Sage advice for civil servants: the best bits of Leading Questions Series 2

By on 28/12/2022 | Updated on 28/12/2022
Leading Questions, the Best of Series

We take a look back at Global Government Forum’s 2022 podcasts, sharing snippets of wisdom that our guests have gleaned from decades of public service

This year, Global Government Forum produced the second series of our Leading Questions podcast, bringing you candid conversations between current and former civil service leaders and our host Siobhan Benita.

Covering the best and worst moments of their careers, in these podcasts guests provide advice gleaned from their great wealth of experience as leaders, including lessons on building resilience, not being afraid to take risks, the importance of self-care, championing diversity of thought, and much more besides.   

Here, we look back at the best bits of the second series of far.

We launched series 2 back in May with an episode featuring Stephanie Foster, then deputy secretary governance at Australia’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and head of reform for the Australian Public Service (she has since become associate secretary, immigration, at the Department of Home Affairs).

In it, Stephanie spoke of the mighty challenge of delivering the Foster Report in response to an alleged sexual assault in Parliament House, against a politically-charged backdrop and under intense media scrutiny. In this clip, she recounts her fear of failure and how the pressure of delivering the report taught her the importance of looking after not just the wellbeing of her team but her own too.

In the episode, Stephanie also spoke with refreshing honesty about taking risks, why an excellent leader can also be a flawed human, and why it sometimes pays to break the rules.

Also focusing on the highs and lows of a career at the top of the public service was Michael Wernick – Canada’s most senior civil servant before his retirement in 2019 – in episode 3.

The biggest disappointment of his career came during his time at the helm of what was then the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs when an education reform he had worked on for five years – and which he felt sure was key to unlocking many of the problems faced by indigenous communities – was torpedoed.  

In this clip, he speaks of the huge honour of receiving a rare eagle feather by indigenous colleagues in recognition of his work and the comfort that brought at a very difficult time.

Elsewhere in the episode, Michael recounts his time as clerk of the Privy Council of Canada and secretary to the cabinet and touches on the systemic racism in government processes, why he has a problem with the notion of ‘speaking truth to power’, and why his vision for the public service is akin to the moving staircases in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

In episode 4, fellow Canadian Yazmine Laroche – the recently retired deputy minister of public service accessibility – gave a compelling account of the obstacles she faced in her career, from accepting a job she felt ill qualified for and was told she would hate to striving to improve the working lives of public servants with disabilities after decades minimising her own.

Here, she tells Siobhan about her belief that civil and public services that aren’t representative of the populations they serve risk becoming irrelevant, producing “terrible outcomes”, and further damaging trust in public institutions.

Yazmine also spoke of the “tremendous importance of allyship”, and why cross-government collaboration is key to better public services.

In episode 2, Sir Suma Chakrabarti, former permanent secretary of the UK justice department and president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, reflected on a career spent leading teams through mergers, reform, crises, cuts and redundancies.

In this clip, he explains why officials working through similarly tough situations should embrace pursuits outside of work to keep them “sane” and “grounded” and to help build their resilience.

Chakrabarti also discusses his decision to leave one department because he was at loggerheads with the minister, how his mother’s experience as an Indian woman in 1960s Britain inspired his work as a diversity champion, the future of work, and why ambitious civil servants need to be able to “knit together different agendas”.

The most recent podcast was a slight departure from Leading Questions’ usual fare, in that it featured not a current or former civil service leader but Colin Talbot, a professor of Manchester University and the University of Cambridge who specialises in public services and public management reform.

Colin told Siobhan why he believes public services in the UK could be much improved if the officials working in central government departments took time to work in frontline delivery roles to gain an understanding of how programmes and policies play out on the ground.

Colin also compared the UK governance system with those of other countries, and touched on lessons from the military on how to work horizontally and vertically, the ‘levelling up’ agenda, the need for public administration education, and the difficulties of navigating ministerial churn.

It’s been a great series so far – full of valuable insights and anecdotes – and we hope you’ve enjoyed listening to it. Look out for the next episode of Leading Questions Series 2 next month, featuring Gertrud Ingestad, director-general for human resources and security at the European Commission.

You can watch other episodes of Series 1 & 2 here. Leading Questions Series 3 will be out in 2023.

We’re searching the globe to find the best examples of public sector leadership. If you’d like to recommend someone to feature in a future episode of the Leading Questions podcast, please get in touch.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *