Join PwC Partner, Di Rutter, as she sits down with Emma Hogan, Secretary of NSW’s Department of Customer Service.
Following a 20-year career in the private sector working with iconic Australian brands, Emma made the jump to the public sector in 2018 as NSW’s Public Service Commissioner. In this episode, Di and Emma delve into what it’s like to lead teams of 10,000 and her experience as a transformation leader across customer, digital, people, culture and communications.
Welcome to Government Matters, a podcast from PwC Australia that features stories of transformation, reform and innovation from some of the most respected and accomplished leaders working in the government and public sector. I am your host, Di Rutter, and in this episode I talk to Emma Hogan, secretary of the New South Wales Department of Customer Service.
Emma reflects on her career in the private sector before joining the public sector as the New South Wales Public Service Commissioner, just before the devastating bushfires that ravaged New South Wales in 2019. Barely having time to catch her breath, she was then confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic, responding by leading her team to pioneer technology that has spearheaded local business recovery efforts. Emma talks openly about the power of collaboration, backing yourself, focusing on an inclusive, mentally healthy work place, and the power of burning ambition. I hope you enjoy the inspirational Emma Hogan.
So Emma, thank you so much for your time today, I know it's incredibly busy time. Just wanted to have a brief chat with you to explore your career and your leadership journey, which has been quite interesting. You had built a career in the private sector, working across a variety of industries, hospitality, retail, media. Really keen to understand a bit about that journey and also the reason for the move into government.
Yeah. Thank you and thanks very much for having me. Yeah, it is quite a wild ride. I don't think any time in my life did I envisage I would end up in government. It never even crossed my mind really. And a lot of my friends and family, I mean my father is a commander in the navy, but outside of that, I'd never really had any exposure to any form of government or government activity. My career really was primarily in the HR and communications space all the way along. The bigger organisations that I worked for were Woollies in the early 2000s. And then I went to Qantas for a few years. And then I had the opportunity to go to Foxtel and I spent 10 years there. Obviously, Foxtel was in a slightly different position 10 years ago than it was now. When I started in 2007, yeah, we hadn't heard of Netflix or Stan or any of those things at the time. And it was just an amazing journey for me to be there.
But after 10 years, I'd been commuting ... In the last three years there, I changed from being the HR director to being the head of customer. And I was commuting to Melbourne every week and it was sort of taking its toll, and I'd been there 10 years and I could see, like everybody could, that everything was about to change. And I felt like I'd gone through three reiterations of that organisation, three amazing CEOs, and I just didn't feel like I could go again.
And so I decided to take a career break and I took six months off. And during that time, wrote a book and relaxed and exercised, and all those things you dream about doing. And then I got married and found myself pregnant at 42. Made a bit of a career error by jumping into a role that wasn't right for me. I had one of those female moments where I was offered a job while I was pregnant. And because I wasn't working, I thought, oh, how lucky I am to be offered a role because it was crazy time and not advice I would give anybody else, but I wasn't very kind to myself at the time. And then had my baby and thought, no, I'm really going to wait for the right role.
And I got a call from a recruiter saying, "The public service commissioner role is available. Would you be interested in putting your hat in the ring?" And I had to Google it. I had no idea what that meant, and I'd never thought about government. And yeah, I did a lot of research, went through a lot of interviews. I tried to withdraw a few times. I was really unsure about my ability to work in government. I had, I guess, some pretty ill-informed perceptions about what government might be like.
And then I arrived and yeah, honestly, best thing I've ever done in my career. I mean I loved every minute of working at Foxtel, but I think for where I am in my life and the impact I've been able to have here, it's been a really amazing ride. And just to top it off, after 18 months as the commissioner, I was afforded the amazing opportunity to do the job I have now, which is the Secretary for the Department of Customer Service, which is 10,000 people and multiple brands. And yeah, I really, really love it.
Such an incredible and diverse leadership journey. When you took on that first role with the public service commissioner, do you think that was more challenging because you hadn't previously worked in the public sector or in fact, it was your secret superpower, bringing in that outsider's eye?
