Feeling the Love: Fond Memories from a Distinguished VPS Career

25 May 2019

Although he’s now a ‘new Queenslander’ living in Brisbane, former Victorian Environment Secretary Adam Fennessy explains why his heart will always belong to his home state.


It was a lovely autumn day in April 2002, and I’d just left the Victorian Parliament and was heading down Bourke Street on my way to meet a colleague for coffee. There suddenly on the footpath in front of me, was a ruddy-faced passer-by jovially greeting Deputy Premier John Thwaites – who proffered a cheery wave in return.

It was my first week as a policy officer for the Department of Premier and Cabinet – my first week in the Victorian Public Sector – and, already, I was feeling the love.

Working for the VPS was always going to involve a much closer connection to the community than my previous job with the Australian Public Service in Canberra. There, our lives were umbilically connected to Parliament House – both a proud structure for democracy and a hive of intrigue and deal-making. Now here I was in the heart of the Victorian community – on the doorstep of the State Parliament.

Adam Fennessy with Travis Lovett, a proud Gunditjmara man and DELWP Director, at the Budj Bim National Park.

Adam Fennessy with Travis Lovett, a proud Gunditjmara man and DELWP Director, at the Budj Bim National Park.

Victoria has long had a reputation for policy leadership and a high-quality public service. I was fortunate to be involved in a range of policy work that sought to shape and improve the lives not just of Victorians, but of all Australians. In DPC, under the leadership of Terry Moran, I was involved in a succession of exciting policy projects that influenced the nation: the development of the first National Emissions Trading Scheme (still not in place); reform of the Murray Darling Basin (still working through); public/private investment in nationally significant infrastructure (thankfully, now built and moving people and freight). In later years, under the leadership of Helen Silver, Andrew Tongue and Chris Eccles, Victoria led many critical social policy reforms in education, vocational training, preventative health, the prevention of family violence, and the creation of a framework for Treaty negotiations with Aboriginal Victorians.

However, the leadership during my time in the VPS that had a greater impact on me was in the ‘people space’. We are Victorians, Queenslanders, Australians, members of our towns and communities and the organisations in which we spend many of our waking hours. But we are people before we are workers, voters or taxpayers.

People leadership

When I reflect on my 15 years in the VPS, including four years as a Departmental Secretary, the things I’m most proud of are not the policy achievements. I am most proud of the people leadership: leading and motivating people and teams, leading by example (even when it’s scary to do so), seeing the impact through into communities, and making a difference across the State.

What am I most proud of? The list is long, and here are a few examples. Like a good public servant, I will use dot points:

  • We achieved substantial change in gender equality while I was Secretary of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP). We made all roles flexible, right up to mine; we achieved 50% women and men in our broader leadership cohort of 80 executives, starting from a base of 28%; working with the Minister for Water, Lisa Neville, we achieved 50% gender balance across Victoria’s water authority boards, bringing diverse governance to water service delivery across the State. These achievements still make my heart feel warm and excited to this day, as I write them out.

  • We changed the way that we connect and work with Victoria’s first people by starting with change in DELWP. We launched Munganin-Gadhaba, “Working Together” in the language of the Taungurung people, to invest in and change the way we work with Aboriginal leaders in our organisation. Again, with Minister Lisa Neville, we invested in the nation’s first Aboriginal water rights framework; we invested in Indigenous fire management across Victorian landscapes, led by Aboriginal leaders in DELWP and Parks Victoria like the wonderful Trent Nelson, a Dja Dja Wurrung man from Bendigo.

  • We created a new focus in DELWP of putting community at the centre of all we do, which seems rather obvious now, but was a big change in focus back in 2015. As part of my own efforts to put people at the centre, I remember personally apologising to the central Victorian communities of Lancefield and Benloch for a controlled spring burn that we lit, which escaped control lines and destroyed homes and natural habitat. In that case, we were in the Lancefield Mechanics Hall on a cold spring morning, with TV cameras and other media present. The local community was hurt and angry, but seemed relieved that a senior official from government was prepared to say “I’m sorry”, take responsibility, and own an event that had impacted on them all. This allowed some sort of healing and recovery to start.

Adam with the DELWP water policy team, led by Sara Harbidge and Dr Sharon Davis, collecting an IPAA Victoria Leadership in the Public Sector Award for the 2016 Victorian Water Plan.

Adam with the DELWP water policy team, led by Sara Harbidge and Dr Sharon Davis, collecting an IPAA Victoria Leadership in the Public Sector Award for the 2016 Victorian Water Plan.

 I am proud that these reforms have continued. The gender targets and ‘all roles flex’ approach are now reflected in the 2016 Victorian Gender Equality Strategy, launched by the late Fiona Richardson, then Minister for Women. DELWP still leads the VPS metrics for uptake of flexibility across the organisation, thanks to the continued leadership of Secretary John Bradley. Deputy Secretary Terry Garwood is now rightfully recognised on the Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll, Tim Kanoa leads the DELWP Indigenous team, and DELWP staff now present overseas on our Indigenous land and fire management practices.

This is what I am most proud and excited about when I reflect on my time in the VPS.

Staying in touch

Now that I have been out of the VPS for nearly two years, and am a new Queenslander to boot, people sometimes ask me about my reflections on my time in the public service.

Here is my advice:

Don’t get lost in the day to day: As public servants, remember what you are there to do, and think about the people and communities you are there to serve. Even better, get out and about and talk to people. This is the best possible way to get real feedback on the importance of government and public service. Ask questions and listen to how people and communities experience our services, what they think about us, whether they even know who we are or what we do.

With the DELWP Place of Pride LGBTI network team at the 2017 Melbourne Pride March.

With the DELWP Place of Pride LGBTI network team at the 2017 Melbourne Pride March.

I spent my entire time as a Victorian Departmental Secretary living in regional Victoria, and this made a significant difference to my level of connection with people and communities. Particularly across regional Victoria, people and staff were very happy to tell me to my face what was working well and where we could improve. This kind of feedback is gold.

Stay connected to others around you: Networks are very important. I learned most of my public service skills from peers, friends and colleagues in Victoria and across Australia. Networks help us enormously as public servants, and there are plenty around to tap into: IPAA Victoria (and yes, I was an IPAA Board member, because I believed this was important), ANZSOG, peer learning groups, and the Victorian Leadership Academy to name a few.

Finally, as a public servant, keep people at the centre of what you do. This includes the communities we serve, as I’ve already mentioned. It also includes the wonderful people who work for public services across Australia, in all their rich glory, frustration and variation. My proudest achievements relate to the diverse range of people I worked with. If our people are well supported, developed, motivated and driven by purpose, we will continue to create positive change across our communities.

This is what good public service is all about.

Adam Fennessy PSM was Secretary of the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning from 2015 to June 2017, and Secretary of the Department of Environment and Primary Industries from 2013 to 2014. He is now a partner at professional services firm EY, with a focus on government and the public sector. Adam lived for 10 years in regional Victoria and is now based in Brisbane.