Inside a government data agency’s transformation
Inside a government data agency’s transformation
In this episode of NousCast we head inside the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), which was looking for ways to refresh its operations so it remained a strong and trusted adviser to the Australian Government.
Along the way we’ll hear about the changes recommended at ABARES, the strategies to get staff on board and the lessons for a leader guiding an organisation through uncertain times.
The NousCast podcast brings you fresh thinking on some of the biggest challenges facing organisations today. In each episode of our third series, NousCast will feature interviews with Nous clients and consultants to a cutting-edge project, from the challenge to the approach, outcomes and lessons learnt.
“Giving staff agency in order to own the recommendations was extremely important. People have got to see themselves in the change that is coming and not be afraid of that change. It’s not something that’s happening to them, but it’s something that they have agency and ownership as something that they are affecting themselves.”
Dr Jared Greenville, Executive Director, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)
G’day and welcome to NousCast, brought to you by Nous Group, an international management consultancy. I’m your host, Ari Sharp, and in this series of NousCast, we’re looking at some of the projects we’ve undertaken at Nous over the past few years. You’ll get to meet the clients we’ve worked with and the Nous’ consultants who supported them to meet some of their biggest challenges. Today, we’re finding out all about ABARES. That’s the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences. ABARES was looking for ways to refresh its operations. So it remained a strong and trusted source of information for the federal government. ABARES invited Nous to undertake a strategic and operational review, which led to recommendations for significant change in the organization and a program management office to make it happen.
Along the way, we’ll hear about what changes were recommended at ABARES, the strategies to get staff on board and the lessons for leader guiding an organization through uncertain times. Joining me from Canberra is Jared Greenville, the executive director of ABARES. And Andrew Benoy, a Nous Principal who worked with ABARES on this significant transformation. And a little later, will hear from Tessa Dehring, a Nous organizational psychologist who helped win internal support for the changes. Let’s get into it.
Jared, if I can start with you, many people in Australia have likely heard of ABARES, but are not too sure what it does. Can you tell us a bit about who ABARES is and what your role is?
It certainly so, ABARES, the acronym stands for the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences and what we are, we’re the research bureau of what is currently the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environments, which soon to be transitioning to Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. And we undertake a range of economic and scientific research into Australian agriculture and fisheries and forestry sectors, really with the view of supporting industry and government decision making. So we do things like looking at the status of fish stocks, how the plantation estates evolving, looking at agricultural markets, valuing the size of the agriculture sector, looking at issues like natural capital drought and a range of things, climate trade and the like.
Jared, before Nous was engaged to review ABARES. Can you tell us about the challenges you were facing and the opportunities that you saw on the horizons?
Yeah. I think it would be fair to say that ABARES was operating in a bit of a contested environment before the review came along. There was a view that we were perhaps not working to our best and also potentially not working to our best in supporting the departments or the government’s kind of objectives of the day. And we were, I guess from my own personal observations, we weren’t having the kind of relationship with some of the senior executive, importantly, the minister that we would’ve liked. So, I mean, we always position ourselves as a trusted advisor to the department and government. And I think we were falling a little behind in that space. And to the extent that there could have been a view that people were a bit suspicious about what we were doing and how we were setting our work plan, where we were directing our effort.
And so I guess if you start off in that situation, there’s clear that there’s plenty of opportunities, but there’s also plenty of risks, including existential ones. And so there’s a number of opportunities around and putting forward what ABARES does, its value proposition, where we could go, really kind of plugging this back into being that trusted advisor, as we want to really engage in the way that the department was formulating its policy.
And Andrew, if I can bring you in here, you were engaged to undertake a review of ABARES. Can you tell us about what that involved?
As Jared mentioned, the review itself was fairly fundamental and existential in nature. So we went back to first principles and really looked at the whole strategy purpose and operating model for ABARES. So that involved quite an extensive scan of its external operating environment and also how the operating environment and priorities within the department within which ABARES is located had evolved and changed. So that meant looking at what sorts of public value ABARES was creating at the moments, what sorts of public and private decisions it was informing both within government and within the private sector and not for profit sector as well. Looking at the extent to which its current priorities, outputs, work plan, et cetera, was aligned with those broader priorities. And then also looking at the extent to which it was delivering that value efficiently and effectively. So it was a wide ranging review. We looked at strategy work plan, purpose, workforce capability, and culture systems, digital platforms, et cetera. And at the end of it, we came up with a pretty comprehensive and wide ranging set of recommendations from the review.
So it sounds like a pretty comprehensive review. Jared, what was the experience like from your perspective?