Such a great question. Sometimes I think being really naive is a good thing. Certainly people forgive you a lot of the questions that you ask because they know when you're appointed to that role, it gets a lot of attention within the public service and a bit of media attention as well, and so people know that you have not come from the public service, and so people are a bit more forgiving about the questions you want to ask, which was great.
But I think the other thing is Tim Reardon, who's the secretary for Premier and Cabinet, he was on my hiring panel, and he and Professor Peter Shergold, who was the chairman of the commission's board, just really went out of their way to make me feel welcome, to make me know that or to reassure me that there was no such thing as a dumb question. And look, I had the content, I knew the content. It was more about learning the context. And one of the things I was willing to back myself on was I'd made the transition from retail to aviation to then media and entertainment. So I knew that you could pick up those skills and take them anywhere. It was the context you needed to learn. And I spent the first few months really learning the context, I guess.
And the other thing that I had learned over the years was to not ride in on a white horse. I didn't mention the word Foxtel or any other organisation I'd worked for at all in the first kind of hundred days. I was just didn't want to be that person who said, "At Foxtel, I did this thing and that thing." I just listened. And yeah, I really loved that job actually. I was quite ... When I was offered the chance to do the secretary role, I was very, very torn because I felt I'd only been there 18 months. I was just starting to get some runs on the board, but I just didn't feel like I'd really delivered anything. So it was a very, very tough decision to make. But 18 months into this role, I definitely feel like we've delivered some things here.
You certainly have, amazing, incredible innovations. So talk to us about, so 18 months in the role at Public Service Commissioner, and then you got the call up to join the Department of Customer Services, the secretary. Not only did you get the call up, but it was in a very tumultuous time that you took on the role. Tell us about that experience.
Yeah, it was a bit crazy. So the department had been established as the first of its kind in the world on the 1st of July, 2019. Glenn King was the secretary. He'd been transitioning it over for a couple of months and then it became formal on the 1st of July. And then in the October, Glenn and I were very close colleagues. He was customer, I was people, we were hand in hand all the way, not literally, but figuratively speaking. And I was very shocked that he decided to take this role in Melbourne and he had family there and sometimes, it's the wrong time, but the right role, and you got to do what you've got to do.
And yeah, so I got the opportunity, but I was still reeling from the fact that he wasn't going to be there anymore because he'd been such a mentor to me and yeah, I got the opportunity. And so he was mid-flight, right. When you take over a CEO role, normally, they've been in the role for, I don't know, three plus years maybe. They've had a beginning, a middle and a natural transition point to hand over to someone else. But I had to take over when he was five months in. He was mid-establishment, mid-change, mid-reorganisation, mid-everything. And there was no real opportunity for me to pause, do the first 100 days and then, decide what I would do with it. It was just kind of, okay, he's jumped out of the plane, you're jumping into the seat, keep going.
So I readjusted what my expectations of 100 days was going to be, which was learn on the fly, then tweak the strategy and then, try and tell the story. 'Cause I didn't think we were telling the story yet about what DCS as it's known was going to be. And then 68 days into that first 100 days, the state caught on fire and quite literally, my role was just not the same again. We spent all of Christmas and January trying to help our customers recover from bushfires, whether that was through Service New South Wales providing support, whether that was the Telco Authority supporting emergency services, whether that was our revenue teams putting in hardship measures, our regulators, everybody played a role.
And then I thought in February, okay, back to where ... Where was I? Strategy? What was I doing with that? And then, COVID hit and all bets were off, and we basically spent the best part of a year with COVID as the lead and longer term strategy sort of as a close second. And it's only now really that I've been able to flip those, to being the longer-term strategy first and the COVID response kind of is a little bit more, not business as usual, I don't want to be laissez-faire about it, but we learn every time and our teams are a bit more of a well-oiled machine about how to handle particular things. So yeah, it's only now, 18 months into the role that I'm feeling like I've just finished those first 100 days and I know what to do next.
