THE MANAGEMENT INTERVIEW ACC’s Gary Wilson – The compensations of public sector leadership

As public sector chief executives go, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to rate 59-year-old Gary Wilson as anything other than very successful. He delivers on often difficult assignments. And his performance at the helm of the ACC is an example of tricky job well executed. Today the Corporation benchmarks itself against local and international best practice management standards.
Wilson didn’t set out to become career manager. Instead, he kicked out at Auckland University in the 1960s with BSc in psychology and chemistry, adding BA in economics when he discovered that business and economics interested him rather more than the prospect of career as clinical psychologist. Like so many at the time, he followed both tradition and his father into job at the old Government Post and Telegraph. It was, on reflection, pragmatic decision. The Post Office not only provided job, but also offered “marvellous” provisions for up and comers keen to study, and the young Wilson wanted degree in economics to slake his newfound interest in business.
He then added some post-graduate study in public administration. “Business and management appealed to me intellectually,” he explains. “My degree in psych taught me how to deal with people. With economics I understood the business process reasonably well and bit of public administration simply rounded things off.” career in the public sector beckoned.
But why the public sector? If business and economics so interested him, why not opt for private enterprise? Another pragmatic decision. “When I graduated I looked around at the market and discovered that I was doing quite nicely at NZ Post and the prospects were interesting,” he smiles. “The work was enormously challenging. I was young but I was given big assignments. Frankly, I was doing stuff few other organisations would have let me do.”
Conditioned perhaps by family thinking, Wilson exhibits the streak of altruism that underpins the thinking of many traditional and even contemporary public sector employees. Yes, the work was interesting and challenging, but most of all Wilson felt then, as he does now, that he was making contribution to New Zealand – “if you get it right”, he adds hurriedly. And that, he believes, “has always differentiated the public from the private sector. At macro level, public sector organisations have bigger impact so, if you want to make changes, there is better chance that the things you do will have significant influence on the New Zealand economy.”
Wilson confesses to “enjoying the intellectual challenge” of believing it is easier to make the world better place through the public rather than the private sector. But, he adds, he has not, of course, actually been employed in the “core public sector”, in departments like Treasury or the State Services Commission. “I have always been on the trading side,” forgetting for moment his sojourn in public health which seems to me “core” public sector.
Wilson enjoys the public/private mix where he must “worry about bottom line” and deliver revenue and not simply dispense expenditure. For that reason, he found his five-year stint heading North Health in the mid-1990s more taxing. Just managing expenditure is, to his mind, “a much harder game to play”.
Given his attitude toward managing both sides of the ledger it is hardly surprising that Wilson is an enthusiast for the public sector reforms that unbundled his first employer from the strictures of life as government department. “Even in the old Post Office I was part of group that tried to develop more commercial and business planning approach to management,” he says. “There was both general and an intellectual appreciation of the need for more commercial discipline even before the reforms.”
Consequently the old Post and Telegraph put its collective hand up for inclusion when Roger Douglas and the 1980s’ Labour Government embarked on the establishment of State Owned Enterprises. “I don’t think it was originally envisaged that the Post Office would go there,” says Wilson. Either way, the enthusiastic and now senior manager played key role in formulating and strategising the transition. “That,” he says enthusiastically, “was quite fun.”
But what about the limited personal reward side of public sector management? “I have never hankered to be exceptionally rich,” he replies candidly. “Wealth creation has never been major motivator. Having said that, senior public servants are well paid and none of them are impoverished. That is quite satisfactory position to be in.”
And on the job satisfaction side, Wilson insists that he can be entrepreneurial “even in the public sector”. The public sector is, he says, “ripe for risk takers who are intelligent, who test things properly and who develop the market and are willing to then convince their political masters that the changes they plan to make will benefit New Zealand. You don’t have to attack the dogma, just apply good common sense management principles,” he says rattling off examples of innovative projects he has championed in his career, particularly at NZ Post where, after the transition to SOE in 1987, he became chief general manager.
He is, he says, now applying these fundamental business principles at ACC. “We are trying to simplify the processes so that folk understand what they are entitled to and what they get and what the law means for them. We try to put everything into terms that the average person can understand.” The public sector, particularly the trading enterprises, operate on “quite simple business dynamics” and if managers work on them they can generate huge gains and benefits for the economy or, “in our case the claimants”, says Wilson.
But would he have negotiated life in the private sector lane as competently? He hardly hesitates. “I would handle it easily,” he says with comfortable assurance. “I don’t have any difficulty with the private sector model. I bring private sector management processes into the public sector in way that makes the basic fabric of the organisation work well. Then I simply do the stuff around the edges that the public sector requires me to do.”
Wilson is unequivocally clear about what constitutes good, first step management practice. “If you have good personnel systems, good financial systems that report accurately and on time and you get those core infrastructure things right then the policy decisions are lot easier to manage,” he says. “If you don’t, and many public sector managers are frustrated by the fact they haven’t got that strength of management information systems, controls and pro-cesses, then the policy decisions become far more random events, far more dangerous and far more difficult.”
Getting the reporting and the pro-cesses right is Wilson’s first priority when he moves into new CEO slot. “You should never assume the other things will naturally follow but, unless the core systems are in place you won’t know where you are going. At ACC we produce our year-end results within three days.” ACC’s reporting is not quite real time, but it is close. His objective it to create an organisation in which his management team can spend more time on strategy than managing an inadequate infrastructure.
ACC wasn’t like that when he arrived. Wilson was appointed CEO in 1997 and inherited an organisation that, in his own words, hadn’t been run particularly well for “a few years”. It had, he says generously, “got into bit of disarray and needed some restructuring”. Nevertheless, he took the job thinking he would be able to put things right in five years and then “do something else”. It has taken “a bit longer than that” but he is, he says, happy with where it is at now.
And where is that exactly? “Well, when I came in ACC’s tail of long-term claimants was sitting at around 30,000 and growing by 1000 year. We thought we could stop it growing. But as we got better at it, mainly by getting early effective rehabilitation and not letting people get into t

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