I think for people within ABARES, it was relatively painless, I would say. But except that it did prompt some questions and thoughts around who we were, where we were in engaging. And also in doing that, it’s always sometimes… I guess a confronting question to ask is know why are you here? And can you tell me what value do you think you are bringing? And so that did cause a little bit of stress and some friction at the start. But I think once people realize that actually these are the type of questions and the type of accountability that we should really be bringing to ourselves. And it’s not the fact that someone’s asking you those questions, that you should be worried, this is bread and butter of how we should be going about our business, that it became quite beneficial.
I think apart from that, the experience of the Nous team and being able to bring together those broad range of stakeholders that Andrew was mentioning really meant that the work was done by them. And we weren’t having to constantly be brought in to put things forward and the like. So it was really a fairly good experience in that process. I mean, I know I was a senior executive at the time and it was a fairly low cost, but a useful thought provoking exercise for us internally.
Can you tell us about the recommendations that came out of it?
Yeah. As Andrew mentioned as range across a broad range of areas, and I guess at a high level, there was five kind of key recommendations that the review landed upon. And each with the range of sub recommendations. At the high level, these were themed around really ensuring that ABARES focus and capability was aligned with priorities and the strategic requirements of the department reaffirming that ABARES was an independent source of agricultural and other data research and advice, which is something that’s kind of core to the ethos of the place. There was recommendations about redesigning our external offer and how we placed in that external stakeholder field reforming our role really in reforming the governance of agriculture statistics and also the modernization of the collection of those statistics and also equipping ABARES with the technological infrastructure that we needed to really modernize our offer, which would underpin some of those other aspects.
So really they ranged from the way we did our work and also a number of recommendations for us to step into spaces that were being vacated by others, particularly around the agricultural stats system. The other thing that I think that they did really was provided much needed backing for some of the reforms we were trying to undertake ourselves, particularly with our infrastructure and trying to modernize our effort. So I’m sure that many people who listen need will be aware of the tech debt that exists across a number of areas. And we are certainly no stranger to that. But this is something ABARES that had really reached a break breaking point. And we had a whole bunch of competing objectives, including objectives from broader across departments. So it was really important as a step to give us the license to operate in that area and to kind advocate for a step up in the way that we do things. So that was quite good.
The other thing I think that came strongly out of the review was really, I focus on relationships and much of a focus on external relationships and raised some pretty good kind of issues around those that we needed to address, but it struck me then that if issues existed in our external relationships and there was likely to be issues in our internal relationships and the way the bureau operated. So that was another good thing that came out of the review in terms of the… I guess, the subtext of the recommendations that were made.
Right from the very start, it was really important to ABARES and to us that the process and the outcomes of the implementation were owned by ABARES and led by ABARES. So the work of the implementation marked quieter change in terms of our role and how we were partnering with ABARES. So with the review that preceded, it was very much a traditional. We’re a third party, we’re maintaining an arm’s length and a degree of objectivity so that we can make appropriate review findings. Whereas the actual implementation was a lot more collaborative and a lot more working alongside rather than at a distance. So to that end, we worked with the senior leadership team within ABARES to set up 11 discrete transformation projects. And those projects were mapped to clusters of recommendations in the report. And those projects ranged from culture change and leadership enhancing IT infrastructure partnerships and also work plan prioritization as well.
And the ABARES exec went through a fairly considered process of identifying and sponsors and leads for each of those streams. And then we worked with each of those leads to scope and design specific projects and sub projects underneath each of those streams as well. In order to manage the implementation holistically, we set up a program management office, it was a fairly light touch one. We wanted to develop one that was fit for purpose for the nature of the work that we were doing and not overly burdensome, but whilst also providing that additional layer of coordination and governance. So through the PMO, we’re able to provide expert advice for certain transformation projects. So we brought in a range of Nous subject matter experts to bolster the team that also rolled over from the review project. We’re also able to provide regular reporting to the ABARES’s executive and deputy secretary and also the broader ABARES staff, just to give a clear sense of progress and momentum, giving a sense of how we were going against each of the priorities, what risks were manifesting and how we were managing those.
And then most importantly, we use the PMO really to check in regularly with each of the leads and the teams that were managing each of the transformation projects to provide coaching, mentoring, and quality assurance. And that meant that we had a nice regular rhythm and ensured that there was that layer of accountability as well, that I talked about. Just reflecting on my own experiences and implementation, as I said at the start, it was a very different way of working. So I think, I and the rest of the team had to resist the urge to step in and do the doing at various points. Because I think that’s our natural way of working as consultants. We just want to jump in and help getting things done. But yeah. It was really important for us to work alongside and support and enable rather than actually do the doing. And I think ultimately that hopefully led to a better outcome in terms of outcomes that were actually sustained since the implementation work that we did last year. But very keen to get Jared’s perspective as on the other side of that as well.
Yeah. I mean, I guess I’d jump in and say a number of things you touched on, Andrew, already. So for us trying to… I guess if you don’t implement the recommendations, what are they for? And I think the way that we approached it was in line with some of the things that Andrew has touched on. So for me there was four kind of key things that were really important in that whole implementation path. And the first one Andrew has mentioned was for us to own them. It’s not every day, you get constructive feedback and you’ve got to really make use of that. And so we really needed to approach it that this was something that we had agency over and staff had agency to really take forward. And that was really important in terms of trying to build that momentum. And so that was a key aspect.
Second one and this was where Nous was particularly helpful. Because I don’t think… To be honest, we would’ve been able to do it otherwise, was to break things down into doable actions and steps. We were implementing this alongside BAU work, there’s big workload. We needed to really break it down into things that we could do alongside that workload. But also a show that we were making progress because there was expectation that we would get there. And so those 11 transformation projects was really, really important. The third thing I’d say was been accountable and again, this is where Nous really stepped in and helped us be accountable reporting on those tasks, reporting them to department senior executive including the secretary, just to make sure that we were going establishing those clear lines for responsibility between what was the recommendation and the action and then who was going to deliver it and how we were going to know whether it was done.
And I think the fourth one for us was really to ask for help. There were several points we got along the process where we were trying to push things along and usual work would crowd out so forth and being able to ask if they could step in and go a little bit further. The things that Andrew were talking about just to help us really keep the momentum in getting those things achieved was really important. And so I guess, from my perspective, what was made this actually work.
And can I ask you Jared, about the outcomes? Could you measure the improvements and what did your staff say?
Yeah. I think we could certainly measure the improvement [inaudible 00:15:03] areas. In others, this is a long process and some of the recommendations and some of the things we want to do from this are a forever thing as opposed to, “Okay, we’re done, we’ve ticked it off.” But I think at a high level, with some of the things that have been really, I guess, apparent and that we measurable kind of success is that we’ve been able to articulate our strategic focus. And we’ve also seen a noticeable step up in engagement with the department and those relationships internally. And I think the strategic process has become, or focus of the bureau has really become important as we’ve moved in with the change of government and been able to articulate that and to also show that it’s robust, we’ve picked out the longer things that are important for the sector, which are getting picked up irrespective of the flavor of the government. I think that’s been quite a useful and tangible outcome.
We’ve had some really strong, positive feedback from the department secretary around the way that the bureaus positioned itself, including with ministers and with the department and on controversial topics. And we shifted from a… I guess a viewer suspicion to one where they were quite supportive of us to be involved, particularly in public arena and the like, on talking on issues of climate and that was been contested under the previous government. The other thing that’s been important is our culture work, particularly the internal culture. And so we’ve taken, I guess, a few targeted surveys, but this is one which is really a long term thing, which is shown as something that we need to continue and we need to embed in who we are and what we’re doing, but in terms of what staff had saying, and this has been, I guess, particularly nice to see that you’ve had a number of staff come up and say that they seen noticeable change in the bureau.
But I’ve also had quite a few staff who had left, come back and contact me and say, “Hey, I’ve heard things are really starting to change in the bureau and the culture and things are starting to work.” So I think we’re getting that momentum going. The thing for us and importantly will be to keep that going. And because it’s not a one off, it’s not something we can just say, “Okay, we’ve achieved.” It’s something that needs to become who we are and needs to be our every thought, not just a one off task.
And Jared, if I can give the last word to you, over the past 12 months, you’ve led a pretty significant program of change. What advice would you give to other organizations that are undertaking similar change?
That’s a good question. So thinking about that, I’d say one of the biggest bits of advice I’d say is giving staff agency in order to own the recommendations was extremely important. I think it’s good always, we change management. People got to see themselves in the change that is coming and not be afraid of that change, not something that’s happening to them, but it’s something that they have that agency and ownership that they are affecting themselves. And so I think that was really important, particularly for our start because it opened the door that, “Hey, this is something that we are in control of. This is something that I can help define and own and go forward. And therefore I can see myself in that change.” So I think that was really key. Second bit of advice I would say was, is it’s a marathon and not a sprint, particularly with our cultural work, our cultural change work, but also across the board.
So some of the things that are really important in that context is repeated messaging persistence and being fully aware that you’re not going to win the first time round on all these things. And it’s going to be turn up again and again and again. And so that’s really important. The other thing is when things get uncomfortable to be okay in that situation, particularly culture work brought up a number of uncomfortable things. And so comfortableness in uncomfortable situations is and dealing with that ambiguity is also a really important thing, particularly as a leader and to be able to show that you can sit in that situation and deal with it. And I think it provides a bit of confidence for the staff around you.
Jared Greenville and Andrew Benoy, thanks for talking to the NousCast.
Thanks very much, having us long.
