public service

Queensland’s Director General of Transport on Ethical Leadership During COVID-19

7 December, 2020

Neil Scales OBE, Vincent Fairfax Fellow and Cranlana alumnus, reflects on the challenges he’s faced as Queensland’s Director-General, Transport and Main Roads, during COVD-19. A leader who brings a strong ethical focus to his work, Neil says consistency and clarity of communication has enabled him to make and implement some of the most complex and difficult decisions of his career. Matthew Elmas for The Mandarin talks to Neil and Peter Mares, Cranlana Lead Moderator, about the ethical dilemmas facing public service leaders.

The Queensland government’s Director-General of Transport and Main Roads, Neil Scales OBE, has made his fair share of impactful decisions this year, so have most public service leaders.

Responsible for leading a $9.6 billion business that keeps an entire state moving and building, Scales has overseen more than 9,000 public servants in his department transitioning to new working environments during the pandemic, all while participating in a set of historic policy decisions.

Reflecting on the journey in an interview with The Mandarin, the senior public servant says the coronavirus crisis offers myriad lessons for ethical leaders, himself crediting authenticity and radical approachability as crucial to his leadership toolkit throughout the year.

“Success is consistency of message and being an authentic leader,” Scales says. “You’ve got to be fully accessible, and you’ve got to be real.”

In a year that’s thrown everything from bushfires to floods and a global pandemic to Queensland, Scales says several key policy decisions have been particularly difficult for senior leaders, including navigating remote workforces in the public service and making the decision to close the NSW border — something which had not been done in more than a century.

In both cases, it was prioritisation of clear lines of communication between stakeholders which Scales believes helped public servants overcome hurdles, allowing issues to be addressed efficiently and with the right escalation procedures to ensure coalface feedback reached the ears of decision-makers.

“We planned for the worst and hoped for the best, and it worked,” Scales says. “… when we closed the borders the politics drew a lot of criticism, and in the early days we were worried about supply chains.

“But we got our permitting system up and running pretty quickly and made sure to take the industry with us — it was ultimately a team effort.”

This approach underscores what Scales thinks public service leaders can learn about making decisions in crisis scenarios: that ethical leadership is as much about how policy decisions are implemented as it is the decisions themselves.

In other words, leaders must understand when to bend and fix issues, but also where to stick to their guns where core policy principles are at stake. It’s undoubtedly a delicate balancing act.

“The strap line for my department is to create a single integrated transport network accessible to everyone,” Scales reflects. “It sounds really easy — but it’s not.”

The empathy test: Ensuring clear lines of decision-making 

Peter Mares, Lead Moderator at the Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership, says one of the key takeaways from how leaders handled the pandemic is that ethical decision-making requires accountability.

Mares tells The Mandarin that where policymakers misstepped during the pandemic — including the Ruby Princess outbreak and Victoria’s hotel quarantine program — it became abundantly clear that ethical leaders must maintain clear lines of decision-making.

“One of the problems of bureaucratic systems was evidenced at the inquiry into the failure of hotel quarantine in Victoria in that no one could identify who made the decisions,” he says. “You can end up in a situation where it appears everyone and no one knows.”

“One of the rules of thumb that decision-makers should apply is: can I defend this in public? If I’m called to account for this decision, can I do so? Or do I need to ask more questions before I can sign this?”

In this way, decision-makers can then empathise with how stakeholders may respond to policies before the wheels of policy change are put into motion.

Health and economics a ‘false dichotomy’

But here too lies a key challenge, in that leadership through crises also requires reckoning with the complexity and scale of decisions that shutdown borders or stall entire industries.

It’s impossible to simulate how these decisions will affect the millions of people who participate in societal systems, making adherence to a single ethical framework — deontological or otherwise — meaningless.

This is clear in what Mares calls the ‘false dichotomy’ that countries must have either responded to COVID-19 by locking down in the name of public health, or staying open to protect the economy.

While political leaders often characterised health and the economy as a contradiction, in reality they are interrelated in a multiplicity of ways — from the health outcomes needed to sustain public confidence to the financial resources that underpin effective public health systems.

