Roundtables – Creating a Shared Conversation

In February 2019 I assembled a team of 7 members (including myself) from the DCJ DEN’s Guidance and Action Team* to present to the agency’s Board. I was inspired to do this by the Australian Public Service Commission’s (APSC) Ten + Ten model which matched 10 staff with disability and 10 executives. I adapted this model to suit the purpose I had in mind.

There was a mismatch between what the Board believed was happening for staff with disability and what the DEN knew was really going on. We had to address that, and ensure the Board knew what was happening at the ‘coalface.’ To see the changes we all wanted, we had to be on the same page. This became the first Roundtable. 

I chose a mix of disabilities and adverse experiences to bring the message that there were staff with disability experiencing hardship, and sometimes abuse, in the agency. Planning for the event had to carefully done. This was very clear from the APSC guidelines. I was assisted by the remarkable Executive Disability Champion, Anne Skewes – a Deputy Secretary and Board member. We had secured a commitment of 2 hours; and having the attention of the Board for that long was a privilege we had to handle carefully and well. It was the DEN’s first presentation to the Board since its inception in July 2010. It had to a memorable and positive experience for all.

The first vital consideration was allocating speaking time for individual stories to be told. I allocated 5 minutes each, knowing full well that each speaker could talk for much longer than that, and would do so at the slightest opportunity. Their stories were compelling and merited being heard in full. However, we were at 30 minutes on personal stories already – and that’s a long time to expect Board members to restrain themselves from comments or asking questions. This was not about us. Story telling provided insights of course, but it also established each speaker’s entitlement to be representing all staff with disability. The stories were the starter, not the main course.

As it turned out a few went over their allocated time. I expected that.  I had tried to get a commitment that a script would be developed and timed, so that the narrative was organised and coherent. But a combination of nerves, passion and lack of experience defeated my plan – but not too badly. I planned for ideal and got very good. That was expected.

Speaking order was important. Confident speakers were up first, and those less confident at the end – so they had the opportunity to see how others performed and were received.

Anne played a vital role as a Board representative. She led preparatory group phone discussions. This ensured a fair awareness of who would be in the room and what might be expected. This preparation meant the participants, none of whom had previously spoken openly about their disability or their experiences, were as prepared as they could be. We met before the event for coffee and, for some, a late breakfast. This support was important because there were raw emotions that would come to the fore, and participants needed to know the team was with them. Having a ‘friend’ on the Board was also a comfort.

Afterwards, Anne joined us for a debrief, and provided feedback on the Board’s immediate reaction. This was positive and reassuring. It meant we could leave confident we had done the job we had set for ourselves. This was an opportunity to process our emotions and affirm shared participation in the transformative experience.

The event was transformational for everyone. The stories told were deeply moving and sobering. The story tellers were heard and acknowledged. A commitment to action was made the Board, and was followed through. This included running more Roundtables.

In terms of the DEN’s engagement with the agency it was the starting point for a period of rapid change in impact and a steady growth in influence. I appointed one of the participants as the coordinator of Roundtables and they continued to be a feature of the DEN’s activity. They have worked for leadership teams and work teams.

The success of the first event came down to professional planning at every stage – selection of participants and their preparation were key. Allowing a substantial opportunity for discussion meant that everyone had the opportunity to speak. On a theme such as this much could be said and asked, so ensuring that everyone had their needs met was crucial. All of the DEN members felt they were given adequate opportunity to tell their story and engage in discussion. 

From subsequent feedback, the Board acknowledged it was a transformative experience – for individual members and as a group. 

This event was a turning point for the DEN and the Department. The rate of positive change over the subsequent months was remarkable. The changes were a shared commitment from across the Department, working closely with the DEN. My term as DEN Chair ended just over 12 months later. About 7 months later the new DEN Chair accepted an offer to go fulltime. That was a radical experiment, reflecting the Board’s genuine commitment.

Please see the page A Guide to Roundtables for more information on running a Roundtable. 

* DCJ DEN’s Guidance and Action Team – The Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) was formed in mid 2019 from the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS). The DEN referred to here was in FACS in February 2019.

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