Thank you so much, Ari.
After speaking with Jared and Andrew, I was keen to find that more about how the team won over staff for this big and complex change. For that, I needed to speak to Tessa Dehring, a Nous Principal in our Melbourne office and an organizational psychologist.
Would’ve seen probably out in the literature that a lot of change projects fail. And I think it’s really about having really good planning in place. So I can talk a little bit about that. And first and foremost, it’s having really good leadership and you would’ve just heard from Jared. I mean, you can see there how passionate and how committed he was to the change. And so the really, the first key focus area for us was not only getting Jared on board, but the whole of his leadership team and then the level of leaders below. So we spent a lot of time helping the leadership understand and take our ownership to around the need to explore culture and among other things and the corresponding changes that might be needed. So if we found that… There are always strengths in every organization, but often there are areas for improvement and even the best organizations or teams are still wanting to improve.
And so we wanted to make sure that they knew. There’d be some things that probably need to be adjusted or changed as a result of the work. So we met regularly with the leadership team throughout the project. And then as we moved to implementation and exploration, they ended up taking a different cultural change focus area to be champions for and played a leadership role in that space. So it’s important that you think about the word champion. So we’re they deliberately weren’t leading the stream? We had stream leads in place, but just with someone that could be… Have that senior leadership buy-in, be involved and provide direction, but not necessarily have to be the scene as the lead of that change. And I’ll talk a little bit more around that what we did there. And we know every individual contributes to and just shapes culture. So important that we got the leadership buy-in, but we also needed to think about how we could help every individual make the changes that they needed to enact the culture change.
Because if we’re not all changing a little bit individually, we just won’t see that culture change stick. And so from early on, in the project, we tried a range of data gathering techniques. So everyone within ABARES had an opportunity to contribute to, identified both the strengths and development areas. And so pretty common data gathering techniques that people would’ve seen. Things like surveys, really targeted surveys too. We used Bespoke surveys in this instance, just because then we could… We knew the audience was really practical audience and so needed to make the questions quite tailored for that audience. And also written in a way that they’d understand and be energized by the survey and not put off by it. And then we also ran some focus groups which got groups together and help the leaders of facilitate leader led discussions. And so this was just a really important way of getting everyone involved in the change and starting to provide some feedback.
And Tessa, can I ask, what sort of response did you get from staff? Were some of them a bit skeptical of the change and how did you win them over?
Yeah. Great question. I think we always have skeptics and we need skeptics, I think, in any change. And it ensures that us, as change managers are really thinking deeply about what we need to do to get that engagement. And so had a range of reactions. And so one of the things that we were keen to do is when we actually were delivering the change, we set up work streams. So each focus area had staff on them and regardless of level, they would nominate to be work stream leads. So we made a particularly key point not to have leaders like formal leaders in those roles, but actually gave an opportunity for staff to. And so we think that peer to peer connection was skeptics is really powerful. And it also meant that we worked really well at getting people engaged and taking ownership of the initiatives.
And so we help get them started, but then phase ourselves out over time and they’re still going. So I think that’s that great thing. What I find is often you get a skeptic in say a focus group, or when we’re starting to devise what we should be doing or what the challenges are. And people might mention a range of challenges. And so there are techniques you can use that ask them to help solve them. So for example, someone might mention… It doesn’t have to be a skeptic, could be anyone, could mention that communication is an issue for instance. And then what we would do then is ask that question back and say, “Well, what do you think we need to do to help improve it?” And so as soon as you mention a challenge, you’ve almost got an action on top of that staff are coming up with themselves.
And so that gives people ownership of the change again and often all of these actions feed into a broader change plan. And so then those that are probably a bit more skeptical can see that momentum shift and see, “Oh, I mentioned that in this focus group and now I see it’s something that’s really happening.” So it’s important that we try not to rebut skeptics and try and win them over, but actually just listen and understand what’s driving this for them. And then once you understand why they’re saying it, whether it’s past experience and we’ve tried change before, and it hasn’t worked. You can then help develop strategies to help them move in the right direction. And it’s interesting though, because often it’s the people that are neutral that need the most attention in a change process. And the reason for that is skeptics, we know where they stand on the perceptions of change, but the neutral people are those that are kind on the fence and could go either way. So yeah. I think that’s probably a little tip when you’re looking at changes to think about that mid group.
Tessa Dehring, thanks for talking to NousCast.
Great. Thanks for having me.
That was Tessa Dehring, a Nous Principal. You can connect with Tessa and Andrew, who you heard from earlier via the Nous website. That’s www.nousgroup.com. While you’re there, check out our case studies and thought leadership insights. That’s it for this edition of NousCast. Be sure to subscribe, so you don’t miss an episode. We’ll catch you next time.