Immigration Department secretary Mike Pezzullo: 'Cult of the lifer' is corrosive

Immigration Department secretary Mike Pezzullo: 'Cult of the lifer' is corrosive

Department of Immigration and Border Protection secretary Mike Pezzullo says the "cult" of the public service "lifer" rewarded for spending a whole career at the same agency is corrosive.

His call for the bureaucracy to encourage workforce mobility comes as departments across the public service look at adding an extra year to graduate programs.

Mike Pezzullo, secretary Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Mike Pezzullo, secretary Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Credit:Rohan Thomson

In speeches to future leaders in Canberra, Industry Department secretary Glenys Beauchamp said she had introduced a two-year graduate program – the first cohort began in 2014 and had just started their second year – while Mr Pezzullo said immigration was considering doing the same.


Mr Pezzullo, who said he was attracted to the possible change but had not made up his mind, said public servants should also be told shifting between departments was not a toxic decision.

"Subject matter and knowledge is important but institutional loyalty, which I'm very sceptical about, is not valued as it traditionally was," Mr Pezzullo said at the conference at the Hyatt Hotel.

"I think it's corrosive."

About a third of senior executives have been replaced at the Immigration Department and most of those who filled these jobs had moved sideways.

Mr Pezzullo reached the "senior middle" levels of the Defence Department after five years himself in the 1980s only to discover "the experience, age and, to some extent, ideological and almost philosophical gap between me and the next level up meant I would not advance until I became crusty, old and cynical".

At the time he moved sideways to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and was told by Defence colleagues "why are you going there?", "we hate them" and "we don't work well with them".

"In those days it was seen as a sign of disloyalty," he said.

In his former job as Australian Customs and Border Protection Service chief executive, Mr Pezzullo said he sent a five-page letter to senior leaders which led to some staff departing the organisation and others flourishing. The letter set out what the organisation expected of leaders.

"Some of those officers have come through to more senior roles but it also led to some difficult but, in the end, mutually respectful discussions that saw a parting of ways where there was either incapacity to keep up with the stress and pace we were setting or a misalignment between the individual's aspirations and the (organisation's) aspirations," he said.

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The letter said leaders look for real-world insights, seek real-world feedback and do not listen to "the noise".

It said leaders take action, ensured these actions became reality and were fully invested in the successes and failures of the organisation.

"They are personally well-organised and efficient – personal disorganisation and lack of attention to detail are signs of disrespect," he said. He also expected public service leaders to excel higher than even the ethical standards formally set out for bureaucrats.

During the speech he spoke about the challenge of managing migrants and visitors to Australia and limiting the amount of traffic coming into the country.

"We expect continued strong growth in all those categories of people who want to come to Australia," he said. "6.8 billion people can't live here – you need to manage that tension."

Phillip Thomson is a Public Service Reporter at The Canberra Times.