Interview: Stephanie Foster, Deputy Secretary - Governance Group, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

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

When I started with the public service in a small intelligence agency 32 years ago, as an Arts (Honours) graduate majoring in English literature and German philosophy, I didn't have a well-formed career plan in mind. I certainly hadn't envisaged that I would be concerning myself with the entrails of government - as is the essence of my current role. I loved the intelligence world so much I stayed for nearly 23 years - doing nothing but intelligence and international policy - until I finally realised I'd die in place if I didn't spread my wings. That realisation took me on a somewhat scary but exciting journey through infrastructure, regional development, and the public service commission. Again, none of which really explains how I ended up where I am now. My current role as Deputy Secretary Governance at PM&C has me taking a 'whole picture' outlook to deliver results for Government. I'm responsible for Cabinet and coordinating support for the Prime Minister, machinery of government, legal policy, and governance issues, as well as the Department’s corporate management. Primarily, we provide an enabling function - we work to enable the proper functioning of Government and, through our Corporate Services, we enable and support the Department to deliver on its mission and priorities.

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

The 'APS Policy Capability Project' was commissioned by the Secretaries' APS Reform Committee last year and a cross-agency project team has been doing some fabulous work on this since September. Through this project, we're bringing together the great pockets of really innovative approaches to policy development across the system into a 'policy hub', a curated online library of policy tools, resources and expertise for all policy advisers.   The initial phase of the project attempted to answer one simple question: How can we lift policy capability across the APS? To get to this point, the team engaged with over 200 policy advisers and policy leaders, analysed APS workforce data, and reviewed publicly available evidence.

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

I've been excited to see the amazing rate at which you can achieve with a small number of the right people. The team was consciously picked for their diverse experiences. They were given a broad objective but then they had the freedom to find their own methodologies and solutions. What this team has achieved really reinforces that you don't need many people - you just need to have the right ones and to give them the head room and backing to do their best work. I think the key ingredients that are making this project work so well are the team's structured approaches to tackling problems - including by using agile methodologies - and that they ensured they had commitment and engagement from decision makers up front. With these important foundations in place, they rallied to deliver great results quickly. This project showed the importance of actually 'doing' stuff, not just talking about it. Demonstrating, not advocating. I've been reminded by this project that we need to make sure we don't become defeated by the failure of numerous efforts over many years to tackle really hard problems. Every effort moves you forward and fresh thinking can genuinely find new responses.

What excites you most about the future?

For a long time I've had a passion to see a high performing APS delivering excellent outcomes for Australians. We do a lot of great work, but there is so much scope to do things differently and improve how we operate and deliver. The APS Review will give us the aspiration and clear direction to achieve that. I'm also excited about the opportunities that disruptive technologies along with disruptive millennials offer us.

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

Do what you really love. Do it with your whole heart and always focus on how you're helping to make the world a better place.

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

I endeavour to read broadly. My regular sources at the moment are the Economist, the Financial Review, and various podcasts - such as Freakonomics Radio, The Daily, and Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History. My Executive Officer and I check in with each other regularly to compare and discuss what we've been listening to and reading. This helps motivate us to read that extra article before bed!

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