The making of a modern auditor general

Integrity has guided the way for Margaret Crawford PSM, the first woman in NSW to head the agency responsible for public sector accountability throughout the state.

Throughout her career, she has excelled in a range of diverse agencies and departments, and across all three levels of government. Here, the public sector leader shares the story of her professional journey and the things she learned along the way.

Crawford can still recall her induction as a junior public servant working in the grand institution that is the State Library of Victoria in the heart of Melbourne.

“I started, absolutely, at the bottom,” Crawford told The Mandarin.

“I loved it from the day I walked in, and continue to love the public service today.”

As a graduate-entry VPS, Crawford was responsible for running the library’s administrative services. She continued studying while in that job, obtaining a graduate diploma that led her on to her next role at what was then known as the Department of Youth, Sport and Recreation.

An avid hockey player with a passion for all sports, Crawford said she very nearly became a physical education teacher but was persuaded by her parents to go to university and instead pursue a career in public service.

Her passion for sport influenced a lot of her early career decisions in the VPS but when Crawford failed to land a senior position in that department, the professional disappointment became a catalyst for more exciting things.

“I spent a little bit of time in regional Victoria, in Shepparton, as a recreation consultant, and then I went back to the city and headed up the fitness and healthy lifestyle unit in Sport & Rec,” the now auditor-general for NSW said.

“Then I missed out on a job that I really wanted, which was to be the head of sport in Victoria. It was lucky I missed out on that job because it meant that I moved sideways into the Department of Premier & Cabinet in Victoria, and that really opened up my eyes and my opportunities just started to broaden out from there.”

In 1991, Crawford helped to establish a brand new gambling regulator, which was then known as the Victorian Casino and Gaming Authority. She continued to study while there, ever committed to a growth mindset and worked towards her MBA, which she earned in two years.

“After my MBA, I was ready for my next move and, again, I missed out on a job in Victoria with VicRoads,” she said.

“There was a job advertised at the RTA in Sydney — very similar — so I thought, ‘Oh, well, if Victoria doesn’t want me, maybe I should go to NSW, and so I moved into the former RTA and ran their driver licensing registration system, and also there the regulation of heavy vehicles.”

Crawford reflects her career trajectory would probably make much more sense in hindsight than it did at the time. And she can point to several moments where a missed opportunity she had her sights set on, actually saw her find better jobs that stretched her skills and challenged her in the way she needed.

At the RTA, for example, Crawford says she spent four years passionate about trucks and heavy vehicle regulation until she was headhunted by the Brisbane City Council to administer its mammoth customer-facing services.

“Even though the content area in every [different public service role] was totally new to me, the particular set of capabilities or skills needed to do the job was the commonality,” Crawford said.

“Things like understanding big systems, being able to work with a large workforce, being able to assess and deal directly with customers, being empathetic and understand their needs, and obviously understanding government being able to provide clear, authoritative advice to ministers, were the sort of skills that were common throughout all of these roles.”

In Queensland, Crawford’s role reported to the CEO and was responsible for the running of a division. She worked for the Brisbane Council for five and a half years, overseeing 32 librariesa major call centre, parking inspectors, dog catchers, as well as park and gardens personnel.

Then, following some self-interrogation, Crawford realized despite loving the work and her team it was time to try something new. She could not afford to wait in the wings for a promotion to materialize and so went looking for a role with just as much operational breadth but in Canberra.

That’s how she ended up working as the chief operating officer of a federal agency that has led the way in customer-centric services — the ATO.

“Then I was approached to go back to Victoria to head up the public housing department — that was sort of housing, social housing and homelessness,” Crawford said.

“It was just the subject area, or the content, that was different in each role. That [has been] the exciting thing [about my career] — learning about new activities of government or service delivery, and becoming passionate about new topics.”

Such a unique breadth of various agency and department experiences across jurisdictions is also what makes Crawford so well placed to discharge the responsibilities of her current role auditing state bodies in NSW.

“Each transition stretches you,” she said.

“As it has turned out, my role now is to scrutinise how government does things, and I find that nearly everything that I’m looking at, I’ve had some experience with over the years which I bring now to this role.”

Crawford was a recipient of the Public Service Medal (PSM) in this year’s Australia Day honours. She was recognized for her outstanding public service as NSW auditor general and her work ensuring the integrity of the state’s public sector.

The auditor general has 16 months before the end of her fixed eight-year term, which comes to a close next April. Crawford said having spent her entire career working in the bureaucracy, she has enormous respect for the public service. But a balanced democracy also required an office holder with a function like hers’ to shine a light on things when they “weren’t quite right”.

“I know how hard people work, how committed they are — and so to now have to criticize [the work of public servants], I do find that quite challenging. But when it comes to matters of integrity, the audit function is part of the wonderful system of government that we have here in this country that does provide a balance,” Crawford said.

“When I call out, which I’ve had to do, weaknesses in the system, I do it because I think that it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure that we continue to have a system that is of high standing and integrity and that the community can trust in,” she said.

Commenting on the importance of fostering a strong integrity culture in the public service, the auditor-general added it was critical for the public service to be objective and non-partisan in advising their political masters.

“I do worry that sometimes we become so responsive to governments of the day that perhaps we’ve lost sight of the need for public servants to stay absolutely nonpartisan, objective, transparent and follow good processes and systems.

“That’s what I’m still striving to instil,” she said.

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