Interview: Amy Brown, Deputy Secretary, Strategy & Delivery, Department of Premier and Cabinet (NSW)

Tell us about the journey to your current role and what it this role entails?

I’ve been working on complex commercial and infrastructure projects for 17 years. A decade of that was as a project finance lawyer in Sydney, London and the Middle East. After having my 2 kids (and starting a fitness business! Long story...) I decided that, instead of being an arm’s length legal adviser, I wanted to be at the helm of the projects themselves - working in infrastructure for NSW Government. So I joined the infrastructure finance unit at NSW Treasury, which provided a commercial advisory function to agencies undertaking public private partnerships and other major projects. After a short period back in the consulting world as a partner of PwC, I’ve now returned home to government as Deputy Secretary and head of the Commercial and Economic Group at Department of Premier and Cabinet. This involves advising the Premier on all complex commercial matters, including infrastructure and whole-of-government projects and negotiations with the private sector. We also provide detailed and robust macro and micro economic and data analysis to determine the ‘why’ behind whether a project, program or initiative should go ahead. In short, it’s my dream job.

Can you describe a project you are working on/recently completed, and any key challenges you have faced along the way and how they were overcome?

Although there’s an established market in Australia for private sector investment in most mainstream infrastructure (roads, rail, hospitals, prisons and schools), the same can’t be said for social and affordable housing. It’s an asset class that’s not well understood, and it’s difficult to generate projects of sufficient scale to justify the amount of work investors need to do to participate. Governments around Australia have sent projects to market in various forms - some with infrastructure-style risk allocations, some with Government land included as a co-investment in the project, some with various forms of tenure included in the same development (including an asset class new to Australia, called ‘build to rent’) and a recently-established federal government entity offering to lend money into these projects at lower rates. The key challenge for these project is that there’s no ‘silver bullet’ - if there was we would have found it by now. But there are lots of variations of projects which, working in tandem and tailored to each specific context, could start to move the dial on this sector. By taking this approach, NSW Government has just added over 3,000 new social housing dwellings to the system via two phases of the Social and Affordable Housing Fund, and signed contracts on a major Communities Plus estate renewal project, with a handful of others in procurement.

What did you learn from this project? What did it achieve?

One thing I’ve learned from social and affordable housing projects - and every project  in fact - is the importance of Government listening to its market. If it wants to attract private sector investment, it needs to sit down with the private sector - all the relevant players - and ask the right questions. What are are the barriers to investment? What are the risks they just can’t accept (or that will inflate the price)? What sort of scale are they interested in? What length of contract? Should construction be bundled with other services? Can brownfield and greenfield be combined? When I’ve seen projects go badly, there’s been a common reason - we haven’t listened to what our market (and/or end users and/or communities) was trying to tell us.

What excites you most about the future?

I’m excited to see different sectors develop and grow - particularly social infrastructure. The time is ripe.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone looking to further their career in government, what would it be?

Never forget what an honour, privilege and duty it is to serve the people of NSW. As soon as that stops being front-of-mind, you will cease to do your job well. And if you don’t feel the sense of purpose and privilege that it is to steward the direction of your State, then being a leader of the public service may well not be for you.

Where do you look to for further education? E.g. articles, podcasts, news sources, courses – e.g. University, online, internal etc?

I spend zero time in the black hole of non-professional social media (facebook, instagram etc) but read a lot of Linked In, opinion pieces, online news. And have long and detailed conversations - in the flesh - with extremely intelligent and insightful people.

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