Get to the heart of public service with Gordon de Brouwer

Renee Leon
Image from IPAA ACT
On IPAA ACT’s 100th Work with Purpose episode, guest host Thanuri Welaratne from Questacon sits down with Australian Public Service Commissioner Dr Gordon de Brouwer, where he shares some advice on effective leadership and upholding integrity in your public sector work.

Dr Gordon de Brouwer has worn many hats in his career, dealing with complex issues and working with people across Australia’s vast public and academic sectors.

No matter where you are on your public sector journey, Gordon shares what it takes to be an effective leader and a steward for your team and the whole of the APS.


Work on becoming an effective leader

In his many roles, Gordon has encountered different leaders. When asked what makes an effective one, he hones in on three qualities:

First, you are strategic and substantive.

“You [need to] have a really good sense of what’s going on in the world – you can see it in perspective, and you’ve got a strategic view of what’s going on… You’ve got a vision or a sense of where you want to land.”

Second, you get things done.

“You don’t just wait. You don’t just sit there. You get up and do things, and you don’t wait to be told. You do it.”

Third, you empower others.

“If you’ve got a system where you know how to enable and empower people to do their job and that you back them [up], you’re usually much more effective in achieving what you’re after.”


Support your people

Gordon says that most public servants are proud to be public servants, so leaders can lean into that and focus on supporting their staff.

“The thing that struck me is just how interested the public service is in being stronger and better and doing their job more capably… So, when you can lean in and support that both in capability and in other dimensions… saying, ‘You’re responsible. The system doesn’t sit outside you – you are the system. Own it.’ Empowering people to do that and enabling that, that’s very exciting.”

Gordon goes on to say that capability is an essential part of gaining people’s trust in the public service.

“You want people to trust us and that comes down to capability and integrity. So quite a few of these things are entrenching and deepening the capability and the integrity focus, and that’s where I think where we’ve been for a few years and where we will go in the future.”


Be accountable

Whilst the public sector has faced integrity challenges Gordon underscores that the goal is to prevent future issues through accountability and transparency.

“The people know that there [are] consequences, and you have to treat everyone with respect. But these things matter, and they do affect your career… It’s not a ‘gotcha’ thing, but it is that you’re responsible in your job and the public expects you to do your job well and honestly.”

He further emphasises that integrity in the system relies on the individual’s agency to uphold it.

“You are the system. The system is not extraneous… You have a lot of agency in how you conduct yourself in what you do, and that’s important.”

“You’ve always got the choice to be who you want to be, and someone else’s bad behaviour doesn’t mean that you have to do that. I think people can make their own brand on that,” he adds.


Cultivate healthy workplaces

For people to approach matters with openness, respect, and honesty, leaders should encourage healthy work environments where people thrive and are confident to be themselves.

“[People] thrive in a good workplace and [wither] in a poor one… How do you lean in to support people having good workplaces? That means they’re happier, they’re more productive, you’ve got good behaviours in the workplace, [and] they’re also more effective. It is kind of like a win-win-win… Those things all fit together as a bundle. They’re not alternatives.”


Be authentic

For Gordon, when people can bring their authentic selves at work, they learn to find purpose and make work pleasant for others as well.

“Don’t be afraid to show yourself. People who enjoy their work generally [have] a high degree of satisfaction. It makes you a happier person, and it makes people look to you and it also attracts people to you… Being decent is a good way to be. People will call you in and they’ll want to work with you, but people will also work for you.”

His final advice? Have fun exploring in your career.

“I’d focus on things that are going to help with [my] career, rather than minutely plotting and planning every step of [my] career. There’s a lot of serendipity, a lot of discovery, and frankly, just a lot of joy in doing different things.”