Don Russell to tell all: casualty of public service purge unlikely to open old wounds

Don Russell to tell all: casualty of public service purge unlikely to open old wounds

One of the casualties of the federal government's purge of public service bosses last year will break his public silence in Canberra next week.

Former Industry Department head Don Russell will tell an audience at the Australian National University on Monday of his experiences structuring government departments to get the most bang for the taxpayers' buck.

Former Industry Department head Dr Don Russell.

Former Industry Department head Dr Don Russell.Credit:Pat Scala

Dr Russell, pictured, was sacked along with Agriculture secretary Andrew Metcalfe, and Blair Comley from Resources, Energy and Tourism on September 18, the day the Abbott government was sworn in.


On the same day, the head of AusAID, Peter Baxter, went on ''extended leave'' just hours before the abolition of his agency was made public and Treasury chief Martin Parkinson agreed to step down mid-year.

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None of the victims of the purge has spoken publicly since their removal, but Dr Russell said his talk at ANU was unlikely to reopen the wounds of September.

Instead he will tell his audience what it is like trying to like run the department with sprawling responsibilities and the name, DIICCSRTE, that nobody could say.

By the time of Dr Russell's departure, the department had nearly 4000 employees, 23 divisions, 10 agencies, a budget of $18.4 billion and its boss reported to five ministers and two parliamentary secretaries.

But it made sense at the time.

''There was some logic to having it all together and obviously there was management task there because it only makes sense [of] all those divisions and responsibilities,'' he said.

''You can make the whole bigger than the parts, but if everyone just remains in their silos, you really haven't achieved very much.''

But it's less clear how the DIICCSRTE evolved into the structure the Abbott government inherited in September.

''There is always decisions about these things, but the Prime Minister makes these decisions and the Prime Minister is advised by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, as you can imagine and PM&C have views about departmental structure because it's their responsibility, really,'' Dr Russell said.

But in hindsight, perhaps that name was not such a great idea.

''We have a tradition in Australia of mentioning all the responsibilities in department's names, largely for benefit of stakeholders. But it does get a bit ridiculous, a nine-letter name for a department,'' Dr Russell said.

He will also have some bad news on Monday for the public service's senior managers; when it comes to executive teams, small is beautiful.

Dr Russell ran DIICCSRTE with just four deputy secretaries, an arrangement that would make some serving departmental bosses blanche.

''It gives you a better chance of running the department as a whole, rather than just the sum of the bits,'' he said.''

Dr Russell will speak at the ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy on Monday at 5.30pm.

Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age

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