Redefining the Possible: the 2019 Williams Oration

Duncan Lewis AO DSC CSC

Dr Megan Clark AC delivers the 2019 Williams Oration.

The IPAA ACT Williams Oration recognises the extraordinary contribution of Ms Helen Williams AC to public administration in Australia. Ms Williams joined the Australian Public Service under the old Public Service Board administrative trainee scheme in 1970. She became the first female Deputy Secretary to be appointed to an Australian Government Department (Department of Eductation, 1983), the first female Secretary (Department of Education, 1985), and the first female Australian Public Service Commissioner (1998). She retired from the Australian Public Service in 2009 having been Secretary of four departments as well as Australian Public Service Commissioner.

The inaugural Williams Oration was delivered in 2018 by Ms Ann Sherry AO, Chairman, Carnival Australia.

On a beautiful Canberra evening, Dr Megan Clark AC, Head of the Australian Space Agency, delivered the Williams Oration at the National Portrait Gallery on 4 November 2019. The Australian Space Agency had formed sixteen months earlier to ‘transform and grow a globally respected Australian space industry that lifts the broader economy and inspires and improves the lives of Australians — underpinned by strong national and international engagement’. Dr Clark took the opportunity presented by the Williams Oration ‘to go behind the curtain’ and share the thinking behind Australia’s first space agency which commenced operations in July 2018.

It began on a domestic flight

From time to time in public administration you experience a ‘Utopia’-like moment. For Dr Clark, that moment was onboard a domestic flight squished between two sleeping male passengers, her elbows held in tightly between her armrests, faced with the pressure of a blank document open on her laptop from which she planned to shape the future of the nation.

By the time the plane landed Dr Clark had finished writing the charter for the Australian Space Agency describing its role and responsibilities to present at a meeting later that morning. She just wished that her sleeping flight companions had known of the significance of what she had been doing.

In the creation of the Australian Space Agency, Dr Clark described how she and her team wanted ‘a massive shift’ to Australia’s role in the international space industry and, in doing so, get talked about ‘in the kitchens and lounge rooms of Australia’.

The Agency was established with a very deliberate commercial focus: setting it up to ‘run through the legs of giants’. Work on its values was very important in this context. It wanted to establish Australia as a responsible citizen in space, to bring a ‘can do’ attitude to its work, to be entrepreneurial, and to build a diverse team.

Being a newcomer to the modern space industry and being ‘late to the party’, it was also critical for the agency to build trust and demonstrate its integrity ‘by doing the things we said we’d do’. They also wanted to bring passion to their purpose which is not so hard when ‘you’re doing cool things’.

Australia hits centre stage… with cred

The next pivotal moment Dr Clark recalled — which illustrated the upswell of goodwill for the Australian Space Agency — was at the 69th International Astronautical Congress in Bremen held in October 2018.

The Agency had an exhibition booth at this, its first international conference. During the drinks session the Aussie booth was ‘going off’ to such an extent that the UK Space Agency across the aisle closed its booth. The Head of the Agency came over and warmly remarked: ‘you clearly have the nation behind you’. He then added this note of caution: ‘don’t take it for granted’.

A key factor in building trust for Australia’s renewed activity in the international space industry has been in the way they engaged state and territory governments, and in the direct no fuss approach to establishing Statements of Intent and Cooperation with businesses in the international space industry.

Dr Clark recalled the significant work undertaken by her staff to engage with every Australian state and territory on an Australian Civil Space Strategy, ‘starting with Tassie and Darwin’. Over a 12-week period Agency staff met with their state and territory counterparts to develop the strategy.  Dr Clark said ‘it was wonderful’: they were able to collaborate in the shaping of seven space strategies (one for each jurisdiction). Her staff said to her ‘they’re all different’; to which she replied, ‘I know’. The Agency then communicated openly on how their engagement with each jurisdiction helped to shape the final ‘Australian Civil Space Strategy 2019–2028’. Dr Clark made the point to her staff that ‘people really appreciate you showing up… they’re really pleased’.

This foundational engagement enabled the Agency to be very clear on where it could focus its efforts with everyone’s support, and where it should tread carefully. The philosophy they came away with was: ‘let others flourish; do what’s missing; and open the door to opportunity’. This groundwork paid the Agency back in spades when it came to making the pitch to government for investment.

Formalising relationships

The modern international space industry is 80% commercial and 20% government. Dr Clark reflected on another key moment in the rapid maturation of the Agency. She recalled a meeting to discuss how agreements between the Agency and industry partners should be framed. She was told they can’t be called agreements

—         MoU’s?

—         No.

—         How about Statements of Intent?

—         Maybe…

Ultimately, they settled on the words ‘Statements of Intent and Cooperation’. The fact that the Agency wanted to demonstrate its transparency in operations and publish these statements online once signed, helped to focus the minds of those negotiating the statements. The result? To date twelve ‘Statements of Intent and Cooperation’ have been signed and published online with industry players as diverse as Boeing, Speedcast and Woodside.

‘Doing cool stuff’: a return to the Moon and then on to Mars

Dr Clark is a geologist — passionate about the role Australia can play in the international space industry and deeply practical in her approach to what the Agency can deliver for Australians.

What the Agency has achieved in 16 months is exceptional. Its values, its behaviour, its approach to working with stakeholders has built sufficient credibility for NASA to partner with the Agency on the upcoming Artemis program which will see humans return to the Moon in five years and then on to Mars within ten.

Dr Clarke then shared her infectious enthusiasm for the return to the Moon and then the trip on Mars. She spoke to images of the Space Launch System which will stand 95 metres high and have a payload of 26 tonnes, sufficient to not only take the astronauts into space but also carry a Lunar Gateway that will orbit the Moon and an Orion spacecraft.

Dr Clarke also shared topographic images of the Moon and Mars, pointing out exactly where they expect water to be found, as well as an array of diagrams illustrating how the Artemis program will get humans to the Moon and Mars.

This is pretty cool stuff for an Australian Space Agency that ‘does what it says it’ll do every day’; with an Agency Head leading from the front in the best traditions of Helen Williams AC who, on having seen ‘at first hand the tensions and inefficiencies between the Commonwealth and the states’, was ‘really attracted to the idea of trying to sort that out’.

It seems that Dr Clarke and her team at the Australian Space Agency — in demonstrating their passion and in building an organisational culture where teams care about each other — have got it sorted.

Visit the IPAA ACT website for more information on the 2019 Williams Oration.