Devolving leadership: Lessons from Blair Comley’s public service career

Renee Leon
Image from Canva images

Secretary of the Department of Health and Aged Care Blair Comley PSM shares his public service journey on an IPAA ACT Work with Purpose episode, highlighting the benefits of devolving leadership in public sector work. 

Blair Comley has had an extensive career leading to his current role as Secretary of the Department of Health and Aged Care. He’s held many senior public service positions at the federal and state levels and worked closely with governments, nonprofits, and businesses during his time in consulting. 

Looking back, Blair says that devolution, where executive leaders are empowered to make decisions and engage with important stakeholders, can be a powerful tool to reduce risks, increase work quality and staff satisfaction.

Perks of devolution 

He challenges the notion that senior leaders should clear all decisions and encourages them to empower mid-level professionals to take more responsibility.

“If you’re a senior person and you are clearing a hundred or a thousand things a week, that’s not very good risk management at all because you don’t have time.  

“Whereas if you’re an EL2 and it’s a marquee piece of work for you, you do it once a month or even once a week, then you’ve got the time actually to pay attention to it and you are probably much closer to the subject material than the person who’s more senior in the area. So, it decreases risk, increases quality, and it is much better work for that person doing the work.” 

Key ingredients to successful devolution 

For devolution to be successful, Blair says it’s crucial to have the right culture, capability, and skills within an organisation. 

“There has to be a culture where [leaders are] encouraged to manage that span of control issue – one by consulting broadly both inside and outside the organisation, but also having the capacity to elevate things when [needed]. You need to wrap that around a culture of accountability that if it’s being devolved to you, you are responsible for getting it right.” 

The Department of Health and Aged Care also recently delivered its capability review, focusing on uplifting strategic policy capability. Blair highlights that policy should be guided by a good framework, done with rigour, and grounded in reality through collaboration. 

Blair underscores that good communication skills are crucial to being an effective policymaker. 

“The test of a good piece of writing is: have you made it as easy as possible for the reader?… If you can’t make it as easy for them as possible, then they can’t distil whether this is a good idea that warrants prioritisation in the process. So, you have to have the lens of, ‘does this make it as easy as possible for the reader [to understand and] make our case more compelling [and] increase the chance of getting the outcomes that we think are important?” 

Embedding strategic policy thinking 

Having strategic policy thinking as a priority, the department focuses on effective communication and its learning development strategy as the main drivers for implementation.  

“Part of it is I’m a broken record on this topic. So, constant communication through our executive committee, through monthly meeting of SES, I do a weekly message to staff… I have a policy of meeting every branch once a year where I sit down for an hour and talk about anything that they want to talk about.” 

“Apart from the relentless communication, it is learning and development strategy, hubs of expertise and a system where we are trying to over time improve the mix of people with the skill sets that we need,” he adds. 

Capability that translates to better outcomes 

When asked about his legacy, Blair hopes that the department’s capability uplift would translate to long-term vision and practical solutions and serve the broader public sector. 

“If we delivered on the capability review… If we delivered on a department that had enormous strategic policy capability that could support the government of the day with thinking informed by a much longer-term vision of the direction of the health and aged care system but bring it back to practical implementable solutions on a daily basis, that we had that capability in spades.” 

“If you started having people saying, ‘Isn’t it great? I got fantastic training in the Department of Health and Aged Care and now I’m going to follow my passion in a different area of policy because I’ve got a skill set and a toolkit that allows me to go and do that.’ That would be fantastic,” he adds. 


Listen to the episode here.