“In countries that didn’t lockdown and where the pandemic is now raging, the economic impact has been very large … so the situation is more complex than that,” Mares says.

Moreover, uncertainty surrounding the long-term public health consequences of COVID-19 as more longitudinal data becomes available means there’s not even a clear risk profile to work from.

Scales: “You’ve got to stick to your guns”

Instead, Scales says, ethical operationalisation once political leaders had determined a policy direction early on in the pandemic was important — namely that Queensland would adopt a risk-averse ‘protect all citizens’ approach.

“[The government’s] consistency was something I tried to reflect through my own department, and from an ethics point of view there was a realisation we were doing things for the people of Queensland,” Scales says.

“You’ve got to stick to your guns, because you’ve got to have that consistency in communications, which has worked in our favour and I think is paying dividends now.”

With the authority of the government behind them, public service leaders like Scales were able to work with frontline workers, community and business stakeholders to overcome challenges with policy settings as they arose.

But it wasn’t easy. The complex set of power dynamics that feed into major decisions like whether to maintain public transport networks at full capacity come with myriad ethical challenges, not least of which was dealing with stakeholders.

When the pandemic first struck and predictions about what was going to happen were dire, Queensland’s public transport system lost 80% of its regular users, leaving government leaders to consider whether to maintain services at full capacity.

Complicating matters, in Queensland several public transport networks — trams, ferries and most busses — are privately owned, meaning Scales and other decision-makers had to consider whether the government’s contracts with these businesses could be suspended or altered under force majeure.

“It becomes really messy,” Scales says.

In the end it was decided to keep public transport going, a recognition that the livelihoods of essential workers were also a relevant consideration, even amid dire public health warnings.

Communication enables pluralism in leadership

Here too, Scales said, consistency in policy priorities coming from government and clear lines of communications with stakeholders were vital. Even though a hard line was taken on other industries like cruise ships, public health experts believed public transport networks could be maintained safely, and it was up to senior public servants to operationalise that advice.

“I worked out pretty quickly in January and February that because everyone is restricted on travel we really needed to communicate, communicate, communicate,” Scales says.

Ensuring leaders consulted widely and brought everyone along for the ride, whether that’s business stakeholders, members of the community or frontline workers themselves, remains central to the way Scales is dealing with the pandemic.

From an ethical perspective, the inability to really understand all the varying affects that policy decisions may have on people in a crisis scenario makes this communication all the more valuable, enabling a genuine pluralism to emerge in decision making that would be impossible otherwise.

Moving forward: leadership priorities for 2021

Scales is now looking ahead to next year, recognising that while the virus is now largely dealt with in Australia leaders must remain vigilant, while also appreciating that the tough year we’ve just had will undoubtedly spill over into 2021.

“We need to bear in mind that everyone has had a really tough year, doesn’t matter whether they’re in the private sector, public sector, not-for-profits, or whatever,” Scales says.

“There will be a lull for Christmas in December/January, but what worries me is that everyone will come back and in February/March it will just ramp straight back up.

“We’ve got to be really careful and watch our people for mental health … we can’t just say ‘phew’ its all over.”

Scales also believes 2021 is a massive opportunity for Australia in not wasting a crisis and pushing ahead with major reforms to put the country in a better position than it was even before the coronavirus crisis.

“We should never waste a good crisis, we’ve already used [the pandemic] to do a few things, one for example is cashless payments on buses, which were put in overnight and has now been extended — which is great,” Scales says.

Scales is a graduate of the Vincent Fairfax Fellowship’s ethical leadership course run out of the Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership, a not-for-profit organisation supported by Monash University and the Myer Foundation.

The Mandarin, Matthew Elmas, 4 December 2020. Read the full article here

Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership’s programs include the 2 day Executive Ethics, 6 day Executive Colloquium and year-long Vincent Fairfax Fellowship. We also deliver online and tailored corporate programs. Find the right program for you. They are all held under the Chatham House Rule to encourage genuine and open debate, and allow participants to candidly discuss sometimes sensitive issues in private while allowing the topic and nature of the debate to be made public, and contribute to a broader conversation. The alumni program offers ongoing leadership development support and a lifelong connection with Cranlana.

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash