The timing couldn’t be worse. With NSW Premier Morris Iemma ensnared in a crop of crippling scandals, the chronically underfunded, understaffed and dysfunctional NSW Department of Community Services is undergoing a changing of the guard. Both the DOCS director-general Neil Shepherd and the Deputy DG Dr Gul Izmir are leaving the department.

Shepherd is being replaced on 4 March by Jennifer Mason, a former chief of staff to former attorney-general Bob Debus who is now the federal MP for Macquarie and Home Affairs Minister in the Rudd Government.

Mason immediately faces daunting challenges: escalating child deaths; a staff morale meltdown; the special inquiry into DOCS headed by former Justice James Wood QC, the NSW police royal commissioner in the 1990s; a mountain of paperwork, chiefly answering “ministerials” from DOCS minister Kevin Greene, a former school principal; and a virtual breakdown in relations with the Public Service Association (PSA) over workloads, staffing and pay.

Her rise through the state bureaucracy has been meteoric. Starting as a lowly investigator at the Ombudsman’s Office, Mason joined Debus’s staff before being promoted to director-general of Juvenile Justice in October 2005.

Her partner Kieran Pehn is another fast-mover in the corridors of power. He met Mason when they both worked at the Ombudsman’s Office. He later became deputy commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and was Premier Iemma’s choice to become the first commissioner of the Health Care Complaints Commission.

The departure of Dr Gul from DOCS has seismic implications. She was regarded as the power behind Shepherd’s throne and held wide-ranging responsibilities in the sprawling DOCS empire covering issues of management, budgeting and performance.

Dr Gul has been a career bureaucrat who served her apprenticeship at NSW Treasury, the Cabinet Office, the Planning Department (when the ill-starred Jennifer Westacott was director-general), the Water Board and the widely reviled Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA).

Now she’s off to the private sector on a lucrative contract with Parsons Brinckerhoff Australia which describes itself as “one of the world’s leading planning, environmental, engineering, and program and project management firms”.

Its vision is to “create a lasting legacy that improves the lives of people and communities”.

One of its recent projects was advising the RTA and the owners of Sydney’s Cross City Tunnel, the $1 billion white elephant which fell into administration and had to be bailed out. PB is currently contracted to advise the owner-operators of the Lane Cove Tunnel, another Labor Government infrastructure project not yet living up to expectations.

To rescue DOCS from its basket case status, Mason will have to take on Treasurer Michael Costa and his loyal lieutenant, Treasury Secretary John Pierce, and demand adequate funding. This is unlikely: Mason is a loyalist and she will follow the peaceful and orderly line of her predecessor, the good Shepherd. Only commissioner James Wood can shame them into action.

Peter Fray

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