The DCJ DEN Story: The Leadership Challenge

NOTE: This is a 35-page article that explores the challenges of leading a Disability Employee Network. It was written in June 2021 immediately upon my departure from the NSW Department of Communities and Justice to provide a record of my time as DEN Chair during a formative and transformational time – and to affirm important lessons learned.


To this day I remember the phone call in late 2017 from my colleague in FACS at the time saying there would be a vacancy in the role of Executive DEN Champion and would I be interested. Immediately without hesitancy I agreed and from there on this profound journey evolved, with the most generous, insightful, kind and courageous team of DEN members and articulate and clever champions in Michael Patterson and Ebru Sumaktas.

The role of the Executive DEN champion was to be an advocate (and as Michael P would say an activist) for the rights and opportunities of colleagues with a disability in the organisation but also to become a confidante and trusted adviser as we navigated entrenched and debilitating attitudes and prejudices. The more stories we heard the more shocking it became. But there was humility, humour and compassion among DEN members was a well strength as we worked together to plan our program and raise awareness. Along the way there were skirmishes to right individual injustices and these became a magnet for others to join the group, to share their stories and to draw strength from the collective.

We were charting new territory and building a close and connected team, without barriers of rank or profession. Attending the National AND Conference in May 2018 showed just how much work we needed to be done. As the Department of Family and Community Services with equity and social justice at our core we could not be trailing the pack, but clearly we were. So, in addition to our day job this became our heart job and the one which connected us all. 

Keeping pace and supporting the DEN team was of course a challenge but the daily communication with Michael, the DEN Chair, meant that time was carved out, and with the amazing Kerrie Lowe and her terrific team we became a unified, trusted collective with credibility and respect. Story telling in kind and confidential forums with senior executives and managers became the key to unlocking deep injustices and inappropriate practices. We were supported by the culture and values from the top that had honesty and integrity at the core. 

The Leadership Team members opened their hearts and minds and provided the authorising environment for change. Resources were applied, budgets allocated for training and development and work programs legitimised. The DEN story in FACS was truly a unique coming together of an attuned and trusted team, motivated by social justice, fairness and equity. This alignment and commitment would not have been achieved without the leadership of an extraordinary Secretary who set the highest of standards. 

This is Michael’s story of his experience as DEN Chair. It is also a vital part of the DEN journey in FACS, and the collective effort to address discriminatory practices and advocate for the rights and opportunities for colleagues with a disability in the organisation.

Anne Skewes

Former Deputy Secretary

Land and Housing Corporation 

Family and Community Services

12 July 2021

About the author and the purpose of telling this story

I have been a member of the New South Wales Department of Communities and Justice Disability Employee Network [DCJ DEN] since its inception in July 2010. From November 2016 to March 2020, I was the DEN’s Chair.

I wanted to write about my time as Chair because it is generally acknowledged that during that time the DEN evolved into a unique force for change. In 2019 and 2020 I was privileged to be invited to present on the DEN at the Australian Network on Disability’s [AND] National Conferences, along with our Executive DEN Champion.

I began to write this a few days after I left DCJ on June 10 2021. The Department has over 20,000 staff dispersed over the state. My observations about my experience as DEN Chair are context specific. Not all public sector agencies are the same, though there will be many similar challenges facing a DEN seeking to create enduring positive change in favour of staff with disability – and, by extension all others.

I have chosen to discuss methods used, and issues that a DEN encounters, to provide a full appreciation of what the challenges are, what is achievable.

Who is this written for?

I have written this for people in leadership roles – Chairs, Deputy Chairs, management committees, Inclusion and Diversity allies, and Executive Champions.

My experience with the DCJ DEN over near 11 years I was involved with it made it clear to me that effective leadership is critical – from everyone involved in ensuring the DEN meets its objectives.

The DCJ DEN’s origins

What is now the NSW Department of Communities and Justice Disability Employee Network [DCJ DEN] began in Ageing Disability and Home Care [ADHC] in July 2010. From that point it began a journey through several iterations of its parent department, which regularly turned it back to formative phases.

The ADHC DEN was created when the Department’s executive realised that, while the Department had responsibility for people with disability, it was doing nothing for its staff with disability. From its establishment the DEN met at the Portside Centre in Sydney 4 times a year for a nearly whole day [generally 9.30 to around 16.30]. Members came from around the state. The DEN was supported by a Secretariat from our HR.

The first DEN Chair was Michael Evans, a Regional Manager of Home Care services based in Albury. The Terms of Reference allowed for 2-year terms for Chairs and 1-year terms for Deputy Chairs.

The DEN’s early leadership structure comprised the Chair, the Deputy Chair and Secretariat [HR]. Other members participated at meetings and in consultations. This was, and remains, a traditional structure. As the DEN continued, it became clear that it was not meeting member’s needs.

I nominated at election times for both Chair and Deputy Chair roles; and succeeded in becoming Deputy Chair in early 2016.

The challenge of leadership

The structure of the DEN, its meeting frequency, and the dispersed membership meant that there wasn’t a lot of exposure to leadership challenges for ordinary members. I have a clear recall of Michael Evans because we talked before meetings often. He was a regional manager, and I had been a Support Manager in the same territory as Michael. We had met several times some time before the DEN was set up.

After Michael’s term had expired, we had a succession of Chairs at lower grades – 5/6 and 7/8. My recollection is that none had management experience. I have no doubt at all that the subsequent chairs were genuinely committed to their role and did their best. I can speak directly only to my own experience.

I do not recall the subsequent leadership being particularly strong.  The Secretariat did a lot of work – which was understandable because there were quite a few things to be sorted out in HR. It could be that there simply didn’t appear to be a need to ginger things up. Everything was ticking over at a leisurely pace. There were, however, discontents among members. Their enthusiasm waned and meeting attendance declined.

I stepped into the Chair role in November 2016 when the then Chair announced at the last meeting of the year he was soon to leave the Department for the NDIA. I was not forewarned. I walked out of the meeting as DEN Chair, surprised and excited.

At the time ADHC was dissolving as the National Disability Insurance Scheme [NDIS] was being introduced. We were shedding staff from our disability services constantly as they either ceased to be or were transitioned to NGOs. We lost a lot DEN members. At the same time, we were transforming into a new entity – Family and Community Services. In 2016 we were well into that transition.

My immediate commitment was to do something about our member numbers; and reach out to the other elements of FACS. The other thing that engaged me was the discovery that, as DEN Chair I was on several committees. One was the Department’s Disability Inclusion Action Plan Implementation Committee [DIAPIC]. Another was a public sector disability employment committee. I had no recollection of either committee being reported on at any DEN meetings.

The following year, 2017, was a blur to me, looking back. I reached out to the Secretary, Michael Coutts-Trotter, who had spoken so supportively of the DEN at its last meeting in 2016. We crafted a message encouraging DEN membership. Anne Skewes, the Deputy Secretary of the Land and Housing Corporation [LAHC] became Executive DEN Champion. Anne was Chair of the DIAPIC, and I recall an agreement that the Chair of the DIAPIC would also be Executive DEN Champion. I was delighted. Anne was a dynamic leader. 

By the end of the year numbers had improved somewhat and I figured it was time to step down as interim Chair and hold elections in March 2018. I was returned to the Chair role, unopposed. Now I felt legitimate.

I was beginning to get a sense that being a DEN Chair was not an easy job, and certainly not one to be undertaken by somebody with no management experience, and certainly not staff with insufficient seniority. I was about to get an object lesson that confirmed my dimly formed views.

Putting a rocket under the DEN

In May 2018 I attended the Australian Network on Disability’s [AND] Annual National Conference at Darling Harbour, Sydney in company with several DEN members, Anne Skewes, and Kerry Lowe. Kerry was manager Inclusion and Diversity, who provided the DEN’s secretariat services. She was becoming an essential ally for me.

The keynote speaker was Kate Nash from PurpleSpace, a UK based organisation dedicated to the establishment and growth of DENs. Kate was also presenting a separate workshop on Networkology the following day, and I had booked to attend.

Kate’s presentation left me stunned. I was on the way to heeding one of her central points – the importance of having an alliance with our Executive and the HR Secretariat. But on just about everything else were we flatfooted and going nowhere.

It was abundantly evident that meeting 4 times a year and some consultation in between was not going to generate the change we wanted. We needed to get energetic and engaged. It was time to get moving. 