Wow, that's an incredible start to a new role. So we'd love to just spend a moment, Emma, hearing from you some of the proudest achievements that you and your team, so the collective you, delivered to support citizens, businesses during COVID and also the bushfires. There's been some remarkable innovations stood up pretty quickly in that timeframe.
Yeah. Oh, so many things to be proud of. So many, not sure how many hours your listeners have got, but a couple of things, if I just sort of run through my direct reports and pick a couple each. Service New South Wales, obviously, the thing that actually I'm most proud of there when it came to bushfires was the volunteer firefighters had not often not been paid. They'd worked for days and it was decided that they would be given a payment. And we turned around a digital payment process within 14 days after Christmas. And I think I would challenge any private sector organisation to be quicker than we were. I think we did a terrific job and that action really set the scene for the capabilities that we didn't know we were going to need at that time.
But since then, we've issued grants for recovery. We've done Dine & Discover. We've done QR code check-ins. All of you would be familiar with the role that Service has somehow played mostly in your back pocket, in your phone, in helping us keep the state safe and giving immediate access to New South Wales Health to contact tracing information, which has been a really critical part of New South Wales' success so far.
But then, I look at the revenue team who've just done amazing work with hardship over the last 12 months particularly in our lower socioeconomic communities. There's just so much to be proud of there. You can now pay off fines through working orders. And we've got a pilot scheme going on at the moment where we have a big problem with people getting fined for not having baby seats installed properly. And often, it's because people can't afford to get them put in properly and we're doing this program at the moment where we're providing support to get them put in properly to avoid the fines. Just small things, things that seem small that actually have a really big impact.
I think if I think about digital, it's getting the restart fund. This government is now investing $2.1 billion in digital restart, $240 million of which is in cybersecurity to really make sure the state is doing everything it can to protect its systems and its customer information. The comms team that did nsw.gov.au, that's been the single source of truth all year. Births, deaths and marriages have reinvented themselves. There's just so much, so much, so much, so much. And now any of the rest of my team that are listening are going to think I've missed ... -the other thing I will say is regulation is 50% of my business, SafeWork, Liquor & Gaming, Fair Trading, they have done an amazing job. They've all become COVID safe inspectors on top of their day jobs and have still managed to digitise and to improve and to make sure our state are safe in other ways. Incredible, incredible effort. Couldn't be prouder.
And other things, Emma, that you've learnt over the last couple of years, in particular, the last 12 months that you stop and think actually, why haven't we always done it that way? What are you going to be carrying forward?
Yeah. I mean look, the main thing for me has been just how much can get done when egos are put aside and collaboration really comes into play. So I mean a year ago, and Health, Elizabeth Koff has openly said this, that Health didn't need help from anyone else. Thanks very much. And then, they couldn't do the health response and the communication and QR code, they couldn't do everything on their own. And Elizabeth and I have a great relationship as do our teams and we have truly held hands the whole way along this - that's the second time I've said the word holding hands, I'm not sure what's going on there - but we've truly been aligned the whole time. And each, both teams supporting the other to do the work that needed to be done. So I definitely have seen the true benefits of collaboration, not collaboration on paper, but the true, true benefits and what happens when you put aside who owns what and you just genuinely put the customer at the centre of everything that you do.
And my goal as the secretary is for this department to be the world's most customer ... Sorry. My goal as the secretary is for us to be the world's most customer-centric government, not the world's most customer-centric department. And I think we have shown examples this year of how we can be the world's most customer-centric government when we work together. And look, there's loads of other examples with other clusters that are not COVID related, but that'd be the one your listeners will have visibly seen is collaboration at its best when we've worked together. The QR codes are a great example. They weren't mandatory, your Service New South Wales QR codes to start with, and then they became so because Health could get access to that data at the same time we were viewing it. Whereas with marketable products, often they were bought online through the states, you couldn't get access to anyone, it became very challenging. Yeah, so collaboration would be a big one.
Decisions get made a lot quicker in a crisis. Money gets approved a lot quicker, too. I'd love to keep some of those, but I suspect we'll see a healthy return to normal there. And look, on a personal note, I think we've seen the best of humanity in terms of looking after our neighbours and trying to do the right thing. And everybody, for the most part, everybody's really, really tried to be part of the state and be part of the recovery and be part of the program that's allowed us to have the freedoms we've had, and I think that's been just an incredible thing, and I hope that we learned a lot from that. There's been some negative repercussions as well, but on the positive, I hope that from a community perspective, we're in a much better place than we were going in.
Yeah, incredible. I also know that in your previous roles, but also even today, you've had a really strong passion around people, building capability, driving inclusive work practices. And I can imagine that there's a whole team underneath you that supported you through this time. As a leader, what's your biggest focus and what has been around building that high performing culture? Keen to hear your thoughts on that, Emma.
Look, I think you'd have to ask my team as to whether they think that I'm responsible for that. I think my natural leadership style is to try and get the group to - the team - to collaborate and then make decisions together. And when they can't make decisions together or the obvious decision can't be made, then of course, I will make the captain's call, but I genuinely try to make sure I treat the team as a team. That takes time to build. I would say if you were to ask my team today, they'd say everybody liked each other when I first came on board, but now we've worked really hard as a team to trust each other, to work together, to put aside egos, to let others do the right work, and it's been a journey.
But I think accountability is the other bit. We've got to hold ourselves and each other to account. And of course, we've had no options, but to hold ourselves accountable. The public accountability for us has been very strong in the last year, and I think that's something that we'll really continue to focus on going forward. I genuinely believe you are nothing without your people. I feel very strongly about representing the communities we serve. In fact, I've never felt more strongly about that than I do working in government.
And so I do have a personal passion internally for driving diversity, inclusion and mental health and wellbeing. And if you ask, I think in years gone by, or sorry, in future years, if you were to say to people who are still in the department, "Do you remember Emma Hogan when she was secretary?" They'd go, "Oh, she's the one I used to bang on about diversity all the time." I think that would be, I think if you've ever seen me speak, internally, that's my number one thing, is I really want to be a great employer. I want our people who spend a significant amount of time at work, I really want them to feel part of something great, and feel like they're living their lives with purpose, and that they're valued, and that they're providing value, and that they feel 100% safe to be themselves at work. And we're not there yet, but I think everyone knows that it's mine and the team's intention to create that environment.
Yeah, that psychological safety certainly builds from trust. It takes time to build, but very, very exciting when you can see it manifesting in a high performing, thriving team so everyone can be themselves, but also harness the strength of the differences of others around them. Related to that, I guess, is creating and promoting a mentally healthy workplace. And I believe you're an ambassador for SafeWork New South Wales mentally healthy workplaces. Can you tell us a bit about that ambassador role and some of the key things that you've spoken about in relation to that role?
Yeah. So this is a thing, this is something I'm really proud of and something I'm really passionate about. So within SafeWork, which sits within the Department of Customer Service, there is a mentally healthy workplaces team and their primary focus is actually external. It's to businesses of New South Wales to help them be psychologically safe, to help the people understand and businesses understand what it means to have a mentally healthy workplace.
And they just did a midpoint review recently, and part of what they found was that they weren't really ... they didn't have enough prominent people talking about the benefits of all the information that they had and the obligations actually that businesses have. And so they decided to create an ambassador program and they invited a number of CEOs across multiple industries who were really interested in this space to help talk about this work, and to try and get more and more businesses to engage with it so that we can collectively all be better.
And when the list came up for me to sign off on as to who was going to be an ambassador, I noticed that there was nobody there from government. And also, I have a history with mental wellness challenges myself, and I feel quite sort of passionate about really trying to improve in this space. And so I talked to the minister about whether he would actually allow me to be the government ambassador and he agreed.
So what it's meant so far is really learning about all the available information, mentalhealthatwork.nsw.gov.edu, for all of your people listening is where you can find some really, really great resources. And they've also created a code of conduct recently on psychosocial hazards at work, which is the first of its kind in the country and it's getting a lot of great feedback. So I encourage you to have a look at that.
Internally, however, as the secretary or CEO of the department, it's really made me challenge myself as to are we doing enough internally. It's not enough for the secretary to say, "I'm a mentally healthy workplace ambassador. And by that, I mean I hope we're all mentally well." We've got to do so much more than that. So at the moment, we're sort of bringing together our diversity work and our inclusion work and our mental health work to really think about what our culture and our work is, and what are we doing to make it more psychologically safe? I'd like to think, for the most part, it is, but of course, there's still always tools and resources we can supply and training we can give to really make everybody feel that way, and I think we've got a bit of a way to go there.
The other thing that I would say at the moment is, and this isn't unique to me, but one of the negative impacts of COVID has been that there is this overwhelming sense in the community of burnout. And I think people have been asked to do things differently, people have been asked to do a lot more work often, and that's meant that people have felt sort of psychologically, they've had a lot more on.
And also so many people, whilst everybody's enjoying the benefits of working more flexibly and working from home, I think some of that additional workload, I'm yet to find out and we're starting to look into this ourselves now, is that because you're packing up your laptop on the lounge room table and then moving two steps to the left into the kitchen and not having enough of a break between work and home? Or is it that you're using the time you used to commute to do extra work or is it something else? And is it that you've genuinely been given more to do and people are accidentally perhaps taking advantage of the fact that you've got more time to be on the tools as opposed to commuting?
So I'm a big fan of flexibility. I talk very openly about it, but I do believe flexibility is not just for the employee. It's for the employer, it's for the employee and it's for the team. And so I think we're going to see some interesting outcomes here about what does that mean going forward? What's the right hybrid model? And that keeps me awake at night, but whenever I talk to other leaders who have control over this, the decisions associated with mentally healthy workplaces and flexibility, and those kinds of things, everybody's grappling with the same challenge. So never before have I felt that the mentally healthy conversation is so important, but I still think we're in uncharted territory about how to have those conversations successfully going forward, and it's something that I've got the team working on.
Emma, I'm going to take a slightly different tack because I think our listeners will really not be happy with me if I don't probe a bit further into your comment earlier about you wrote a book. Can you tell us a bit more about-
Oh, yeah. Yes, I did. So on my six months off, I obviously had worked in television for 10 years. So the idea of sitting on the couch and watching TV for six months wasn't very appealing to me. I wanted to do something else and I knew I couldn't just take six months off and do nothing. I needed a passion project.
So I wrote a book about, it was called Inspired Kindness, and it was about 30 ordinary Australians doing something extraordinary to change the world and was primarily focused on people who had started charities or social enterprises just because of a life experience or because they saw a hole in the market or because they had had an experience that meant they were passionate about something, and really trying to give them a platform to tell their story. And yeah, it was a beautiful coffee table book, and we sold it for $50 a copy. We printed a thousand. We sold out. We made 50 grand. And with the $50,000, we gave five $10,000 grants to the next generation of startups.
Actually, one of the most beautiful full circle moments for me was that one of the people we gave a grant to was an organisation called Exceptional, who do disability or primarily neuro-ability recruitment. And they were just starting out and we gave them a grant. And now I see them pop up in government all the time doing great work in this space. So, yeah, that was a nice full circle moment from writing that book.
Yeah. One of the primary objectives of this podcast is to inspire others working in government and the public sector, and those who are contending with similar scenarios that we've sort of discussed today, whether it be making the decision to move from the private sector into the public sector. What's the one piece of advice you would give to someone finding their way to their career in the public sector?
Two things, firstly, it's just a wonderful feeling to work in government and be serving the state that you live in. There's just such an easy heart connection to make to the purpose of what government is here to do. I'd never thought about it before. I'd always thought of government as services, but I hadn't really kind of understood how much better collectively all of those services make society. And you really are part of an amazing, bigger picture so the purpose, I think, is something easy to connect to.
But the second thing is when I came to the public service, I didn't really have a view on what the people would be like. I understood the processes might not be where I thought they should be, but I didn't, hadn't really given the people bit any thought and oh, my goodness, the complexity of talent in this organisation is amazing. There's so many amazing leaders, people who work on complex problems, people who know how to do everything with nothing, who understand our community. I mean it's such a diverse workforce, such a diverse group of things you can work on, such an amazing group of people to learn from. It's the largest employer in the southern hemisphere. So we must have every single type of role in government somewhere. To me, the people are just an incredible ... They make being here great and there is no one you couldn't learn from here.
Fantastic. Focusing on the broader outcomes for society really resonates for me. And as you're probably aware, my own firm's purpose is all around building trust in society and solving those complex, big, hairy problems and so that's why I love working in government myself. I wanted to wrap up with one final question, if that's okay, and you've had an inspirational career. It's come with its challenges, but many opportunities. What's the most proudest moment for you as you look back, and that could be personally or professionally?
Oh, my goodness. Oh, gosh. I want to say something ... You can't introduce me as having an inspiring career and then now I have to try and find something very inspiring to say.
(laughs) I can reframe the question.
No, no, no, that's fine. That's fine. Look, it doesn't come easy, but it's been having the courage to back myself. And in the moments ... I mentioned earlier that I took a role that I knew wasn't right for me in between Foxtel and here, and it's just a classic example of I didn't back myself. I lost my confidence and I stopped believing in myself and I did something that I knew wasn't the right thing for me.
Quite the contrary when it came to government, once I'd sort of researched the heck out of it and my husband challenged me to really think about it, and he's a former consultant, which is sometimes great and sometimes really annoying, but he really coached me about what would you do if you had no fear? And then I painted what I thought the job could be. And then I leapt into it and I loved it.
And so it sounds so boring, but the backing yourself bit for me and having the courage to try different things… When I was trying to run away from the Public Service Commission recruitment process, if I look back on it now, it was because I was scared of failing as opposed to imagining what it would be like if I succeeded. And we did a lot of work at Foxtel with a guy called Peter Fuda. If you ever get the chance, look him up. He's done some really interesting work in the leadership space. But one of the main things that I remember that he taught me was that it's always better to have a burning ambition than a burning platform. Because on a burning platform, you tend to be running away from something like COVID, massive burning platform, but a burning ambition is to be the world's most customer-centric government, for example, and how do we really motivate people behind that idea?
And so when you're thinking about that in terms of your own career, I've tried to think, well, what if I had a burning ambition to do this what would it look like? As opposed to, oh my God, I really need the job. And I think when I took the role and made my career misstep, it was because I felt like I was on a burning platform. I wasn't working. I was pregnant. Versus when I took this role, I really, or the commissioner role and then the secretary role, I could see the burning ambition of what could be great about it. And I think having the courage to design a burning ambition and then going for it, that's what I would like everybody to do.
But I do understand that it takes a lot of life lessons and a lot of guts and a lot of encouragement and a lot of people around you holding you up, and it takes a village and all of that, but if you can muster the courage to do that, I do think you can go on to lead great teams and be part of great teams as I'm lucky enough to be today and deliver great things to customers.
Oh, I love that. That was an inspirational answer. Emma, thank you. [Crosstalk 00:34:22] writing down so much-
Thanks. I'd have to circle back and if I think of anything better to say than that ...
That was great. I'm going to circle that to my teams. I love that, burning ambition. Look, and I just want to say thank you so much for your time. I think there's so many important themes that came through, a few that I jotted down that really resonated with me was the power of collaboration and working together, backing yourself, focusing on an inclusive, but also mentally healthy workplace to create those high performing teams. And burning ambition, I love that. So thank you so much for your time, Emma.
You're so welcome. Thanks for having me.
Thanks for listening to Government Matters. I hope you enjoyed the unique perspectives on the impact of government to wider societal good, how to build high performing teams and Emma's deeply personal insights on caring for and maintaining mental health while also navigating career. Join us again for our next episode where we'll meet another prominent public sector leader to discuss their journey and their contribution to making a better Australia.
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