2010 Sidney Sax Medallist - Ms Gillian Biscoe

One of Gillian’s grandfathers was the British Resident in the Persian Gulf; the other started Australia’s first whiskey distillery at Corio, near Geelong. I leave it to you to decide who made the greater contribution!

Gillian’s parents met and married in India and came to Australia after Partition with her three older siblings. Gillian was born in Sydney and learned to swim at Manly beach. The family moved to Tasmania when she was seven, where she finished her schooling as dux and captain of the school – perhaps a sign of things to come. She was also a junior state badminton and swimming champion. After deciding not to study medicine, of the four typical options of the time – teaching, secretarial, nursing or matrimony – she started her hospital based nurse training at the Royal Hobart Hospital.

One of her early, formative experiences was nursing burns patients during and after the Tasmanian bush fires in 1967.

She worked as a nurse in Melbourne and Adelaide before embarking on the trip O/S when she worked in London for two years, traveling around Europe at every opportunity.

On her return to the Royal Hobart Hospital after an absence of some years the doorman greeted her: “Welcome back Sister Biscoe. Had a nice holiday?” Clearly you can’t always be a high impact personality!

California and consulting

Gillian rose to be the Deputy Director of nursing in Hobart and was understandably busy; too busy to complete the forms to undertake a Kellog Foundation Fellowship in America until two friends and colleagues sat her down and forced her too. She was awarded the scholarship and spent two years studying at the University of California , San Francsico (UCSF) for her Masters of Science. Surprisingly she found she had many friends from Australia who really needed to see her while she was in San Francisco!

While in California Gillian undertook her first consulting assignment as part of the Magnet Hospital study at UCSFand Stanford Universities. She continued to build her international network of friends and colleagues.

The Commonwealth and Canberra

In the mid 1980s Gillian spoke at a conference and Ann Kern, then Deputy Secretary of Commonwealth Health returned and instructed; “Recruit that bird”. There was, regrettably, no actual vacancy in the Senior Executive Service at the time. But those who know Ann - at least then - knew that “no” was never a good response to a direction!

Soon Gillian’s brightly colored suits, energy and commitment were shaking up the floors of the Alexander and Albermarle buildings in Woden, ACT and around the country. Because she had never been a proper bureaucrat she did not know what she was not supposed to do, so got on and did it!

The Hawke government was new, Neal Blewett was Health Minister and Bernie McKay was Secretary of the Department. The Better Health Commission, National Campaign against Drug Abuse and HIV AIDS were front and centre and the Health Advancement Division was the place to be. Gillian led on the Transfer of Nurse Education from hospitals to tertiary education and the Doherty enquiry into Medical Education.

While she was in Canberra she was seconded as the chief executive of the Royal Canberra Hospital.

New Zealand and change

In 1988 Gillian went to the New Zealand Department of Health as Corporate Change agent to help redesign the Department as part of the reforms to devolve to Area Health Boards. On her first day at work, thousands of public servants went on strike and marched on Parliament to oppose the State Sector Bill. That night on TV, Stan Rodger, the Minister for State Services, said: “Well, that was a waste of time. You’ve all lost a day’s pay and we’ve saved seven million dollars in wages”. Clearly a different public sector climate than that in Hawke government Australia.

She moved on to become Deputy Director General as the Department moved to become a Ministry of Health focusing on a policy and advisory role. This was fundamentally a change of culture, and not just a technical restructuring exercise.

During her time in New Zealand Gillian went to China to consult for the World Health Organisation (WHO). This was in May, June 1989 and for those who know their history these were indeed “interesting times”. Prior to this adventure her father gave her two pieces of advice: “Do what you normally do as that seems to work … just add a few noughts” and “You need only ask three questions. What do you have, what do you desire, how can I help?” And in so doing gave Gillian a foundation for her consulting activities.

Australian Capital Territory

In 1991 Gillian returned to Canberra as Secretary of ACT Health and Chief Executive of the Canberra Hospital Board. The first thing she set about doing was making the two jobs one. The ACT is always challenging due to size and politics – and this was before the Minster took to having an office in the hospital!

About five years after Gillian left ACT Health was of her former executive management team said: “I have only just begun to realise what Gillian was on about”!

Coming “Home”

In 1993 Gillian was given to opportunity to go “home” to Tasmania as the Secretary of the recently created Department of Community and Health Services formed from the Departments of Housing, Community Services and Health. Over the next few years the benefits to client and patients of truly merging these functions began to become evident.

While Secretary, Gillian initiated a multi-stakeholder 2020 project to imagine what the system might be like in 25 years time. This was a considered a strange thing to do at the time – especially by the people from central agencies who were asked to participate! That early work has informed thinking and planning over the last fifteen years.

She was Secretary of the Department at the time of the Port Arthur tragedy in 1996.

The Consulting Life

During her time at the top of health organizations Gillian continued to undertake consulting assignments; the logical next step was to do this full time and in 1996 she did. Since then she has worked in over fifty countries for international organizations like WHO, governments, organizations and individuals across the public, private and not for profit sectors. She has been active in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, the Americas and the Asia Pacific region.

A recent assignment saw her working on a free trade agreement for which she was required to sign the Official Secrets Act and not discuss any of the proceedings. To which a young friend exclaimed to her husband, Brian: “How good is that! You don’t have to do any of that boring ‘how was your day, dear’”!

But it is not all work. Gillian is a Board member and facilitator of the Tasmania Leaders Program - a not for profit organisation now in its fourth year- which develops leaders across the Tasmanian commuity, across all sectors. She plays regular tennis and occasional golf; she is committed to family and friends; she travels for work and play and enjoys time at the family “retreat” at Bellettes Bay, Tasmania.

Many people who get to the “top” of the health system and “go consulting” find that they make perhaps a more significant contribution in this role. This is especially true if their consulting activity focuses on what they enjoy most, and are best at; which is not always possible in executive jobs.

Gillian’s work on whole system change, leadership, people development, mentoring, and energizing, envisioning and inspiring the next generation, plays to her strengths.

Her life has themes throughout: travel, service, vision, commitment, energy, achievement and compassion.

  • She has done work in Iran and India echoing the contributions of her grandfather and father … and forged her own path in life.
  • She has developed national health workforce strategies … and helped put wells in villages.
  • She has led multi year health reform projects … and nurtured young graduates in their career and life struggles.
  • She has guided Boards on strategy … and been a friend to many.
  • She has provided strategic policy advice to WHO global meetings in Geneva …and she has worked on HIV/AIDS projects in China where all the young prostitutes wanted, was a hug.