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Emma Hogan joined the NSW Department of Customer Service as Secretary months before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Since then, her team has pioneered technology to support business recovery and worked hand-in-glove with NSW Health in a “gold standard” response. Over takeaway lunch in her office, Hogan tells us how initial reluctance to work in government became “the best decision I ever made”.

New Year’s Eve 2019. The state chokes on smoke as the deadly bushfire summer rages on. Amid the uncertain celebration of a new decade, Emma Hogan senses the most important days of her career looming on the horizon. 

“I can clearly recall walking down the hill to the 9pm family fireworks at Manly and I rang our emergency team, who work in the Telco Authority based out at Homebush, to check in on how the fires were going. And that’s really the last I remember of a normal life,” the Secretary of the NSW Department of Customer Service tells LSJ.

“Even when I was watching those fireworks I was thinking, ‘Oh gosh, things are going to get different from here’.” Less than three years after joining the public service, Hogan is now one of its most prized assets. 

In 2016, having spent her career in the private sector with just under a decade as a senior executive at Foxtel, Hogan took a six-month break to write a book “about 30 ordinary Australians doing something extraordinary to change the world” and plot her own next chapter. 

“[Those in the book] really connected with my values about perhaps wanting to change my career to something more in the public good space,” she says.

Still, she admits “government at that point had not even crossed my mind” when she was approached about the job of NSW Public Service Commissioner; a role which upholds integrity, impartiality, accountability and leadership across the government sector.

“I had to Google what that was. I had only heard of the Commissioner title with police or emergency services. The more research I did, I thought, maybe,” she says. 

“I went through the process and nearly withdrew a couple of times. I was worried about cultural fit. I was worried about whether I would really be able to make change, whether the pace would allow me to … [and would] I be able to make a difference?

“My husband said, ‘You have talked about all the things that could go wrong with this. What if it was the most amazing job ever, what would that look like?’ So I stayed up until 2am drawing up what I would do with it and by the next day I was really excited and decided I would stay in the mix.

“I was offered the opportunity and never looked back: by far the best thing I have ever done.”

After 18 months as Commissioner, Hogan was head-hunted for Secretary for the new Department of Customer Service: an ambitious remit bringing together central services such as digital, cyber and data analytics with Service NSW [the revamped motor registry office], Births, Deaths and Marriages and Revenue NSW. The agency also has a significant regulation function which includes NSW Fair Trading, Safe Work NSW and the Office of the Building Commissioner, amongst others. 

The latter arm of the agency is currently examining critical issues like better protections for gig economy riders and reforming the building industry after the Opal Building and Mascot Tower structural damage crises.

I don’t wish to repeat it, but it was an extraordinary thing to be a part of. I know I will look back on that and be really proud of the role we played in history.

Combine that with a pandemic and 10,000 employees to manage and it is little wonder Hogan is pressed for time. In lieu of a restaurant meal, she dines with LSJ over takeaway spicy chicken and avocado poke bowls at her office inside the McKell Building near Sydney’s Central Station. 

“When I was given the opportunity [for Secretary] I instantly did the girl thing of ‘no, no, no, I’m not ready, what are you thinking?’ … the usual ‘what if this is terrible?’ approach to things,” she says. 

“I feel very lucky because it has been the greatest privilege of my career by far.”

As if NSW Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello’s goal of turning NSW into “the most customer-centric” government wasn’t tough enough, after Hogan began her role in October 2019, we all know what happened next.

 “Like any CEO coming into a business, you imagine you’ll have three or four months of learning and then batten down your strategy for the next few years … and onwards,” Hogan says.

“The department had only been formed on 1 July 2019. I arrived kind of at the mid ‘what is this department and what is it going to be?’ point. And at the middle of February 2020 I thought ‘where was I?’ in doing the strategy about who we were going to be, and someone started mentioning this word ‘COVID’.”

After starting 2020 at the bushfire operation headquarters in Homebush, by April, Hogan was a daily attendee at Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s pandemic crisis cabinet. As health officials worked to flatten the curve, Hogan’s team had to stay ahead of it and turn digital products around fast. 

“[With QR codes] it became clear that the quickest way for Health to do contact tracing was through accessing data from us appropriately and immediately. When we did the border permits [following the NSW-Victorian border closure] we did it in 48 hours. We turned products around in record time for a private sector agency, let alone a government one,” she says. 

“I don’t wish to repeat it, but it was an extraordinary thing to be a part of. I know I will look back on that and be really proud of the role we played in history.”

A mother to a toddler and step-mother to a teenager, Hogan is also a pivotal plank in the powerhouse of government women driving NSW’s response to the pandemic, from the Premier to Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant, Secretary of Health Elizabeth Koff and Health Deputy Secretary Susan Pearce (Koff and Hogan are the only two female Secretaries in the NSW Government).

“Regardless of what side of politics people sit on, no one can deny how hard the Premier has worked in the last 12 months and I have watched her in action. Kerry Chant is just phenomenal. She often has to give advice that people don’t love. That requires courage and she has got the respect of the Cabinet,” Hogan says of her colleagues. 

“In terms of the response to COVID, it has definitely been government at its best. And I say that from a bipartisan perspective. Not to say I don’t have great male colleagues but am I proud to be a female leader alongside some other female leaders who have been a significant part of that response? Absolutely I am.” 

On International Women’s Day, Dominello singled out “my department boss Emma Hogan” in a LinkedIn post praising the “amazing women” who steered NSW through its darkest days. 

As 2021 offers glimpses of light, inclusion and mental wellbeing remain top of Hogan’s leadership agenda. 

“I’ve had my own dances with mental health over the years and I know how isolating that can feel. So trying to provide a work environment where isolation is not how people feel, which is hard when everyone is working from home, is something I am passionate about,” she says. 

“Having said that, it’s a journey. I don’t want to stand here and say, ‘We’re a mentally healthy workplace and everybody’s excited to bring their whole serves to work.’ We are on that path, but we are not there. During my time here, I would really like to be remembered for caring about people and caring about customers and bringing those two things together.

 “I just want us to be the best version of ourselves we can be.”