We joined PurpleSpace and got access to a mass of inspirational guidance, which I read greedily. I contacted the Secretary, and in July we did another membership drive. I went public with my own disability story in our corporate newsletter. Membership numbers grew substantially, and in September I sent out a call to DEN members for volunteers to help make stuff happen. I had no idea what, but it seemed like a good idea.

The Guidance and Action Team is born

I had 11 responses to my call. They came from north, from south and west. They were energetic, turbulent, passionate. Some were angry, some were frustrated and over it, others were hurt by their experiences. But they were all determined that things must get better – and they wanted to be a part of making that happen.

They were not an easy bunch to wrangle. I had to be clear about one thing. We were about respectfully making positive changes in our workplace culture. I had to come up with a name – so The Guidance and Action Team [the GAT] came into being.

It took nearly a year for the GAT to settle down. In mid 2019 we were funded to run a 2- day planning workshop with a professional facilitator. This helped a great deal. We had an ambitious plan and good focus.

By this stage I was recruiting allies, staff with no disability [well, none disclosed] who were supporters of the cause. The GAT’s membership was mostly staff with disability. We had members sensory and mobility disabilities, and with degenerative diseases. We had two allies join as well.

They all had stories to tell. The GAT would go on to be the heart of the DEN. We had moved away from a small ‘elite’ of office holders to an energetic and engaged core in constant touch by email and phone.

I asked the current original and later GAT members what the GAT meant to them when they joined and what it means now. Here are a couple of responses.

Sommer Walters [Original member]

Thinking about what hoped for when you volunteered, what did the GAT mean to/for you at the outset? When I first volunteered to attend a DEN meeting (2018), I really had no idea what to expect. I was excited to be attending something I was passionate about. Soon after plans were made for the first roundtable with the executives in Sydney and it was then I realised that I had joined this miraculous group of people that had vision and purpose. The GAT formed and I for one felt that I had found this perfect place for me to share my experiences and help others with disabilities navigate their future within DCJ.

What does it mean to/for you now? The GAT is the only is the part of my work that I enjoy. I am inspired by the team around me and the passion of each person to create a better government department. I only hope one day that the Secretary creates actual roles for the GAT team to ensure the work is actioned accordingly.

Angelique Gilmour [Later member]

Why did you want to join the GAT – what did you think it was? I was aware of the DEN from other work colleagues and word had travelled of the great work that was being done by this group such as striving for equitable work environments and opportunities for people with disability. I felt I could offer my support as an ally, as I am confident at ‘speaking-out’ and believe in doing so for, and on behalf of, others. I also thought I could offer some positive influence through having a strong and broad work network, to assist those with disability and staff experiencing challenges in the DCJ workforce.

What does it mean to/for you now? Being a DEN & GAT member means more than I imagined it could. The holistic view that DEN Leadership team takes to support and guide DEN members is impressive. I have personally experienced the support of GAT members that was invaluable and greatly helped my emotional health during a difficult and challenging work time. Joining the GAT late, when projects had already been identified with project leads and supports appointed, I have predominantly contributed by offering feedback, and responded to other requests for DEN input. I hope to do more for the GAT in the year ahead. I am proud to be a GAT member and thoroughly enjoy working collaboratively with such inspirational change agents and activists. 

The GAT turned out to be a ‘magic ingredient’ – a spiritual and intellectual yeast that created a powerful heart.

Right up to the day I left, emails between GAT members on DEN related matters were arriving in my dedicated in box folder daily. Every day at least 2 GAT members were thinking about, commenting, suggesting or sharing something about the DEN’s core business.

It is impossible to over-estimate the value and impact of the GAT. It is the Leadership Heart of the DEN.

The power of story telling

In early 2019 I was invited to a meeting with the Secretary and Anne Skewes, our Executive DEN Champion. On January 24, 2019, I had emailed the Secretary over a few issues that were proving to be hard to make progress on. Here are a few selected paragraphs:

  • Over the past few months, and especially the past few weeks, I have been having conversations with people at various levels in FACS about what to do about staff with disability who lack the confidence to say they have a disability and that they need a workplace adjustment. There is a consensus about what needs to happen – the leadership culture must be strong about requiring that the high standards of conduct expected of leaders are delivered – and that there are consequences if this does not happen. However, there is no consensus on how this might happen.
  • You will recall that at the last DEN meeting we discussed a roundtable between FACS executive leadership team and staff with disability (particularly members of the GAT). That is something I want to progress with you early in the year. I know it will take some time to schedule. It is evident that such roundtables are highly effective in changing attitudes. The Commonwealth Department of Human Services has adapted the Commonwealth Public Service Commission’s Changing Mindsets Program to suit its own needs – and meetings between its executive officers and staff with disability are the most influential element of the program.
  • It struck me that there’s a mismatch here. The people I have been speaking to are aware there is a problem, and what the solution is. But there’s no willingness to convey their insights to the Executive Leadership Team. We are, apparently, not supposed to be talking to Deputy Secretaries as ‘ordinary’ members of staff.
  • I believe a good leadership culture invites, and is positively responsive to, insights from the coalface. That capacity for self-reflection is as critical for the wellbeing of an organisational culture as it for an individual. This is something you model to great effect. But how is the Leadership Team modelling this?
  • I don’t think it is my job, or the people I have spoken with, to ‘solve the problem’. But it is our job to say there is a problem, ask you to act to solve it, and then to work with you collaboratively to ensure that the solution, once implemented, works and sticks. As a first step in that collaboration let’s get together and talk. Let’s set up a roundtable soon.

Note: I should add that now I firmly believe that while ‘solving the problem’ remains the responsibility an agency’s leadership, a DEN is a key partner in helping develop the solution; and implementing it. 

After the 2018 AND Conference where the Department of Human Services had given a presentation on its participation in the Access and Inclusion Index, I went to the Commonwealth Public Service Commission’s website to look at its Ten Plus Ten model [see Appendix B]. This looked like a great idea, but I thought a smaller number might be better – after hearing how GAT members could talk so passionately. Telling powerful stories was important, but so was the opportunity for discussion.

I had proposed to the Secretary that I’d like to have a ‘roundtable’ with the Board and a handful of GAT members. This was in early February, and I was imagining we might be an invite some months down the track. We were offered 28 February. That wasn’t long and I had to get a move on. Getting volunteers was not a problem. I wanted those who had some tough tales to tell. My goal was to have staff who really had gone through some awful experiences to tell they unalloyed stories to the Secretary and Deputy Secretaries.

We worked hard to prepare all participants. We couldn’t mess this up. Anne and I called phone meetings to go over the program. Speakers had to strictly conform to their allocated time. Five minutes isn’t a lot of time, but when you have 6 speakers its 30 minutes. We needed time for conversation, and I wanted engagement, not just a line of speakers recounting bad things that happened to them – and nothing else.

The first roundtable was transformative for all participants. Our speakers were pretty good about keeping to their time limits, but it was clearly something we would have to work on. The board was shocked by what it heard, and we found it a powerful experience to speak ‘truth to power’ and be listened to with genuine concern. We had a debrief session immediately afterwards with Anne.

That day the DEN stepped over an invisible line. Things were not the same afterwards. We started to run Roundtables within Divisions and Business Areas. I appointed a GAT member [Rita Cottrell] to coordinate roundtables and prep participants. She took to that role with a passion.

Roundtables have proven to be a powerful tool to change understandings and attitudes. But they must be run in a highly disciplined way – with sound preparation of participants and effective debriefs. This ensures that the DEN members have a safe experience.

The DEN evolves

In April 2019 I ran into AND CEO Suzanne Colbert at an Apple accessibility event and we talked about how the DEN had been developing since the 2018 Conference. Anne Skewes and I were invited to present on the DEN’s development at the 2019 AND National Conference in Melbourne.

The March 2019 NSW election led to a major restructure of the NSW public sector we came to know as the MOG [Machinery of Government]. This led to a subsequent merger with the Department of Justice to become the Department of Communities and Justice. We suddenly more than doubled in size. My immediate concern was to work with the Justice DEN, which was not as active. As it transpired, we progressively attracted former Justice DEN members to our now DCJ DEN, but that took over a year, and it is still a work in progress.

Another thing changed at the February roundtable. I proposed that, while we were delighted with Anne Skewes as an outstanding Executive DEN Champion, surely it was an implicit duty of all executives to champion the needs and rights of staff with disability. I set out to recruit more Champions, starting with the Board. That was almost a prescient move because in the formation of DCJ, the Land and Housing Corporation was sent to DPIE, and we lost Anne as DEN Champion. 

