The career pathway and insights from Graham Fraine: A summary of our recent Stewards on the Couch event.

On 14th June, level 41, 1 William Street opened its doors to around 80 attendees to take part in IPAA Queensland’s first Stewards on the Couch event for 2022.  Director-General for the Department of Regional Development, Manufacturing and Water, Dr Graham Fraine PSM, took to the couch with the esteemed Dr Anne Tiernan.

What were the key highlights and learnings from their time on the couch?

Graham, with a strong depth and breadth of expertise and experience in transport policy, two central agencies, Premiers and Treasury, universities, and local government. This broad experience really distinguishes Graham, both within his portfolio, and as a member of the Queensland Government Leadership Board.

The Stewards on the Couch event sought to delve deeper into Graham’s formative career experiences in his public administration craft; as well as share his vision and thoughts for the agenda and vision of his department.

A bit about Graham, as shared by Graham…

By way of background for me, I am Sydney-born, North Queensland-raised. Primary school on the northern beaches of Cairns and high school in Malanda on the Atherton Tableland. Post-school, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do.

I knew I was going to go to uni in some way, shape, or form. I sort of fell into psychology as something that sounded interesting and looked interesting. That pretty much is the story of my career in that sense.

I’ve always been in awe of people who have known from a very early age what they wanted to be, where they wanted to be, what they wanted to do, and to me, it shows there are many ways to run a career.

About Graham’s formative experience and career path…

My entry into the Queensland public sector was in 1993. I had finished my psychology degree a couple of years earlier. I’d started doing a PhD, during which I played a fair bit of golf, drank a fair bit of beer, didn’t do a hell of a lot of PhD.

And decided that after probably 16, 18 years in educational institutions, it was time to get out and see the world a little bit. That’s when I applied for a role as a behavioral scientist in the road safety unit of Queensland Transport, as it was back then.

As a very passionate public servant and as someone that is quite happy to talk about the public service and what we have to offer, both by way of value in terms of what we contribute to our communities, and certainly by way of value that we have for people as a career.

The importance of diversity of skills…

The first thing I would say as a reflection on having done psychology and coming into the public sector, is if you look around the public sector at the breadth and the diversity of skillsets and the diversity of life experiences and degrees, there are very few experiences you can have from that professional experience that are not suited to providing value in the Queensland public sector.

Diversity has many different senses, as we all know.

The sense of diversity I’m talking about here is from that professional background. I went to uni at James Cook Uni in Townsville. The natural enemy of the psychology students at James Cook Uni were the engineering students.

You could not get two more different worldviews and different ways of understanding how the world operated and there was running, all in good spirit, but running practical jokes and running just different ways of viewing the world.

When I first joined the Queensland public sector, there’s basically three groups of people that do the work of road safety in a public policy sense. The first group are law enforcement officials, but the second two are people with a behavioral science background and people with an engineering background.

What struck me from very early on in the piece working in government was that synergistic effect you get from those different people and their different perspectives of the world coming together, working towards a common goal, because the engineers could give a perspective on issues that those of us with the brain wired for the behavioral sciences wouldn’t naturally do and vice versa.

If you look at so many fields of public policy and the hard work that we have to do, the value and the joy you get from working with those different disciplines to unpack problems and put them back together again as solutions is critical.

The first thing for me is around that and you talk my early days. I spent about 20 years in Transport and Main Roads, give or take three and a half years where I went and did a PhD proper, as opposed to the golf-and-other-activities PhD.

The strength of the leaders Graham worked under…

The second valuable thing for me in my early period of working in Transport and Main Roads was the strength of character in the leaders that I had during that period, in terms of strength of ideas, generosity of spirit, and willingness to mentor those of us coming through.

Leaders who took time to take an interest in those that they work with and take time to sit and discuss and work things through.

TMR, for, me in that sort of spiritual home sense and a professional sense, will always speak to me very strongly about giving me that basis of understanding the strength of diversity and who comes to work on the problems we have or the issues we seek to confront and an understanding, in that initial sense, around journey to leadership space.

The other thing that I have always valued about working in the Queensland public sector is you have that opportunity, and again, in sort of the style, if you call it that, of my career of looking at things that look interesting and saying,

“How about we go and do some of that?”

I did branch from road safety into other forms of safety, then into licensing registration, customer service, and a lot of customer experience work that we did in TMR at the time, which then allowed me to jump into that central agency space in about 2016, when I went across into a couple of years in DPC as the Deputy DG for Policy, and then later back in into the Deputy Under Treasurer role.

The insights offered by central agencies…

What I picked up from those central agency roles is that much broader understanding of what I would call the spiderweb of the issues that we deal with in government.

Because as I think many people, if not all people, so many of the policy issues that we deal with in particular agencies are connected to policy issues in other agencies. And to some degree, a number of us that are working in quite different spaces on the surface of it are actually working on exactly the same thing.

