Simon Bell spent “21 glorious years” with the British Army’s Royal Engineers before deciding to relocate to Western Australia with his family, where he joined the public service in 2015.
He has used the lessons he learnt in the military - and combined them with the perspective he gained from an ANZSOG Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) - to help him thrive in the complex environment of a public service responding to COVID-19.
His time in the military took Simon to Germany, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Kenya, Iraq and Afghanistan and included policy, construction, bomb disposal, helping villagers, improving safety and clearing unexploded ordnance.
“It was a fantastic career with lots of opportunities to go to many different places around the world and make a difference in people’s lives,” Simon said. “I’ve always had a desire to achieve positive outcomes and a better life for people.”
So, it wasn’t a giant leap to move to the WA public service, where his first role with the Department of Housing was working with remote Aboriginal communities facing challenges such as isolation, lack of services and complex social policies.
Five years later, Simon is the Deputy Welfare Emergency Controller in the State Welfare Incident Coordination Centre (COVID-19) for the Department of Communities and recently completed the Executive Master of Public Administration at ANZSOG.
As well as playing a leading role in the government’s response to coronavirus, Simon is overseeing a significant government project to move the head office functions – and 2,500 employees – to a new purpose-built precinct in Fremantle.
Simon said the EMPA had been particularly helpful in supporting his decision-making by providing an evidence base he could draw from to approach different problems.
“Those two years in the EMPA were really significant in terms of what I gained from it in learnings and the networks I built during the course,” he said.
“The major challenge we face at the moment is around that good old ‘VUCA’ environment – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. If you look at that through a COVID lens that’s exactly where we find ourselves; it’s an uncertain situation where we need to make valid judgment calls on our actions and to understand the implications of those. That’s part of the challenge across the whole of the public sector.”
The Department of Communities is also using the pandemic experience to examine its emergency response processes and procedures, and to better prepare for those with an international, national, metropolitan and regional impact, which may occur concurrently with traditional emergencies, such as bushfire and cyclone.
Throughout his EMPA journey, Simon was able to draw on the range of experiences of other senior public servants in his cohort.
“The structure of the EMPA program is really valuable with cross-jurisdictional representation and a mix of agencies from each jurisdiction,” he said.
The network it built – senior public servants with a broad diversity of roles and experience – also gave Simon a more detailed understanding of how government and the public sector work together.
“It opens your eyes to a much broader perspective. You gain a great deal in terms of the academic material and the readings around it, but also those engagements you have with other public service leaders from other jurisdictions.
“You learn things that may be of benefit to the work you’re doing or just to help your general understanding. It always comes back to delivering public value for me and it was a great opportunity to exchange ideas.”
Simon said he found discussions around leadership style and Mark Moore’s ‘Strategic Triangle’ particularly helpful and regularly refers to the course materials.
“Knowing your ‘authorising environment’ is absolutely critical. The activation of the State Emergency Welfare Plan in response to the pandemic gave our Director General the appointment of the State Welfare Coordinator and understanding the authorising environment of which she forms a part is critical,” he said.
“I also do a bit more self-reflection than I did before the course. I adapt my leadership style to the circumstances and situation. In the emergency management space, my leadership style needs to be very forthright and engaged. A lot of the work is tactical in nature and needs quick decisions.
“But I don’t think that takes away from being collaborative and strategic. It’s about understanding the balance between when you need to be quite direct in your leadership and when you can set the intent, step back and support the people coming up with the solutions.”
Project teams, with people from different jurisdictions working on modules in a virtual environment, provided Simon with an understanding of and appreciation for online collaboration, which has been valuable during the coronavirus response and department relocation project.
“It was really good to see how people can work in that virtual teams’ environment.
“Some of the experiences I had in delivering reports and project deliverables really got me comfortable with how you can get a team of people from across different states and territories to work together virtually to deliver high-quality outcomes.
“I really think that the EMPA is such a beneficial and rewarding experience for anybody and feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to participate. The program has equipped me with new tools and experience, as well as a network of amazing colleagues from across Australia and New Zealand, and I feel really well equipped to take on whatever complex issues may arise, including those resulting from the current global pandemic.”
Since this profile was written Simon Bell has shifted roles within the WA public service. He is now the Director Infrastructure Development Defence West, in the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation.
Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA)
A part-time postgraduate qualification developed and delivered by ANZSOG exclusively for high-performing public sector managers.
Executive Fellows Program (EFP)
A three-week program challenging senior public service executives working in the public domain to develop new leadership perspectives in a contemporary and highly interactive setting.
Towards Strategic Leadership - In a Time of Prolonged Crisis
A unique two-week program that helps public service leaders develop the qualities needed to thrive in a senior executive role: a strategic outlook, political astuteness, personal resilience and the capacity to reflect and learn continuously.