Paul O’Reilly, an Executive Director in my Division was quickly recruited before Anne left. Paul was another exceptional choice. He developed the growing number of Champions into a network. 

In November 2019 the DEN returned to the Board with an update on developments, with some good news stories from some members who spoke in February, and a message about what we saw as priorities for the future. I gave Jacqui Duncan a lead role here. I was planning to announce I was going to step down as Chair in early 2020, and I had been thinking about my successor.

For a staff led group to be invited to present at a Board meeting twice in a year is unusual. It was a testimony to our commitment to deliver a positive and professional influence.

In preparation for the March DEN meeting in 2020 I initiated discussions within the GAT about requirements for the next DEN chair. In my last email to the DEN membership, I shared my vision of leadership. I was determined that the next Chair should have substantial management experience. I told Jacqui Duncan I wanted her as the next Chair. She was understandably uncertain. She raised the idea with her manager, and the idea was not received with any enthusiasm. To perform in the role effectively a considerable amount of time was required.

My position was clear. Jacqui alone had the attributes I thought essential. She was a team leader with years of experience. She was a grade 9/10. She nominated and was elected unopposed.

Jacqui has been, and continues to be an outstanding Chair, taking the DEN to places I had not anticipated.

Early on she worked with Paul O’Reilly to restructure the Deputy Chair role. They settled on 3 Deputy Chairs with specialised roles. The old structure did not deliver the level of support she needed to maintain the level of performance she demanded of herself, and which her manager expected.

Our Inclusion and Diversity team had ceased to provide Secretariat services in 2019. Other staff groups were being formed and the team did not have the capacity to provide the same service to all. Because of a temporary staffing shortage, I had been taking on more of the secretariat role myself. For a time, Inclusion and Diversity team members took meeting minutes. 

The transition to 3 Deputy Chairs [DC] made good sense and it was an easy transition. Joan Feeney took on the role of DC Business, Sharon Bennett became DC Communications and Rita Cottrell stepped into the DC Projects role.

In October 2020 Jacqui accepted the opportunity to take on the DEN chair role as fulltime. This was an unexpected opportunity that relieved her of what was becoming a real challenge – juggling her demanding fulltime job with the increasing demands of the DEN Chair role. Jacqui also had to manage her own health related disability.

The opportunity to convert the DEN Chair role to fulltime was unprecedented. I had quietly recognised that I had been able to devote a considerable amount to time because my managers had ‘looked the other way’ when I spent a full day doing DEN stuff with increasing regularity. Having Anne Skewes as my Deputy Secretary may have had something to do with that. Likewise, moving into a business area with Paul O’Reilly as my Executive Director was also fortuitous. I have no illusions that without such support I would not have been able to achieve what I have, and neither would the DEN.

That time was well spent, demonstrating it was a good investment. The simple fact that an offer was made to go full time as DEN Chair was a powerful acknowledgement that the DEN had become a valued player in the Department’s commitment to its ongoing evolution as a place where staff with disability could flourish.

Paul moved to become Executive Director of Youth Justice, an area of service for which he has a passion. He surrendered the Executive DEN Champion role in late 2020 to devote more energy to that vital role.

The AND teamed up with PurpleSpace to present sessions on disability as part of a 24-hour global online event on the UN’s International Day of People with Disability on 4 December 2020. Jacqui and I participated in the Australasian opening leg of the event. 

That event seemed to bring a 4-year cycle of extraordinary activity for me to a close. My division was undergoing a major reform and voluntary redundancies were being offered. I applied on the logic of wanting to look at the offer, but a deep part of me knew I’d accept if an offer was made.

On June 24th, 2021, I had a text exchange with Jacqui Duncan:

Jacqui: Den chair role has been funded fulltime for four years [clappy hands emoji]

Me: Well done! Who made the decision.

Jacqui: The DCJ board approved it today…MCT sent me a text letting me know.

Me: Brilliant! Board’s buy in is major. What did you write?

Jacqui: I sent your proposal which I tweaked a little bit.

I had forgotten I had written that. What a wonderful piece of news!

The DEN was well on its way to a new stage; and was in very good hands. 

Some Reflections on Methodology

The critical lesson I learned from Kate Nash’s presentation at the 2018 AND Conference was the need for a clear methodology and strategy. A DEN must have an approach that is professional and one that works with its organisation in a positive manner. 

When the GAT was formed, it was abundantly clear that most members had just reason for being aggrieved by what they had experienced. It is also true that sentiments of disappointment and frustration were expressed in meetings. Within the Department the enthusiasm for change was not always met with open willingness to embrace proposed change. That can make the role of change agent challenging. Keeping faith with a spirit of patient civil persistence takes commitment.

The imperative of a positive message

I have been blunt from the outset. The DEN is not “a union of cranky cripples.” I had listened to representatives from other DENs complaining they could get no traction with their executive. I noted quite a few were members or delegates of the NSW Public Service Association. It seemed to me that they had infused their DEN with union thinking. That was probably the only model of change agitation they knew or were comfortable with.

The DEN’s approach must never be adversarial, must never blame, must never complain. Intemperance and impatience are our worse enemies – even in the face of what looks like intransigence. Over the 40 years that I have worked in government agencies I have gained a deep understanding of what is needed to build a group like the DEN with successful and lasting principles.

The lessons of an old union rep

In the mid to late 1980s, as an employee of the Commonwealth Employment Service [CES], I was a regional delegate with the Commonwealth Public Sector Union [PSU] on the Far North Coast of NSW. We were fortunate in having a highly experienced PSU rep move up from Sydney. He ensured all the local workplace delegates worked together and were supported. We had over 90% membership routinely and often 100%, and we were active and effective. I cannot extend the same accolades to other PSU delegates when we met in Sydney.

During that time, I was reading on management. I read through almost a decade of Harvard Business Review [HBR], which I got through my Department’s Sydney-based library. I also bought and consumed books by the ‘management guru’ Tom Peters.

I learned two invaluable lessons during this time.

  • Nobody, including senior executives, had a coherent theory of management. You can’t run an organisation well without one. And you can’t engage in driving change without one. When I left the CES I contacted the library to advise not to send anymore HBRs to me. I was told the subscription would be cancelled. There were only 2 readers in the state. The other was a manager in the State Office. I felt sorry for that guy. It wasn’t fair he would miss out. The subscription was expensive too to be paid for out of one’s own pocket.
  • I struggle to have much esteem for the unionists I have met. They politicised disputes with management that did not need to be disputes in the first place. And the disputes were destructive. We are all on the same side. If you don’t believe that, I don’t think you have any business representing a minority group or acting as a change agent. Or, if you are an organisational leader, and you don’t believe we are all on the same side, you are in the wrong business.

These days agencies are run on a theory of management. It is therefore essential that any group wanting to drive change is equally informed. 

The essential skill of conflict resolution

In the early 1990s I was working for the NSW Department of Community Services out of Lismore. I was a newly minted Advisor Disability Licensing with a responsibility to licence residential services for people who are aged or who have a disability. Elsewhere in the state these roles focused solely on Licenced Residential Centres [LRC], otherwise known as Licensed Boarding Houses. I had 4 and my manager required me to perform the full scope of the role, which meant I had around 134 services to be licensed. Many of these were aged care hostels [this was before the Commonwealth State Disability Agreement] and they were not at all interested in me turning up and inspecting them for compliance with licensing requirements they had just learned about. They had a good regional network and word got out about me quickly, and I was met with organised resistance at first.

The Department’s library had a set of 6 cassette audio tapes on Conflict Resolution. The material was from the Conflict Resolution Network, and the tapes were sold via the ABC. Back then I had a large territory covering the Far North Coast, the Mid North Coast and the New England regions. I regularly left home Monday morning and returned Friday afternoon. It was the only time and cost-efficient way of getting the job done.

For several months I played the cassettes as I travelled and practiced the techniques when I visited to inspect a service. It worked well. Around 9 months later I was invited to give a presentation on fire safety and evacuation issues in aged care hostels at a regional conference.

I learned 2 major lessons:

  • Conflict resolution skills are foundational to any kind of effective advocacy for change. Reading a book is the least you can do. Doing a course is better. What I did was a course in a way.
  • Several times I was asked to engage in an investigation of alleged misconduct. The conflict resolution skills helped me take a step back and hear both sides of the story. A disability organisation handled an allegation of sexual misconduct by a worker by concluding the accuser was lying. The accuser had been removed from the service, causing major concerns about their future. I spoke to the family and the accuser, who provided information that convinced me they were telling the truth. I spoke to the accused gently, who admitted the offence and resigned.

Learning to understand who you are engaging with

In 2001 I returned DOCS as a Support Manager for LRCs in western Sydney and western NSW. The relationship between many LRCs and the Department was toxic and adversarial. When I was with the CES I spent time promoting CES services to businesses. This meant getting an understanding of the business and its needs for staff. A business was more than the ‘employer’. It was a human endeavour involving real people who were passionate about their business – and often struggling to flourish. I spent a lot of time reading on businesses and industries; and was involved in local and regional economic development. I needed to learn to talk to a business operator as a businessperson, not just as ‘an employer’. And even more fundamental was seeing the business operator as a person.

My engagement with LRC owners and managers was, then, as individuals, and business operators as well as service providers subject to strong government regulation. In my time as Support Manager, I was able to achieve a far higher level of cooperation that brought positive change to residents than my colleagues. 

There was an important lesson here:

  • People in roles are more than you see them as. Be prepared to allow yourself to see the person you want to influence as they see themselves. This breaks up the habit of presuming you know who you are talking to. It teaches the development of self-awareness that cuts through the fog of power plays.

The joy of giving

In 2018 I introduced the idea of the DEN Thank You Awards. These were 3 tasteful soft blue transparent acrylic desktop awards made by Lasercraft, a disability enterprise in Gosford NSW. The idea was to acknowledge people who had supported the DEN over the year with a modest token of appreciation at the last meeting of the year.

I dared indulge myself by choosing all 3 recipients. Anne Skewes had been a vital support as Executive DEN Champion. Kerry Lowe had provided me with crucial guidance. Andrew Lapham, a GAT member from Newcastle had been a passionate advocate of the DEN in his district. You may recall Andrew from the ABC’s Love on the Spectrum.

In acknowledging Anne and Kerry I wanted to also send a strong signal that these relationships were critical for the DEN, and they were working exceptionally well. I wanted the membership to understand that.

We had another round of 3 awards at the end of 2019. This time the recipients were chosen by sub-committee of GAT members. In 2020 Jacqui Duncan raised the bar. The DEN introduced an award in memory and recognition of Kerry Lowe’s vital support for the DEN  –  The Kerry Lowe – Winds of Change Award.


The success of a DEN is absolutely about leadership, but this is not what is usually thought it is. Leaders are not always managers, and managers are not always leaders.

While I have been in several management roles in my career, I am not good management material. I am more an innovator and pioneer. Innovation requires leadership. In this sense leadership is not defined by a role, but by a spirit. That can cause problems with an organisation overly fond of hierarchy. Becoming DEN Chair was fortuitous for me. I was the right person at the right time. I made the Chair role something it had not previously been.

Good managers are also leaders. Jacqui Duncan combines management and leadership skills to do a job I was not suited for. She is taking the DEN to its next level.

I have heard of some DENs with chairs who are in the role for years. When I stepped into the DEN chair role the Terms of Reference specified 2 years. I was in the role 3 years and 4 months because of the necessity of rebuilding the membership numbers before a meaningful election could be held.

I initiated a move to change the DEN’s Terms of Reference to make the Chair’s term 3 years. It is my belief that it takes 18 months to get to do a job well. There’s not much that prepares you for the complexity of the DEN Chair role, so having only 6 months to perform well seems like a waste of effort. A 3-year term allows for 18 months of mastery. And, if you do your job well, it will be time to hand it on.

As much as I loved the role, I was grateful to walk away. The role requires fresh spirit to move the DEN to its next phase of development.

This brings up the vital theme of succession planning. I read an article by a prominent US CEO who said he started succession planning on his first day. Okay, that made sense. Nothing can be more catastrophic than a group or organisation being unprepared to replace its leader. In a DEN this can be critical if leaders have disabilities that can take them out of action suddenly. 

The advantage of a GAT is that you have a pool of passionate and engaged people from which you can find interim or long-term successors. Also, having 3 Deputy Chairs means that there are 3 people exposed to more intense leadership challenges.

There were several important leadership lessons for me:

  • Know your capability within a strategic vision, so you know when it is time to hand over.
  • Understand that leadership is a far deeper art than ‘management’ and it is essential to get an education. Loretta Malandro’s Fearless Leadership and Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead were 2 critical texts. Also numerous HBR articles were deeply inspirational to me.
  • Self-awareness is essential – and it’s not easy. Fortunately, I had read Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence when it first came out in the mid 1990s; and followed up with his Primal Leadership and other texts.  Another extraordinary resource is the Global Leadership Foundation, which works to build emotionally healthy organisations with emotionally healthy managers.

The other critical area of leadership is the GAT. It isn’t a management committee. It wasn’t elected. The GAT arose from self-nomination in the first instance and then by invitation or expressed interest. Membership is not a contest, but an expression of passion and commitment of time and energy.

I safely assumed that calling for volunteers is smarter than inviting people to nominate for a position. The numbers would not be high and after the usual phases of group evolution what would emerge would be a group well capable of self-regulation. I have to confess that my willingness to let that evolution play out wasn’t always appreciated the members. Things got pretty hot at times.

For me the word ‘committee’ is an anaesthetic for the mind and spirit. I chose Guidance and Action Team off the top of my head, but it conveyed exactly what I wanted to say without having to explain anything. That was fortunate because it was an experiment. I had no idea how it was going to go. 

The GAT has an incredible sense of ownership of the DEN. They protect it and ensure it stays true to its objectives. That is extraordinary leadership for a staff-led body in any agency.

Intervention and the limits of Terms of Reference

One of my early challenges was dealing with Terms of Reference that said the DEN was not to engage in advocacy for members. I sensed the logic for this condition had to do with advocacy being done badly. The DEN was not a union, so any seeming replication of a union role might cause problems.

But there was a counter view I favoured. A DEN that was not able to intervene on behalf of, and advocate for, its members would have little credibility. The one thing members craved was for somebody to step up for them. This was one of the quiet grumbles of the original DEN members. For me that limitation doomed the DEN in important ways.

My solution was to respectfully inform management of a situation which a DEN member was not able to resolve personally. I respected that there were systems in place, but when they were not working, something had to be done. I became an advocate for fixing a system that was not working, rather than focus on the ‘victims’ of the failed system – or the perpetrators of alleged wrongdoing.

This wasn’t mere sophistry. Making systems work is vital. Systems fail because they are either unknown or misunderstood; or are poorly designed or out of date. Poorly done advocacy imputes personal failings. Smart systems support puts everybody on the same page, and on the same side.

This provided the critical focus the DEN had lacked. It enabled me to engage the Department on real issues on an empirical basis in real time. Working with an instance of specific systems failure which was having clear detrimental impact on a staff member with disability lifted the matter beyond the comparatively dry conversations we had in meetings.

I achieved two important things here:

  • The DEN was delivering real benefit to staff experiencing situations that were causing genuine and sometimes serious injury to their wellbeing. The DEN could have no credibility if all it did was interpret its Terms of Reference that did not permit interventions and advocacy to mean it took no action.
  • I engaged executives in redressing the situation of concern in a positive way. Not only did they become acutely aware of how a system failure was causing harm and that they could fix the situation; they became supporters of the DEN. Doing good makes people feel good.

When I was asked to intervene my first call was always to the Manager Inclusion and Diversity. Her knowledge of the FACS culture is deep. Kerry always counselled me that there were two sides to a story, so we talked through what could be going on. 

Even when a staff member was thought to be misbehaving, they should still be treated with empathy and respect. What is seen as misbehaviour might be the consequence of being poorly treated. It was common for a manager to interpret evidence of distress in an adverse way leading to mutual hostility between the staff member and the manager. Getting the situation resolved without exacerbating ill feeling was critical, but not always easy.

The conversations with Kerry were vital in getting down to a sense of what might really be going on; and assuring that any activist bias was defused. Kerry often had ‘quiet words with some people’ that fixed the situation. I often counselled the complainant to be patient and restrained – and curb any temptation to provide detail on what they thought and felt to the people believed responsible. I understood that desire, but it would not only not improve the situation; it would make it worse.

The unfortunate thing is that we didn’t have a system to debrief managers to help them appreciate what had happened on their watch.

The problem with managers

Without exception, every situation I became involved in came down to a relationship between the staff member with disability and their line manager. Sometimes a matter arose because the staff member with disability did not possess the skills for self-advocacy, and they did not trust their line manager to hear them out in a fair way.

I believe that implicit in the role of a line manager is a responsibility to care for the welfare of a direct report through acting to respond to their legitimate work-related needs in a positive manner. This does not happen for 3 reasons:

  • The manager is unaware of their obligations and related legislation and policy.
  • The manager is under stress in their role and deflects or defers their duty to the team member.
  • The manager is not temperamentally suited to a leadership role; and/or has a personal bias against the staff member.

A combination of 2 or 3 of those reasons can apply at the same time. None of these reasons are grounds for assigning blame. They are situational factors only.

I am a fan of the RCA [Root Cause Analysis] approach. It’s a simple method. Ask ‘Why?” 7 times. Individuals are members of system and culture ecosystems, and these things shape them. It could be that the manager also has an undisclosed disability. Assigning blame to an individual in a situational setting simply injures the individual. So, the act of seeking ‘justice’ or redress for one person should not result in injuring another.

There is, in my view, a fundamental problem with managers in that they can be inadequately prepared to perform the role expected of them. Managing is hard. It is not a role that can be performed properly without training and education. For the most part, however managers wing it and do pretty well. Tom Peters was fond of saying that reality is sloppy and messy. That is how things work in reality – and generally we are good at working within this fluid and unclear state.

Years ago, I was urged not to complain how bad things are, but marvel they work as well as they do. That was sage advice!

Things though, go south readily when somebody needs serious attention. This is when managers who are ill-equipped, or inadequately supported by their executive, reveal their failings.

The NSW Public Service Commission [PSC] has campaign called ‘The Age of Inclusion’. It supports the goal of employing and retaining more staff with disability. The campaign has a manifesto which contains these words “Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy.”

That’s a fine aspiration, but how do we get there? The PSC has identified 20 core capabilities. The personal attributes for people seeking public sector roles are shaped by those capabilities. You can check them out here:

The manifesto makes ‘self-awareness and empathy’ work related skills, but they are not distinctly specified in the capability framework. Self-awareness helps a manager ask whether they are sufficiently aware of their obligations to offer an informed opinion; or make a judgement about an action. Empathy allows a manager to connect at a critical personal level with their direct report.

For me, self-awareness and empathy drive the development critical workplace intelligence – beyond the necessary operational intelligence. Care for staff is not an optional extra in the manager’s role, any more than caring for one’s tools is an optional extra for a tradesperson. Delivering on core business is a bundle of demands of equal value. Ensuring staff wellbeing is core business.

Powerful advances in how we behave in our workplaces have changed the landscape irrevocably. Our obligations to care for our staff are locked into legislation and policy like never before. Mercifully they also permeate our culture. We expect to be treated well. There is nothing so destructive of an individual’s wellbeing than to have their sense of self-worth assaulted by the misuse of power in their workplace.

This might seem as if this places an added demand on a line manager. It does if they do not have well-developed capacities for self-awareness and empathy. It means they have to worker harder to handle the consequences of that lack.

Studies on high performing teams show they are diverse, and they work and perform well when they have high performing leaders. It is said that people do not work for an organisation so much as their team. Self-awareness and empathy are desirable attributes in all staff, but especially managers who want to guide their teams to success.

Of the 20 key capabilities, I argue that 18 require Emotional Intelligence – if they are to be done well. Position descriptions for managers have focus capabilities from the set of capabilities drawn from the Personal Attributes and People Management sets. I do not believe that the public sector has sufficiently understood the shift in workplace culture over the decades. This demonstrated in the ‘light’ demand for demonstration of attributes that would reflect self-awareness and empathy shown in the focus capabilities required of managers.

I participated in my last DEN presentation before the DCJ Board shortly before my departure on 10 June 2021. I spoke on the theme of staff with disabilities lodging formal complaints against their line manager. This is so often a destructive course of action for the complainant. It is taken as a last resort. I argued that there needed to be some mechanism whereby that desperate need could be handled as a developmental opportunity for the manager. No manager should allow a direct report to get to that state. It is a capability concern that should never be handled through the medium of formal complaint.

Line managers are the key to ensuring staff with disability want to stay; and are enabled to do their best work. Of course, the executive culture above the line manager must adapt first.

The imperative of being professional

Smart systems support requires a level of professional understanding of how an organisation works. It is equally important to have a sense of why things stop working. Systems must be managed. These are human systems, and they will fail when human things happen:

  • Higher priorities are imposed. The obligation to ensure equity of access and inclusion is not seen as an imperative in the face of ‘operational’ challenges.
  • Staff shortages and changes mean that knowledge is lost and not recovered. Often equity and inclusion themes are driven by people with a personal passion, and while the person is replaced when they move on, the passion is not necessarily continued.

Systems must be managed by those who own responsibility for them, and the DEN can participate in that management as a stakeholder representative for those who are direct beneficiaries. This is a collaborative process that sensitively acknowledges that human systems are vulnerable and need help.

In the spirit of “nothing about us without us” stakeholders must remain engaged until access and inclusion imperatives are equal to all other operational requirements. While we are moving in the right direction, our organisational cultures are still evolving.

The presumption of goodwill

I have been around public service agencies through 5 decades now. Things have changed massively. Generally speaking, goodwill and compassion are the norm, though they can be stunted by relatively rare instances of truly toxic management. Less uncommon, and still in the minority, is poor management that simply dulls a work team’s spirit.

In the past 3 years in DCJ I have been involved in the DEN, the Access and Inclusion Index self-assessment and the Disability Inclusion Action Plan. I was the only person to have had that level of engagement with disability related change methods across the organisation. A spirit of goodwill, inclusion and compassion is foundational to the culture. But it needs a focus and sometimes a ‘permission giver’ to be as active and impactful as it could be. I presume this to be the case in all public sector agencies – subject to leadership’s cultural influence – which can depress expression; or stimulate it.

A presumption of goodwill is far more potent than imagination of adversarial responses or contention over obligations or duties. Such a presumption does not mean that inequities or inaccessibilities will be instantly redressed. Even a willing culture has a natural inertia, so stimulation must be persistent, patient and compassionate.

The single largest pool of untapped resource in this world is human good intentions that never translate into action.” 

Cindy Gallop, an advertising consultant.

Protect and nourish key alliances

In 2018 Kate Nash confirmed what I was already figuring out in 2017. I needed help as a DEN Chair. But Kate underlined the importance of those relationships in an emphatic way for me.

At the DEN meeting in 2016, when I suddenly became DEN chair the Secretary observed that the role of the Chair was to be a pain in the butt to the executive.  I took him at his word, but very carefully and respectfully.

Anne Skewes, our Executive DEN Champion, proved to be an activist, something we had not had in prior Champions. In asking a senior executive to take on such a role it is important to understand that they will commit as they can. Paul O’Reilly was also an activist Champion who surrendered his role when he could no longer dedicate the time, he thought the role required. 

An activist Champion is not necessarily what is needed all the time. A strategic influencer can be just as effective. We can’t build expectations on what has gone before. I was grateful for Anne and Paul because I was building the DEN up, and their energy meshed with mine.

I am increasingly drawn to the idea of a Disability Champions’ Council with 4-6 executive Champions working as a team and sharing the workload of supporting the DEN’s objectives through action and influence, as well as supporting a Champion’s network.

With the Inclusion and Diversity team no longer providing secretariat support, the need for a critical alliance with it did not diminish. I had regular catch ups with Manager Inclusion and Diversity. That relationship was not only a vital sounding board, but it also remained a critical source of insight into the politics and culture of the organisation. We developed a warm professional relationship. On a strategic level that relationship would be invaluable if I put a foot wrong and offended an executive. To my knowledge I did not. But having a credible means of repairing an injured relationship is crucial. 

Maintaining a good reputation is essential. It means that every interaction as DEN chair within the organisation must be super professional. The DEN’s integrity depends on how its representative conduct themselves.

Presentations before the Board are high stakes affairs. They are pre-planned and prepared for in great detail. You must be able to walk away knowing that you delivered high value content well. 

Being a DEN Chair is an unusual position if you are not an executive. You need credible standing in the organisation in a way that isn’t available to non-executive grades. The executive is a vital partner in delivering the kind of positive change that is needed to improve the lot of staff with disability. Quite simply, they are the decision-makers, so engagement with the executive must work well.

For this reason, I do not believe that a DEN Chair should be a person without management experience. Managers are more exposed to engagement with executives and become comfortable in relating with them. If the role has the support of the Board, that standing has value in the wider organisational context. That support is vital.

The DEN chair role sits outside normal organisational structures. It does not belong in a defined hierarchy. This is both a huge advantage and a great peril. It is an opportunity to be navigated with care.

Staff with disability are the reason the DEN exists. The job is to deliver benefits to them; and let them know you are doing that. I have heard of other DENs who are apparently active in an organisation; but are hard to find. Staying visible and being available and responsive is a must.

The importance of meetings

The original ADHC DEN met quarterly for a day. This meant that members from around the state could come together and everyone could get maximum value for the travel and accommodation costs. Over time the meetings lost value for many and there were times when there were more HR staff than staff with disability attending.

I started off with diminishing membership, and for a while I struggled to develop content to attract members to meetings. There was no point in having meetings because that was what we always did. Over time I invited speakers from HR to update on matters under way. I invited the Secretary who came as often as commitments would allow. Eventually good things were happening and we always had something to report or discuss.

The development of the GAT added another dimension. It drove much of what the DEN was into. The DEN meetings moved to Ashfield in 2019, away from the Portside Centre in Sydney, which had no capacity for teleconferencing. We had been meeting at the Portside Centre since July 2010.  We still had our DEN meetings quarterly, but now the GAT met the day before for a full day. We invited representatives of business areas around the Department to give us detailed briefings on specific topics – accessible documents, workplace adjustments, accessible ICT, and whatever else we wanted to know about in depth. These meetings built strong connections across key business areas, and we often signed up representatives as Allies.

Over my term as DEN Chair our meeting numbers rose from as low as 8 to around 36. We had a meeting room set up as fully accessible with a hearing loop and large screen and camera set up for videoconferencing. We were getting Disability Champions coming along as well. At the end of 2019 we had just over 60 Champions.

Under Jacqui Duncan’s leadership, Covid 19 made what I thought were really great numbers look small. Jacqui turned the DEN meetings into full on events via MS Teams. The June 2021 meeting had 187 participants. Jacqui has made the meetings far richer, and the fact that MS Teams is now the norm means that far more people are taking up the opportunity. The June 2021 meeting had 90 odd registrations from non-DEN members

How much communication?

There is a balance between enough to stay on people’s radar and too much, so emails are deleted unread. Finding the balance is a combination of content and channel/media. It is not easy. Working with internal communications experts to develop a strategy is rewarding.

I had a mix of updates, good news stories, useful things to know, stimulating ideas and personal stories. I had a mailing list for members who were staff with disability or allies, and a separate one for Champions. I used the latter very judiciously. Similarly, all-staff emails from the Secretary were sparingly used – and aimed for maximum effect. There was always an appreciable spike in membership requests after them. 

Personal stories in newsletters were also powerful. Getting staff with disability to tell their stories was always hard where the audience was substantial. Encouraging participation in roundtables was easier. Besides writing one’s own story is not something a lot of people feel comfortable doing at first. They may need help – and where does that come from? PurpleSpace has a good guide on story telling.

DCJ is in a good situation at the moment in that the DEN, the Access and Inclusion Index assessment and the Disability Inclusion Action Plan have a natural intersection. The theme of disability has a fairly consistent presence. Jacqui, as fulltime DEN Chair is struggling to keep up with demand for her time. Disability inclusion and access is solidly on the DCJ radar.

Back in the 1980s, when I was in the CES I set up a support group for mature aged jobseekers through a small NGO. It was called MATES [Mature Aged Training & Encouragement Scheme] and we had funding for 12 months. I had a goal of getting at least one story about MATES in the local media every week – and did so. Even so, I regularly met local people who had heard nothing of it – even after 12 months. That was an object lesson about getting the message out and getting known. Persistence is essential, and repetition is necessary. I also worked for a time with a Business Enterprise Centre whose manager had written a primer on advertising. She used those skills to great effect as well. I acquired some rudimentary understanding of the dark art.

Getting the message out is hard work that must be done.  Having the assistance of professionals and people with communications training is essential to ensure that the time effort employed is also productive. Communicating is a professional skill, so having access to professionals is very useful. That must be backed up with a decent lay understanding acquired through reading and/or experience.

Recruitment and retention

Recruitment of people with disability is a priority for public sector agencies, and important work is being done to improve recruitment practices. My focus was on retention as a higher priority because I saw little sense in recruiting staff with disability unless we were confident that we could retain them.

There were 3 key questions for me:

  • Was our ICT, including software, accessible?
  • Were our workplaces accessible?
  • Were our managers adequately disability aware and able to be supportive of new staff with disability?

When I took over the role of DEN Chair the answer to all 3 questions was a clear “No!” While the negative assessment was not universal across the Department, it was sufficiently common to deny confidence that a person with disability could be employed and placed anywhere with the knowledge they would want to stay because they were able to give their best work.

Software accessibility remains an issue in some areas. In particular, some software is not compatible with JAWS. Over the past couple of years support for staff using computers with specialist software has become worthy of regular praise from DEN members. The commitment to service has been outstanding.

Supporting managers to be more responsive to the needs of staff with disability is a work in progress. I believe it needs targeted, but non-accusatory, interventions to support managers who are not inherently supportive. I am always mindful that a manager who is not responsive may be somebody with an undisclosed disability – or undergoing a period of life experience that impairs their best spirit. 

Strong positive support to change understandings and attitudes should be targeted rather than generalised. Generalised awareness raising misses the target for people who need it; and wastes time for those who ‘get it’. 

The DEN has had numerous reports of how managers who are seen as most in need of support contrive to avoid ‘developmental’ opportunities. There is no follow up. While such managers are in the minority, the perception that they are not held to account corrodes trust in management. There is missing a signal that the executive is prepared to be accountable for managers who do not comply with clear obligations, and this does seem to be a sector-wide problem.

A question of disclosure

You can’t miss me. I am tall and I have Canadian crutches. Yes, I have a disability. My DEN colleagues who are blind, in a wheelchair or having missing limbs similarly cannot hide.

Public sector agencies like to ask whether you have a disability as part of a habit they have. Even the promise of anonymity is, however, little incentive to reveal a condition that is safely hidden. There’s a good reason for this. See how people with obvious disabilities are treated, and silence is the better option. It doesn’t have to all the time, just now and then, or just once.

People with ‘invisible’ disabilities have calculated that it is better to suck up the disadvantages of not disclosing. Disclosure of even a well-managed psychological injury has derailed a promising career on at least two occasions I know of. I have second-hand reports that way more managers and executives have psychological injuries than we will ever know, and none are about to change that.

Psychological injury is not the only ‘invisible’ disability. It is the most common, and the one that causes the most angst.

When an agency asks whether we have a disability, it manages to ignore the “What’s in it for me?” Question. There are vague responses about workforce data that are perfectly sensible, but they don’t translate into a benefit of sufficient value to break silence and ‘disclose’ even when anonymity is genuinely assured.

I look forward to a time when anybody who needs some kind of accommodation to do their best work can get when they ask for it. If we respect our staff and we work in a spirit of goodwill, there is no need to demand a staff member ‘disclose’ a disability. The NSW Public Service has a flexible working policy, predicated on a presumption of flexibility, not of having a ‘justifiable reason’. You can learn about it here:

Disclosure of disability has a legitimate purpose in anonymous data collection, but not as a condition of obtaining a workplace adjustment. Workplace adjustments are not ‘excuses’ for lower performance. If a staff member requires support concerning their performance, it is the absence of workplace adjustments or flexible working arrangements that are relevant, not their presence or performance.

‘Mental Illness’ is the most problematic subject for disclosure because the matter is handled so badly. My work history enables me to be comfortable with ‘mental illness’. I have worked in psychiatric hospitals; I have compiled psychiatric case histories for tribunal hearings for veterans; I have coordinated support services to residents with psychiatric conditions in private accommodation services. However, most people have no exposure to mental illness in a way that allows them to develop an understanding and confidence on the matter.

There are widespread myths and errors. The worst is that a ‘mental illness’ means a disordered mind – a person is unable to think rationally, who may be erratic in their behaviour – definitely not the kind of person you want working with you, or for you.

I will be blunt here. I have worked with people whose behaviour has been problematic, and whose capacity for rational thought at times has seemed limited. Every one of them has been senior to me – mostly as managers and executives. I do not know whether these people had a diagnosed condition. They certainly never ‘disclosed’ they did. 

By contrast I have worked with peers who have ‘disclosed’ a psychiatric diagnosis. Aside from the odd time when they seem distracted and flat, I have never encountered any disordered thought or behaviour.

One of my very good friends who has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital several times, and who is on medication, is the most intellectually disciplined person I know. He is also one of the most thoughtful and caring people I know. The condition he uses medication to manage has nothing to do with his intellect or his loving character.

I mention this at length because it is imperative that we all understand that the term ‘mental illness’ does not mean thought or conduct disorders that significantly impinge on performance at work.

In Australia the majority of ‘mental illnesses’ are depression or anxiety conditions. And the interesting thing is, as I noted above, is that conduct that may seem like poor quality thinking and inappropriate conduct seems more common among more senior staff who have certainly not disclosed a ‘disability’. 

Many staff have stories about ‘crazy’ managers. The injustice is that the people whose conduct is predominately fine, and only in need of occasional accommodation are saddled with a stigma associated with the term ‘mental illness’ while more senior staff, whose adverse conduct is plainly apparent to all subordinate staff, are excused as ‘a bit cranky’ or ‘weird’ by their peers.

The stigma attached to ‘mental illness’ not only causes harm to those whose psychological health needs require an occasional accommodation or adjustment, but also senior staff who maybe should be receiving care, but do not dare, because they know what it will cost them. Meantime ‘reliable sources’ say there are many managers and executives do have a ‘mental illness’ diagnosis and perform perfectly well. They won’t say, because they fear, probably rightly, that any such disclosure will sink their career. I doubt this is in every case, but how do you know? Who can you trust not to react badly?

Why Mental Illness isn’t a Thing for Me 

To be blunt, I have been around ‘mental illness’ long enough to believe it is a corrosive and misleading term. It implies a cognitive malfunction. The majority of conditions are related to anxiety or depression. Neither condition leads to a cognitive malfunction or disordered thought of any significance. A stressful life circumstance can have the same impact.

Anxiety and depression have their own challenges, but the reality is that most people diagnosed with those conditions perform perfectly well in their roles – including senior management and executive roles. To say that they have a ‘mental illness’ also infers that the reason they are ‘ill’ is that they have not processed information effectively, and can’t be trusted to behave, or think, reliably. This is a demeaning interpretation. I would go so far as to say it is cruel.

Our culture has championed mind over emotions for centuries, and we are slowly coming to terms with that error. The PSC’s vision of managers that are “self-aware and compassionate” is a clear indication. Management and leadership development now places a strong emphasis on emotional intelligence and emotional maturity.

Over 2008 and 2009 I spent 10 months in hospital as I recovered from a catastrophic case of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which put me in an ICU for 3 months on a ventilator. At no time was my emotional state inquired about. Nobody asked how I was coping with my body becoming useless. Neglect of emotional wellbeing is a common experience for people with physical or sensory disabilities.

I have friends and family members who have experienced trauma. They are diagnosed, formally, with a ‘mental illness’. And yet, these are people whose intellectual and creative prowess continues to impress me.

I prefer to talk in terms of emotional health, and psychological injury. These are relatable terms that enable empathy in ways that ‘mental illness’ does not. It seems to me that ‘mental illness’ is a term favoured by emotionally remote people who favour categorisation over compassion and personal engagement. That’s a kind of disability to me.

I gave a presentation to a staff group on the DEN in 2018. Afterwards I was approached by several men who wanted to know when we would tackle the stigma associated with ‘mental illness’. They were earnest in their inquiry. At that stage I was still in rebuilding mode. In early 2020 a GAT member I had encouraged to go public on her clinical depression some months before challenged me on what we were doing. It seemed to her that nothing at all was happening. I set up a group to ‘Change the Conversation’ with only a foggy notion of what to do.

I did a substantial refresh on Emotional Intelligence; and chanced upon the Global Leadership Foundation [GLF] whose mission was to create emotionally healthy leaders in emotionally healthy organisations. We worked with the GLF to pilot a series of workshops – 3 series with 4 sessions of 1.5 hours a week – to provide a plain language means for people to regain control over their inner states – away from the language of psychiatry, which few people not trained in the field understand.

I am not opposed to psychiatry or the idea of ‘mental illness’. I just don’t think they are necessarily the right language/ideas in this context. My boundary line is whether a condition is amenable to psychotherapy. Severe disorders like schizophrenia or psychosis are not often found in public sector staff. There are instances of staff entering a severe traumatic state that renders them unfit for duty, but they are rare. Work related PTSD is more common than we’d like in some front-line roles. It’s bad enough experiencing PTSD through work, and so much worse to be saddled with the stigma of a ‘mental illness’ when you are trying to recover.

The ideas and language of psychiatry are not suited to engaging with colleagues who want and need compassionate understanding that now and then they are having a rough time. The GLF provided for better language, and the participants in the pilot workshops provided strong and positive feedback. These were people who either had a diagnosed psychological injury or who were open about carrying the existential scars of coping with their disability – and the reaction to it.

DCJ’s Organisational Development and Learning team has engaged with the GLF to incorporate elements of its work in leadership development program. It’s a good first step toward intentionally creating those who lead with ‘self-awareness and empathy.’

Changing the Conversation was always intended to be a long-term journey of influencing how we talk about psychological injury and with the people who experience such injury. It is not fully formed as an idea, but I am happy with the progress made in scarcely 18 months. These are first steps on a long path.

I must acknowledge that Jacqui Duncan has continued the work. Her DEN sponsored event for the 2020 RUOK Day was held via MS Teams and attracted 165 participants – many of whom were not DEN members.

The importance of champions

If Champions are to do their job well, the idea of having just one must be rethought. It’s too big a job. In early 2019 I began to wonder why one executive should take on the role of DEN [or Disability] Champion and others do little or nothing. It is implicit in an executive’s role that they do the right thing by staff with disability, but that fact is rarely fully understood. 

My argument for having multiple Disability Champions [every executive in the agency] was that it was an acknowledgement of an existing obligation, not an additional role. Over 2019 I imagined I had set a bold target of 30 Champions by the end of the year. In fact, I doubled that.

Paul O’Reilly was an Executive DEN Champion who saw the opportunity to develop a Champions Network. The potential for such a network to deliver powerful change is evident, but equally evident is the fact that executives have demanding roles and their time is at a premium. I believe there is a great opportunity, at an agency level, to create and support a Champion’s network, but placing the responsibility for leading it on one person is not a viable option. It needs something like a GAT to spread the workload around.

I asked Paul what his goal for the Disability Champions Network was. He said:

The vision was to drive and support leaders across DCJ and Government to open up conversations with their staff to make the workplace more inclusive … if only they would try, they would learn that is easier than they think. This would take the onus off the person with disability (for example) to ask for adjustments. All of the evidence tells us that it is the relationship and interactions with the first-level line manager that makes all of the difference. That’s where the opportunity is!

An active DEN and an active Disability Champions Network, in conjunction with Allies could drive that essential positive cultural change needed to ensure inclusion and a real sense of belonging for staff with disability is achieved in a good time.

A genuine network is ideal. However, having multiple leaders prepared to be known as a Disability Champion is still a valuable part an overall change strategy – provided, of course, that Champions are active in living up to the name. There is a risk that the name Disability Champion can be cheapened and discredited if those who accept the role fail to live up to it, or worse, are seen to complicit in perpetuating an injustice through inaction.

This is the risk of having a single Disability Champion. To honour the role an executive must be able to deliver. Earlier Executive Disability Champions did not have to deal with a strong active DEN, so the demands on their time were not as high. 

Anne Skewes was an extraordinary Executive DEN Champion; and was the only Champion for a time. While we can measure our good fortune in having extraordinary people in the right role at the right time, we can’t expect to replicate them reliably – or use them as a benchmark to assess others. A solo Champion might be highly effective, but that’s more an exception than a rule. A team of Champions will always be more effective.

The vision thing

I had a vision for the DEN. It was to create a work environment in which staff with disability were able give their best work, and feel they belonged in their work teams and in the Department. To get there would take patient persistent effort at positive cultural change. I was under no illusion this would take some years.

The vision really didn’t come together until 2018, about 3 years ago – post the AND Conference and Kate Nash’s influence. I had no end date, but I mentally tagged that I would want to review progress after 5 years. That would now be after Jacqui Duncan’s term. 

