin’s October 9, 2019 THE BIG INTERVIEW where Martin Stewart-Weeks interviews Professor Peter Shergold, the former Australian Public Service chief and national president of the Institute of Public Administration Australia. See below for a link to the full interview.)
THE BIG INTERVIEW by Martin Stewart-Weeks: An in-depth Q&A with a key player in the Australian public sector or political space.
Peter Shergold didn’t mean to stay in the public service but ended up running the place.
And well over a decade since he left his final post as the Secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and therefore as head of the Australian public service, he’s still, by his own admission, fighting the fight.
It turns out it’s a fight for some pretty big stakes. How big? The state and vitality of liberal democracy. In his words, “increasingly, I do see the challenge which faces liberal democracies, and I am more convinced than I have ever been that having an adaptive, innovative, thoughtful, flexible public service is genuinely part of the solution for the future.”
Shergold came into the federal public service in his early 40s, headhunted from his role at the University of NSW, as the head of the economy history department and actively engaged on issues of immigration and multiculturalism. He arrived in Canberra for a couple of years, a sabbatical opportunity to engage the world of policy making. He never planned to stay and arrived in the role from a background in academia both here and in the UK with a fairly dim view of the public service.
Two things happened to turn a two year distraction into a 30 year ride to the very top of a profession for whose craft and practice he grew a tough minded passion and palpable sense of vocation.
One was that he discovered the joys of being on the inside fashioning ideas and advice to prime ministers and senior bureaucrats about things that really mattered. Multiculturalism, Indigenous affairs, refugees were all in the mix. With a “nothing to lose” attitude and, by his own admission, his capacity for “motormouth” energy and enthusiasm, he found himself discovering the thrill of “frank and fearless” advice up to and including the prime minister. Perhaps it helped that, initially, the PM was Bob Hawke, to whom he gave a very direct and deeply felt piece of advice to let the Chinese students stay after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The other thing that happened was Mike Codd, head of PM&C at the time, possessor of two Ds in his name (“and God only had one”) and who saw in this brash, confident outsider something both useful and valuable for his department and the wider public service.
Shergold credits Codd, a titan of the service in the 1980s, with what sounds much like a pretty powerful form of apprenticeship, where he was given his head in large measure but, when necessary, firmly but gently schooled in the art of public service analysis and advice. Leaders matter at critical moments of careers that, carefully but often very subtly nudged and schooled by generous expertise and experience, go on to flourish and grow.
Shergold’s public service leadership career is long and distinguished and ended up at the very top. Along the way, he courted his share of controversy. He helped to set up and run the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and, against his strong internal protests, later lost the fight about its demise and had to close it down.
This is the other side of frank and fearless advice and, as Shergold would be the first to admit, it’s not for everyone. He was closely associated with one of the largest and ultimately difficult and complex outsourcing experiments in employment services, about which many remain critical in terms of its inception and performance. Shergold’s motivation was not cost cutting or smaller government ideology, but rather motivated by the search for better ways to secure wider input from citizens and civil society, and from public servants, to the making of policy.
It’s a mission on which he remains energetically embarked, using different modes of co-design and collaborative input to policy and service design in his current role as Coordinator General for Refugee Resettlement in NSW. And that all started 30 years ago with early experiments with engaging in genuine dialogue with migrants and refugees in the days when consultation was often a painful and confected ballet of “information giving” by usually reluctant and uncomfortable public servants.
Shergold’s leadership journey through what has become a combination of deep commitment, personal passion and professional pride in an unfolding vocation of public service has ended up testing his predisposition for optimism.
It is a vocation, he believes, that is under threat from a political narrative often unhelpfully trapped between indifference and hostility. And the public service itself has become an institution whose relationship to public value and public impact has become far more contingent and complex over the past 30 years as a bigger mix of public, private, philanthropic and civil society players mix their interests and expertise in new patterns of public purpose.
There is hope, though, as one suspects there always will be, for the former head of PM&C and Chancellor of Western Sydney University. The hope lies in new and better ways, analogue and digital, to engage the expertise and motivation of citizens to be part of the public work that will solve the pressing and increasingly complex problems that crowd the policy agenda.
Shergold has come a long way, since the Hawke Government asked for some help to rebalance multicultural policy, in the evolution of his public service vocation.
And you get the sense that he’s not done yet.
(QESP Editor’s Note: The Full interview is available at
About the author
Martin Stewart-Weeks is an independent advisor and consultant working at the intersection of government, technology and innovation. He worked for Cisco’s strategy and innovation group for 13 years and was a member of the Government 2.0 Task Force that reported to Lindsay Tanner. He advises the public sector program at Deloitte. The views here are his own.