Bruce Thompson was appointed 3-4 months ago as Deputy Secretary for Corporate Services at the newly formed Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), a major Victorian government department employing more than 3,500 staff in more than 100 locations. Prior to joining DEPI, Bruce was CIO at the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE). Bruce has many years of executive experience in the public sector in Victoria and Queensland. In this exclusive interview with ACS, he shares with us his experiences as an IT leader within the Victorian Government thus far and gives us an insight into his broader role as a Deputy Secretary of a major Victorian government department.
STORY; ERNEST STABEK Vice Chair ACS Victoria/Chair Policy & Government Relations Committee ACS Victoria
Stabek (ACS): Congratulations on your first 100 days in transitioning into this new and exciting leadership role. What did you plan to do when you came into the role?
Thompson: There were big shoes to fill – the former Deputy Secretary Dr Gillian Sparkes had made DSE’s Corporate Services a highly efficient and well respected Group. It was important for me to continue Gill’s high standard of leadership and innovation, and to shape that excellent platform to deliver the new Departmental agenda, resulting from the merging of the former department of Primary Industries and the former department of Sustainability and Environment.
Starting on May 12, the primary objectives were to have the newly created department ‘open for business’ on July 1, 2013, and to define the Corporate Services role.
There are a thousand and one things to do to, but the priorities were branding and identity, accommodation master planning, an information strategy to support the new departmental approach and operating model, and systems integration (merging two existing departments is a Noah’s Ark scenario – there’s two of everything).
We also worked hard on clearly and tightly defining the role of corporate, which we’ve scoped as only those tasks that need to be performed consistently and uniformly right across the enterprise, and based on four fundamental roles – planning, enabling, compliance and reporting.
Stabek (ACS): Looking back, did you achieve all you wanted?
Thompson: Yes, mostly, we were open for business on July 1 at more than 100 locations across Victoria. I’m very proud of the achievements across the Corporate Services Group – Finance & Planning, People & Culture, Information Services, Legal Services, Communications, and Business Operations. Branding and identity is crucial to the development of a constructive organisational culture, and accommodation is also critical for both morale and operational performance. The core business systems have been resolved to the point we can support Business as Usual, and we are scoping the required levels of efficiency and performance. We’re still working through the nitty gritty of the information strategy – pulling together existing capabilities and services, looking for synergies, and ensuring we’re fully aligned to the business drivers – but close to moving from planning to operations. This strategy is something we have to get right – a solid shared authoritative information platform is fundamental to the Department’s developing service delivery model, particularly as we have a strong and broadly distributed regional presence.
Stabek (ACS): What are your top priorities moving forward? And what do you plan to do in the next three to six months that will make a significant difference?
Thompson: DEPI priorities are productive communities and a healthy environment. These two priorities are to be delivered within the broader requirement of improving service delivery, particularly for regional Victoria. Our Secretary has identified six transformational projects in support of these priorities, so it’s been a time of incredible activity and quite stimulating debate at and across all levels of the department. We’re excited about delivering the Government’s ‘one-stop shop’ approach to regional service delivery and the services required to support local decision-making and operations. Along with this, it’s important for me and DEPI’s senior executives to be visible and accessible to staff, as we’re learning a lot about what ‘s required to meet our goals.
We also have a set of Whole-of-Victorian-government objectives in respect of reducing fiscal pressures through both continuous improvement and transformational change, and developing greater capability across the public sector.
In practical terms the top priorities are:
- systems integration (decommission, reduce costs, simplify);
- delivery of a single, authoritative information source as the base for improved regional service delivery. We have both the opportunity and the obligation to equip our regional staff to be more effective and responsive, so we must provide them with the direction, information and tools they need; and
- identifying transformational change opportunities.
Stabek (ACS): What is the greatest challenge (risk/opportunity) from your unique DEPI perspective and as a former DPI CIO to delivering the announced VIC ICT Strategy?
Thompson: The ICT Strategy is a great opportunity to coordinate and direct ICT resources across government to greater effect. The big opportunities lie in common Whole-of-Victorian-Government systems and services. The big challenges are developing an integrated and cohesive forward plan, and coordinating investment and development cycles. The business case for many whole-of-Government initiatives (not just in Victoria) are weakened by agency investment cycles and timeframes.
Stabek (ACS): You have had a pretty full on time of it and it is early days yet, any lessons to share?
Thompson: It’s a big jump for me, and has meant a change in approach. I’m learning from my colleagues and peers daily, and hopefully I’m improving my performance. Biggest lessons are:
- build a team that can do the job, then step back and let them do it; and
- get the communications right (see advice below). The best efforts and performance are devalued if the message sent isn’t the right message for the audience, or if the message sent isn’t the message received.
Stabek (ACS): What advice do you have for CIOs or ICT Leaders aspiring to move up the leadership ladder?
Thompson: Mostly common sense – things that we all know, but don’t seem to keep in focus as consistently as we ought:
1. Get sponsorship/ownership at Chief Executive level.
2. Work on business initiatives, not ICT projects.
3. Develop role clarity – the business should own what needs to be done, but CIO should own how it is delivered.
4. Use the business to establish requirements for continuous improvement, but perhaps not for transformational change. External influences may be necessary for transformational change.
5. Don’t look to technology first. I don’t know who to credit, but the 60%, 30%, 10% priority rule for people, processes and technology seems right to me, in terms of both issues and solutions.
6. Look for the opportunities to stop doing some things. This is usually at least as valuable (and as difficult) as driving the case for investment.
7. Work hard on and leverage communications capabilities to build support, report progress and demonstrate achievement.
Stabek (ACS): What would you like to say to the members of ACS?
Thompson: The current combination of a tight fiscal environment and the productivity opportunities arising from ‘digital only’, cloud and other ICT capabilities means this is a good time to be in the ICT sector. Take the opportunity to leverage your professionalism and expertise, for your organisations and your own career development.