Public service agencies of any size are complex, and multi-layered. It took persistence over decades to attain the level of women in leadership roles we have now, and yet women in senior leadership roles in the public sector is a Premier’s Priority. We have a 2025 target of 5.6% the public sector staff being people with disability, and we are, I understand, not on track for that happening. The priorities were announced in mid 2019.

The long time frame has nothing to do with any intentional resistance. Cultural change requires energy to shift it. Life is already full for staff – at work and at home. In fact, at work the stress of meeting work demands can be detrimental to emotional health. Adding another demand for awareness and change is an additional burden. It’s one thing to know that equity and inclusion are not optional benefits, but fundamental rights. It’s another thing to assert them in a way that cannot be interpreted as a zero-sum game – something else must be dropped. The more egregious violation of rights should not be tolerated; but generating cultural shifts that endure is like running a marathon, not a sprint. We need to be running both races – and remember which one we are in.

Inclusive Design

There’s a saying in Inclusive Design that I have on a T-shirt gifted to me by the GAT – “Solve for one, extend to many.” It’s a reminder that the DEN isn’t only about disability. Disability is the lens through which we see benefit to all. It’s our thing. It’s something we know intimately. It’s just not only ‘our’ thing. 

Disability is a situational experience of an environment. A disability can be long term, or it can be short term. My ankles are impaired, so I walk with aids – mostly Canadian crutches. My grip is weak, and my fingers and thumbs do not work as they used to. The accommodations I need benefit others too. People who are on crutches temporarily, people with injured wrists or hands benefit from devices and tools designed to serve long term needs. 

Voice to text programs designed to allow input by people unable to use a keyboard are now widely used by executives because speaking is faster than typing. The DEN is a strong advocate for automatic doors, especially on toilets. Regular hinged doors can be a struggle to open for a person in a wheelchair, or, as I have found, on crutches [especially if the return is strong]. An automatic door benefits many people.

I am an advocate for Inclusive Design because it can meet the needs of people with disability without focusing them. They become part of spectrum of users and beneficiaries. The Scottish dancer and choreographer Claire Cunningham uses Canadian crutches in her dance as well as in her life. She described disability as part of the spectrum of being human. Inclusive Design attends to the ‘spectrum of being human’ without highlighting and underlining disability as something apart.

No designer intends to exclude people from access to, or use of, the thing they design – unless that is specified in the brief. Exclusion is usually unintended, and remediation is often expensive, sometimes prohibitively so.

On the presumption of goodwill, we should assume a design to serve the needs of many people does not intend to deny access or equity to any.  But inclusion is not yet a reflex. It must be educated and trained for. Acquiring the understanding must be intentional. Implementation of Inclusive Design principles must be purposeful, planned and resourced until it becomes part of an organisational culture’s approach to design.

There are abundant resources on the web. I have a particular regard for the Centre for Inclusive Design, a charity hosted at the University of Technology Sydney –

Where to From Here?

In November 2016 I was put on the spot to make something of the opportunity I had landed on. I had no idea what I was going to do; and made stuff up as I went along. As it turned out I was the right person for the job. When I stepped down in March 2020 and handed the baton to Jacqui, she quickly made it abundantly clear she was the right person for the job.

The GAT members have been a perfect mix of passion and angst. In a sense the GAT attracted gifted individuals who, maybe because of their disability, have never had a chance to shine. 

The DEN has also been blessed by a Secretary who engaged openly and freely. Michael’s support has been critical, and nobody had to work hard to get it. I worked with 2 exceptional Executive DEN Champions – Anne Skewes and Paul O’Reilly. They were both activists and they came at the perfect time. 

I think a DEN Chair has to be a remarkable individual to be across the challenges and opportunities. Without diminishing my predecessor’s passion and commitment, I must be blunt in saying that a lack of management experience and seniority did not serve them, or the DEN or the Department well.

I was very clear who I wanted to follow me, and I got my way. A short time ago Jacqui sent me an article discussing the differences between an elected Chair and one appointed through a competitive process.  I favour a competitive process, especially if the role is to be fulltime, but I have to say, also so even if it is not. Elections sound nice, but unless the selection criteria are clearly articulated, and members support them, the risk of getting the ‘wrong person’ is alive.

The DEN Chair role is complex and challenging. If an agency is serious about driving authentic and enduring change, having a fulltime chair delivering a professional service is exactly what is required.  But then it risks an effective chair being under-supported or over worked. A fulltime DEN chair is an investment, not a cost. An investment must be sufficient for the purpose.

The GAT keeps the Chair honest. It will pick a failing long before the members become disappointed, and it will fearlessly hold the Chair to account. The GAT destroys the old small executive team model which can become complacent or lazy or ineffectual and self-indulgent.

The Terms of Reference must permit advocacy. I think that was a mistake in the ADHC DEN’s origins, but I understand why it happened. It was a case of management escaping what was seen as a messy risk, rather than thinking through it and making it work. That’s not how you drive change – by removing the critical voice of complaint. That pulled the teeth of the DEN, whose membership had assembled substantially because ‘the system’ was not working. While there was a genuine intent to make changes, the natural inertia took over. The DEN must be an agitator for positive change. 

Change processes move in cycles. Each is different. For a DEN, which is a small purpose-specific community, that means that leadership must be fit for purpose. A professional body, with a coherent strategy and a clear vision, must know in advance the kind of leader it needs for the next cycle.

Public sector agencies are not like corporations. Each has its own cultural peculiarities and challenges. I am not arguing for a one size fits all template for a DEN. My argument is that if you really want effective and enduring change to the benefit of staff with disability [and others] you want sophisticated and strategic DEN leadership which can engage with the agency’s Executive Leadership and HR in an energetic and creative way.


I have participated in various change movements over the decades. All seeking justice and truth – and the end of discrimination and inequity. Many good things have happened as part of a constant desire to attain goals not yet reached. Sometimes that desire for change has created adversaries who became the means by which anger and frustration were channelled – as if the passion for change must fuelled by such emotions. For some, strong passions can only be framed in combative terms. We see this in the way change advocates claim they are “fighting” for us, or “battling” inequity or injustice.

That’s not a good way. It wastes time and energy, and it delivers weak results. I have on my ‘’to do’ audiobook list The Fearless Organisation by Amy C Edmondson which I discovered just recently. I was drawn to the title after Loretta Malando’s Fearless Leadership: How to Overcome Behavioural Blindspots and Transform Your Organization. The themes are linked, and the title excites me. I love the idea of a fearless organisation – if that fearlessness is predicated on self-awareness and taking responsibility to ensure equity and dignity for all. It’s not about engaging with an external threat, but internal opportunities.

These days such books focus on self-awareness as an equal partner with the rational and intellectual discipline of genuinely professional management. To be blunt, not a lot of managers or executives exhibit a great deal of either. There is a lot of ‘flying by the seat of one’s pants’ fuelled by good intent, and native goodwill and intelligence. It’s a good start, but it’s not enough.

It is very clear that when these attributes are present, we see good outcomes that exceed the normal scope of expectations.

I was inspired by Kate Nash from Purplespace to reimagine what a DEN could, no aught, no must do.

I was blessed in that I came into the role of DEN Chair when we had an exceptional Secretary whose commitment to equity and inclusion is beyond anything I have encountered. I had two equally exceptional Executive DEN Champions. And then I had that wonderful turbulent and passionate GAT. Kerry Lowe, as Manager Inclusion and Diversity was invaluable as an Ally.

These people helped me understand that the agency was full of people with deep goodwill and the willingness to be remarkable once they know it is okay to be so. Malandro’s notion of fearless leadership was clear – leadership is not about rank or status, but about personal preparedness to be accountable, and to dare ask for what is plainly just and the right of all of us.

But such leadership must be skilled and informed. It takes effort, determination and a preparedness to favour growing self-awareness, skill and knowledge over the myriad distractions that entice us daily.

I have honoured people whose help and support has been critical. It is not to suggest they are remarkable in any fundamental way. They are a little further along the journey we must all take if we are to be effective agents of positive change.

I am grateful for the opportunity I was given, and for the growth it afforded me. It was an opportunity for service that I grasped with both hands. It is only in writing this that I fully understand its value.

A DEN can be a truly transformative agent if we commit the energy needed to make positive change happen. It’s not just the quantum of energy, but also its quality that we must ensure.