Helen Silver talks with Leadership Victoria

13 September 2012 By Conal Thwaite

Helen Silver always wanted to get near the big policy questions. As the Secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) since 2008, she couldn’t get much closer.

The DPC has been a partner of Leadership Victoria since the mid-nineties, and is the hub of the public service in Victoria.

In the DPC, which also includes groups and agencies as diverse as Arts Victoria and the Victorian Ombudsman, Helen assists the government to implement policies in areas that affect the whole state, such as wide-ranging economic and environmental issues, and emergencies such as natural disasters.

In the offices of the DPC, Helen explains why leadership development is important to the organisation.

“We need to create the next generation of leaders,” she says, pointing to the growing complexity of good government in society. A good leader in the public sector needs to learn from the set-backs along the way, according to Helen.

“You need to be able to say, I can go forward, I can move on and learn from that experience,” she says. And, “you’ve got to follow your passion”.

“You’ve got to be prepared to work very hard, but you have to enjoy it and be interested in what you are doing.”

Helen’s model of leadership is a collaborative one.

“Everyone can be a participant, but people also need to know where they are going,” she says.

In a collaborative style of leadership, people also need to take responsibility for the decisions they make, according to Helen.

Passion, hard work and responsibility might best explain how Helen has approached her own career.

Armed with a Masters of Economics from Monash University, and initially not wanting to move to Canberra, she joined the Victorian public service. There was no graduate program at that time, so she had to find her own way.

“I’ve followed what’s really of interest to me,” she says.

“My background is as an economist… with a deep, deep interest in public policy.”

Since that time, she has had a long and successful career in the public service.

Helen was First Assistant Commissioner of the Commonwealth Government's Productivity Commission between 1993 and 1999.

She then worked as Executive Director, Rehabilitation and Compensation for Victoria's WorkCover Authority until 2002.

Between 2002 and 2006 she worked within the Department of Treasury and Finance, and the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

“I’ve had a terrific career, in the end in both Federal and State government,” she says.

She has also worked in the private sector with the National Australia Bank as General Manager of Government Business, Business and Private Banking.

“I really enjoyed it. I love the private sector,” she says.

Helen is therefore intrigued by what the two sectors can learn from each other.

“In the private sector they really understand where their cost drivers are.”

“We [in the public sector] don’t have that inherent understanding … but this is changing.”

However, the public service has the advantage of attracting leaders who are driven to do good in their communities.

“We have an additional motivator, that’s our comparative advantage,” Helen says.

It is this diversity of participants from the public and private sectors that Helen believes makes LV’s Williamson Community Leadership Program (WCLP) a success.

The DPC has had five participants go through WCLP, and 17 through LV’s Igniting Leadership Program.

“Many have said it was one of the best experiences they’ve ever had,” Helen says.

“We have got a lot of benefits from it.”

Leadership Victoria is proud to work with Helen Silver and the Victorian State Government to develop community leaders for a bright future for Victoria.