“I haven’t met a public servant who doesn’t work hard and get up in the morning to really make a difference”
Ruth Ambler FIPAA, an IPAA SA Member for over 20 years, has been on a career journey across the public sector that has spanned departments and has enabled her to leave her mark on the State.
Ruth’s career in public service began in the Housing Policy space, where at the time, she had been employed in the non-government sector. Being tapped on the shoulder for this new role in the Department of Human Services, she was excited to have the chance to make a more significant impact. While she had been working with organisations that were linked to policy advocacy around housing issues, she saw this as her chance to jump in at the ground level and make a difference from the inside. This step into public service was, of course, only the beginning.
After an election, the Department of Human Services, which at the time included health services, was split into two departments, and this led Ruth into the area of health policy. Here she began a review of the Dental Act and regulations for dentistry in South Australia as General Manager, State Wide Dental Services. In her most recent role, she has returned to the Department of Human Services as Executive Director, Community Investment and Support.
Ruth’s other roles have included:
- Director of Court Services, Courts Administration Authority
- Executive Director, Strategic Policy and Organisational Performance, Attorney-General’s Department
- Executive Director, Policy, Projects & Technology, Attorney-General’s Department
- Executive Director, Cabinet Office, Department of the Premier and Cabinet
With experience spanning so many varied roles and departments, we were fascinated with Ruth’s advice and insights. So, let’s get into the questions that Ruth shared her answers to…
What has made you stay in the public sector?
For Ruth, it’s about two things – the astounding variety of the work and the great people she has the opportunity to work with. In her experience, she has yet to meet a public servant who isn’t working hard at what they do and trying to do the right thing for the community. This sense of common purpose and value is a strong point of the sector that is unique, given the scale and scope of the work involved. As Ruth explained, she has been part of many reforms and can see her work’s tangible positive effects.
Ruth highlights that it’s a “pretty good feeling when you can go home at night and feel like you’ve improved an outcome for your citizens”. In the South Australian public service, we are particularly privileged as a smaller state, with a so-called “two degrees of separation”, that chances are the work you do in the sector today will impact somebody you know in the future.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?
Working in a political environment, Ruth shared that there are, of course, challenges that come with that. In her view, the media plays a huge role in managing community perception. In today’s world of modern media and vocal interest groups, it can create a challenging and noisy environment for public servants. However, going back to the purpose of the sector, Ruth highlights that we are there to serve the government of the day and that regardless of the priorities or personality of a government, that is what we need to commit ourselves to.
How can we navigate issues of integrity and accountability?
According to Ruth, accountability and transparency are two of the most necessary features of trustworthy public service, and we wholeheartedly agree. Ruth shares that, at times it’s easy to feel bogged down in red tape and procedure, but she reminds us that patience and following those processes is key to maintaining not only personal integrity but also the integrity of the sector – which every public servant plays a part in.
Ruth shares some essential advice to anyone who is grappling with an issue of ethics or integrity, “if something doesn’t seem to you quite right, it’s probably not quite right, and you should seek some advice and always think about how you would feel if it was on the front page of the paper”.
As Ruth notes, these issues are not something to take lightly they REALLY matter, “your reputation is probably your most important possession, and once you’ve lost it, you’ve lost it. So I would just say be incredibly cautious about those sorts of matters”.
What is your advice on navigating a change of government or direction?
Ruth noted that it’s easy to be caught up in the change cycle, but we can help find our footing when we remember that our mission is to serve the government of the day. From Ruth’s experience, she has found that as a leader during those times of change, it’s vital to communicate and bring staff along on that change of direction. Having gone through many changes in government herself, Ruth highlighted that focusing on the opportunities, rather than the challenges or negatives is essential in maintaining a resilient outlook. She noted that, yes, sometimes programs will change or cease, but others will be brought in – she understands that this process can be complex, particularly if you are invested in those – but to always come back to the great opportunities that are out there. As Ruth said previously, we are there to support the government. She shares that it can be “incredibly empowering to think about being part of delivering on an agenda of a new government and all that sort of energy and excitement that comes with that”.
If you would like more advice on dealing with a change in government, you can also watch the video resource here.
What do you love or value most about being in the public sector?
Ruth reflects that the real value and passion she has for her work is in the vast opportunity to find sensible solutions to some of the thorniest problems. Looking to our ‘On the Couch’ interview with Damien Walker, Chief Executive, Department of the Premier and Cabinet, he also shared a similar sentiment – that we are dealing with some of the most difficult problems out there – and in what other space do you get to work with problems and solutions with that kind of scale and impact?
What is your advice to people who are feeling burnt out in their work?
Exploring this question with Ruth, she expressed that there can be high pressure in the public sector that comes along with the complex problems we are dealing with. Ruth encourages us, though, to always come back to that sense of purpose whenever we feel discouraged.
She also urges people to care for their mental well-being by improving their resilience. Personally, Ruth does this through exercise, sleeping well and ensuring that she takes time away from the office occasionally. Throughout her long career, she has found that taking the time for a hard reset, with a holiday or just a break from the normal day-to-day, can provide the time to reset your resilience and be ready to face those challenges and opportunities anew.
What is your advice to those who are new to the public sector?
Ruth highlights that government is complicated and that a wealth of insider knowledge isn’t necessarily written down. Joining the policy network, which is run through the Cabinet Office, is a significant first step for anyone in the sector, particularly those working in policy areas. It will provide vital information on how government works and point you in the right direction to answer your questions.
She also suggests finding a mentor whom you can build an excellent ongoing relationship with. They will be someone you can go to for those questions you may not want to put to your direct line manager.
As her final advice to newcomers in the sector, Ruth also highlights that taking the time to get to know your colleagues is invaluable. For her, this means connecting with others, not just in her department but across the sector. As a long-time member of IPAA SA and a frequent delegate and occasional speaker at IPAA events, Ruth suggests events like those offered by IPAA as a great place to start connecting with others – who knows, and you may even run into Ruth there.
On behalf of the IPAA SA Divisional Council, we would like to thank Ruth for sharing her insights with the IPAA SA Community and for her many positive contributions and commitment to making a difference. If you would like to be involved in a future IPAA SA Insight Article, you can nominate or suggest a topic here.