From MLO to Executive Director: an interview with Ben Bruce

Thinking about expressing your interest in the newly-advertised Ministerial Liaison Officer (MLO) roles (internal access only)? Wondering how it could help you progress your career? Read on to find out what Executive Director Ben Bruce learned along the road from MLO to Executive Director.

Having worked regionally and in central policy and program roles previously, Ben was no stranger to the public service in the early 2000s when an MLO position became available in the then-new Department of Water, Land and Biodiversity Conservation (DWLBC).

His manager thought it would be good for him to gain an understanding of how a Ministerial Office worked and how final decisions were made, and Ben thought it would help him to do his job better when he returned to his original position after the 12-month MLO term. So he applied and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Weekly team asked Ben to share his experiences as an MLO and this is what he had to say.

Can you set the scene of what it was like in the department at that time?

I started in the MLO role in 2003, a year after the new DWLBC had been created. The Minister was Hon John Hill MP who was responsible for the Environment and Conservation Portfolio. From memory, the separate River Murray portfolio was created during this time, for which Minister Hill was also responsible.

What did you enjoy about the MLO role? What were its challenges?

Taking calls from the community on behalf of the Minister was both enjoyable and challenging – you talked to lots of characters, many who had an interesting take on life, but it gave you a real insight into how the general public think about issues, not just the relatively well informed people who are engaged with our business. It was great when you were able to help the people who had called in, either by providing information or connecting them up with the right person.

There was a really good team of people in the office, which made coming to work enjoyable – DEW’s current Regional Operations Director Stuart Paul and SA Water’s Senior Manager of Wastewater, Environment and Research James Crocker both did terms as the Environment Department/EPA MLO while I was the DWLBC MLO. Many of the public servants in the office at that time are now spread around the public service, however we still always stop for a chat when we cross paths.

How did your career progress from there?

While I had intended to return to my NRM position out at Waite at the completion of my term, I was instead recruited into the Principal Adviser role for the DWLBC Chief Executive. I then won an executive role in PIRSA that managed its NRM, water, drought, climate change and rural communities programs, before returning to DWLBC/DFW as the Director of the Science, Monitoring and Information Division. When DEWNR was created I was appointed to the Group Executive Director, Customer, Commercial and Corporate role, before being assigned to my current position.

What experiences did you have (or what skills did you learn) during your time as an MLO that you can now see helped prepare you for your future as an executive director?

The overarching learning I took from my MLO experience was a more overt understanding about what is important for Ministers and the Government of the day, as well as the Department’s Chief Executive and Executive Directors.

The Minister was subject to a Privileges Committee investigation (fortunately not related to DWLBC business) during the time that I was in the office, which reinforced the importance of maintaining attention to detail in addition to a strategic focus.

Other key learnings would include:

  • the importance of departments providing good policy and technical advice and the importance of maintaining strong relationships with stakeholders and the community
  • the importance of listening to determine what the root cause of an issue is rather than rushing off to respond to the symptom and creating a bigger issue down the track
  • the importance of being empathetic and humble, particularly when dealing with departmental colleagues (you were often making requests with short turnaround times) and members of the community).

What advice would you give to staff who are considering applying for the MLO role?

Having an understanding of the workings of government is an essential skill for a government executive and there are very few opportunities to gain it. Unless you happen to be working on a high profile, politically sensitive project, MLO roles and roles in the Offices of the CE/Executive Director are probably the only real ways you can gain this experience.  The great thing about the MLO role is that it is not a political role, but you do get a greater insight into how governments make decisions.