DHS upheaval overseen by 'perfectionist' Rhodes scholar

One of the elite public servants overseeing significant upheaval at the Department of Human Services is a Rhodes scholar and former violinist who has just returned from a leadership course at Harvard University. 

Associate secretary Ben Rimmer could not comment on Tuesday about the federal government's search for private sector companies to take over $29 billion in Medicare and pharmaceutical benefits currently handled by Human Services.

The 42-year-old father of three returned to Australia on Sunday just two days after news of the looming changes at DHS hit the media, and his executive training at the John F. Kennedy School of Government could not have come at a better time. 

Mr Rimmer reports directly to secretary Kathryn Campbell and is responsible for 600 staff and the transformation of the department's delivery of services – Centrelink, Child Support and myGov as well as Medicare – to millions of Australians using digital technology.

He has been at DHS for three years – previously he was at Prime Minister and Cabinet for three years, where he served as a deputy secretary, and in the Victorian bureaucracy – and brings to the public service the discipline of a classical musician.


''When I was younger I had an alternative life when I worked as a violinist,'' the former Melbourne Symphony Orchestra member said.

''Like working in the public service, playing music is a team game, and you need to work to a high standard. You spend a lot of time trying to improve your performance. You become a bit of a perfectionist.''

The course at Harvard exposed Mr Rimmer and 60 other leaders from across the world to the ''softer skills of managing'', such as team building and negotiation, as well as the latest science on how individuals and senior leaders make decisions.

''As public service leaders, we always have the challenge and responsibility of changing the way the public service delivers in order to meet changing expectations of ministers and the government of the day,'' he said.

''Right now, those expectations are about driving costs down, going digital, reducing red tape and making service delivery more contestable.''

Like many senior bureaucrats, he has had to deal with the competing demands of work and home life.

''I have a partner who works and three beautiful kids, and we do what most people do – muddle through with support from friends and childcare and give-and-take between the partners – and how we handle that was part of what we talked about over a meal after class at Harvard.''  

Mr Rimmer was one of three 2014 Sir James Wolfensohn public service scholarship recipients, along with deputy secretary of the Department of the Environment Steven Kennedy and Susan Middleditch, acting chief executive of the Queensland Health Services Support Agency.

With the support of the former chairman of the World Bank, Jim Wolfensohn, the Harvard Club of Australia established the Wolfensohn Scholarship in 2012 to promote the development and delivery of good public policy.

The Harvard Club said each of the candidates was chosen on the basis of their potential to contribute to the benefit of Australian society.

Dr Kennedy, 49, has responsibility for about 1000 staff in five divisions, covering the Australian Antarctic Division, environmental science and policy advice on the implementation of the Coalition's $2.5 billion emissions reduction – or ''Direct Action'' – fund.

Ms Middleditch, 45, has 3200 staff across Queensland, an annual operating budget of $900 million and runs a commercialised business unit of government that delivers clinical support services to more than 200 hospitals.