We see this, and everyone will be, I imagine, having discussions at the moment and we certainly are in our portfolio around the regional economic development space and how post-COVID opportunities for regional growth being linked to availability of workforce, availability of workforce being linked to availability of housing, availability of housing being linked to transport connections, and various other elements.

If you use that analogy of touching one part of the spider’s web, it starts to set other bits off over here.

So that central agency experience, and for anyone who is interested in that, and I think when we come to talk about capability, one of the things that I think there is opportunity for not just Queensland, but for a number of public sectors to do, that mobility opportunity of how we work our staff in and out of central agencies.

It’s critical to understanding that breadth of what we do as government, but also some of the great similarities in the underlying issues that all of us are dealing with, to then try and get to one of the things for me is always about, and sorry for the psych term, but always that meta conversation.

So, when you’re running into policy problems, it’s asking, “Well, what’s underlying it? What’s the conversation about the conversation that we need to be having?” And so that central agency time taught me that.

On Graham’s time in local government…

I spent 12 months in local government. For those that know my story, I’ve lived on the Sunshine Coast for now 13 years, I think. In 2018, I took the opportunity to go and live and work where I lived…

But life had other plans for me after that 12 months.

I would say, in terms of mobility, anyone that’s interested in the craft of government, getting some time in local government is spectacularly good to do.

It is the level of government that is closest to its community in that sense, and gives you a really valuable experience, both in terms of how policy and programs of other levels of government play out, certainly in terms of how you deal with issues that are important to local communities, but also to look at how governance operates in another level of government as well.

For me, some of the fascinating opportunity I got to spend time in a council chamber during council meetings and to understand the rhythm and flow of how that operates, as someone who’s a bit of a governance nerd, that was fascinating as well.

On Graham’s priorities for his Department…

Anne: After having a look at the strategic plan and objectives that you’ve kind of outlined for local manufacturing, sustainable water use, and creating opportunities in Queensland’s regions. Tell us about your priorities for the department and how they connect with the things that I’m interested in and that Queenslanders are interested in, I think, with opportunities to make the place more prosperous and inclusive?

Graham: Having seen the way governments form both their objectives, their overarching objectives, and in the case of the current government, it’s those statement of objectives for the community and how they set their government departments up for that.

For me, in the case of something like regional development, manufacturing and water, it’s about the sum of the parts.

There will always be specific elements and parts of what we do as a department that are unique and idiosyncratic within the shape of a government department.

But it’s also about what do you do as the sum of the parts, and for us, it is really around how is the work that we do contributing to more prosperous communities?

And prosperous has a couple of senses to it.

One is certainly an economic sense and the work that we are looking at doing in a range of places, be it the general regional development, be it some of the manufacturing, be it what we are doing around water allocations, what we’re doing around water capital, is certainly around that economic prosperity of a community.

But prosperity is about so much more. One of the things that this government is very clear on in its expectations for government is that we should be looking at things that are about communities throughout this state, not simply for areas of the south-east, where our cities, our towns, are places where people want to be.

Part of that absolutely is economic development. And it’s about employment. It’s about a lot of the work on new industries that are coming, but it’s also about a sense of place.

I also look at the nature of a state like Queensland, and everyone’s heard the line many times about the most decentralised state in the nation. But it’s also about if you look at the opportunities that are coming for a number of our regional areas in this state, either through the opportunity space of what’s coming with new industries and future opportunities, or indeed through things that have come up more as a result of pandemic and the need to look at on-shoring the national security issues, which again, in the manufacturing space, you’re looking at on-shoring. I think there are real opportunities around how we can chart that future with our community.

A key role for our agency is to be a key part of that conversation.

Anne:  From what I recall of the agency that was brought together, the biggest part is water. And that is very technical in many ways. And thank God, very expert and specific in many of the things that it has to do. The regional development part is pretty small and the manufacturing part is pretty small. All agencies have dominant repertoires, dominant policy styles, some of which may or may not be congruent with the kinds of inclusive strategies, and many people are watching New South Wales very interestingly, in terms of some of its gender budget approaches that it’s taking. How are you going to, and you know engineers and you know technocratic experts, how are you going to inject some of that new thinking into those strategies? Because the old approaches to regional development in Queensland and elsewhere were predicated on people not really wanting to stay there and those opportunities not being there really, and about trying to keep things alive.

Graham: As an agency, in terms of getting us into the space we need to be, there’s a few things we’ve done, as a leadership team, but also as an agency.

  1. The first is we have fundamentally gone back and revisited our strategic plan. So, the strategic plan you referred to and have read will be replaced by a strategic plan that, you will see when it emerges, gets that integration piece a lot more. So, it’s less about we’ve got to have, we’ve got those three parts to our agency and the name. It’s less about making sure that in every statement from vision to purpose to objectives to strategy, that those three terms are mentioned in each of those things. It’s more again asking ourselves, “What is the sum of the parts?” and starting that as the conversation. So, the first piece is a refresh of what we understand our strategic plan to be.
  2. The second is, and we have already started to do this, is to align our structure with that.
  3. The third piece is to align our culture with that.

We have a staff reference group that I think at last count was somewhere between 50 and 60 strong. Their first task has been to do a behaviours charter for the organisation, which both supports the existing values charter that we have as a sector and is in legislation, but is really at its heart around what do we want it to be like to work here?

It’s a set of conversations around what are our aspirational goals in this space, and what do we want to live up to, this is what they are. We’ll be launching that later this week. It is work that has come to the departmental leadership team for comment and review, but it has been drafted and built from that bottom-up perspective from the staff.

Because as we all know with culture, the real vibe around culture is, well, what’s it actually like to work here? And we, as leaders, quite rightly will be held to account for how’s it really like to work around here, compared to what do we say it’s like to work around here.

That for me is an exciting journey.

Graham’s views on public sector capability…

Anne: As many of you will be aware, Professor Peter Coaldrake’s review of culture and accountability in the Queensland public sector released its interim report on the 21st of April. Its final report’s due at the end of June. The Coaldrake review’s considering the need for the public sector to be fit-for-purpose, to respond to changing dynamics that everybody here has experienced. What does fit-for-purpose look like, do you think, and what do you see as the key challenges and opportunities in responding to that assertion, which is easy to make?

Graham: I think fit-for-purpose for government in one sense is what it has always been. Again, those who know me know that I often roll out a Lincoln quote and that quote is that,

“The legitimate object of government is to do for a group of people what it cannot do for itself in either an individual or joint capacity.”

We are here for the communities we serve. The element for me of our context being around serving the community is as it has always been.

Government is not an end to itself. I think when government does best is when it has its mind very focused on that task.

I think what is of great interest in these times is some of the context in which government operates, and sometimes where our citizens seek their views and seek their answers from. I think one of the challenges for government is about how we remain relevant to the communities we serve.

Government will always be here in some form, Westminster-style or Westminster, and that’s a whole separate debate. I think the real opportunity for us in government is how in servicing the communities, we are best keeping pace with what their aspirations are.

Anne: We know that from experience here and internationally, that the issue of public sector capability has long been a cause for concern. There’s a long literature and debate about it. In the Commonwealth, the independent review of the APS raised issues about this and the interim report of Professor Coaldrake’s review also cited it, along with my personal favorite, the role of ministerial staff among its preliminary observations. What, from your perspective, are the key issues impacting on public sector capability? How should we be thinking about it in the context of collaboration and partnership?

Graham: It’s about the capability sense of understanding of a few things. One is what do we see as the opportunity and lifecycle for a public servant in this state?

And for me, that travels everything from there are some wonderful graduate programs that we run, currently run and operate in the Queensland public sector. How do we best use those? How do we best use things like cadetships? How do we best utilise ways of bringing people into the sector?

And we know, as a Gen X, that the temptation is to look at Gen Ys and Millennials and the generations that come beyond from that perspective of the stereotype is, they’re in five weeks and they already want my job.

My reframing of that is that you’ve got generations coming through who are driven by experience and driven by looking for a variety of experiences and different opportunities.

I maintain that the Queensland public sector, like other public sectors, but the public sector and all the different roles we have, all the different places we operate, and all the services we offer, within that one sector, there is so much opportunity for a variety in how you want to structure a career. I think that how we’re bringing and selling ourselves to potential employees is really critical. I think at the other end, maybe as Xs, as we get towards this part of our life.

I think a lot of people have come to the conclusion of not a lot of people fully or formally retire anymore. How we actually understand that as a construct to bring value into the public sector, I think is critical. So, for me, the first thing is that whole of lifecycle. Second thing is I’ve already talked about is mobility and how we use mobility to build capability and how ultimately we use it to build capacity.

And I would say that mobility is not simply within the sector and it is no easier necessarily, but mobility between the public sector and other sectors that work within the sort of ecosystem of getting stuff done for communities, whether it be the NGO sector, industry sectors, it is not easy.

There have been efforts that have met with various levels of success, but the old adage of, “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.” I think that is a key area for us to crack. I think a third thing for me is getting that embedded understanding. I’ve talked a couple of times about the power of the skillsets we have in the public sector, how we harness and nurture those skillsets-

Anne: In the multidisciplinary way…

Graham: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because if you, and I’m probably putting too many dimensions up, but if you think of a complexity dimension with the what’s really going on here, what are the underlying policy issues we’re dealing with are more the symptom than the cause.

If we can bring some of that and then combine that, as another dimension with place, the government around the world that can crack that, and that’s a degree of difficulty.

That is no mean feat, but whoever can crack that owns the future.

IPAA Queensland members can watch the entire event recording on the members portal.

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