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Goodsell, Sir John William (Jack) (1906–1981)

by Ross Curnow

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir John William (Jack) Goodsell (1906-1981), public servant, was born on 6 July 1906 at Marrickville, Sydney, third of four surviving children of Sydney-born parents Sidney Percival Goodsell, salesman, and his wife Lillian Adelaide, née Ragan. At age 15 Jack left Canterbury Boys’ High School, where he had been champion athlete of his year, and worked as a grocer’s assistant until his appointment to the New South Wales Public Service on 18 April 1922 as a junior clerk in the accounts branch of the Department of Public Works. A transfer to the district office of the Avon and Nepean dams three years later broadened his education; associating with construction workers exposed him to both technical issues and colourful language. On his return to Sydney in 1928 he worked as a clerk on various projects including the Sydney Harbour Bridge and, after a promotion, on the administration of the department’s water supply and electricity undertakings and district and construction offices.

Eager for advancement, Goodsell qualified as an accountant and as a town and shire clerk, and passed the public service promotion examinations. He married Myrtle Thelma Austin on 6 February 1932 at Leigh Memorial Methodist Church, Parramatta; they purchased a house in Ashbury. After three years as a local government inspector, in March 1938 he obtained the position of sub-accountant in the Chief Secretary’s Department, where he set about reforming the system of accounts. Impressed by his zeal and common sense, the Public Service Board chairman Wallace Wurth appointed him a member of his inner circle, known jocularly to senior public servants as the `palace guard’, first as an inspector and in 1943 as a senior inspector. During World War II, as second-in-charge of the Department of National Emergency Services, Goodsell worked closely with his minister, James Heffron, who found him a capable and congenial administrator. He was involved in the establishment of the Housing Commission of New South Wales and the reestablishment of the State Dockyard.

Goodsell’s performance at the PSB earned him in March 1946 appointment as head of the elite budget branch of the New South Wales Treasury. A year later he was assistant under-secretary; after a further fifteen months the `crown prince’ had his own domain as under-secretary and permanent head of Treasury and of eight other organisations including the Government Printing Office and Government Insurance Office. As vice-president of the Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board from 1949, and chairman or member of many other bodies, such as the Sydney Harbour Transport Board, he had a sphere of influence that extended well beyond balancing the State’s books. His achievements in reorganising the Treasury to emphasise its role in the determination of policy, mainly through the budget process, were well regarded by the premiers of the day, James McGirr and Joe Cahill. Likewise Treasury staff appreciated his management reforms: he established a corporate management group, encouraged delegation, and involved sub-ordinates in discussions with the treasurer. The New South Wales Treasury became a model for other States.

In 1954 Goodsell was appointed CMG. Next year he became president of the Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board. Completion of the Warragamba dam to ensure Sydney’s water supply was vital, as was extension of the sewerage system. With the board’s expenditure in the order of £20 million, Goodsell put his financial knowledge and early experience to good use, as well as controlling a sometimes fractious board by dint of his diplomacy and acumen.

On Wurth’s sudden death in September 1960 Goodsell—his named successor—was appointed chairman of the PSB. He rapidly set about establishing a very different style and culture in the New South Wales Public Service; essentially `management’ was to replace `legalism’. Indicative of this approach was his refusal to sit on any disciplinary hearing. `Efficiency’ was to replace `economy’, and constantly he stressed the communality of management and the similarity between the public and private sectors. Air travel, modest entertainment allowances, and provision of cars and drivers for departmental heads were symbolic of the change, but of greater significance were delegation of the board’s authority, computerisation of the service and the construction of modern office accommodation.

The PSB became the policy-making body for the public service as a whole, rather than the detailed regulator, with its chairman now more primus inter pares among department heads, who were in turn encouraged to delegate their authority as far as possible and to adopt the modified culture. This apparent weakening of the board’s control was offset by the Treasury’s agreeing to fund automatically any additional staff approved by the board. A visit to the United States of America, Great Britain and Europe confirmed Goodsell’s view that automatic data processing was the `greatest management-tool ever devised’. He created a unit within the board to speed its adoption throughout the service, thus placing New South Wales a decade ahead of other States in this area. A government information and sales centre was created. Goodsell was not successful in reforming the Byzantine system of public service seniority—the Achilles heel of his claim of public and private universality. This was rectified after his retirement, when, as a member of Sir Philip Baxter’s panel appointed to inquire into promotion and seniority, he voted with its chairman to recommend that efficiency should be the primary criterion in promotions.

Although Goodsell initially played less of a political role than had his predecessor, his relations with the premiers R. J. Heffron and J. B. Renshaw were cordial and the practice of sending all draft cabinet minutes to the chairman for comment continued until his retirement. The incoming Askin government was also dependent on Goodsell’s advice. The premier, for instance, was persuaded to postpone a decision on renewed demands of the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation for an education commission. Although generally conciliatory to unions, Goodsell was alarmed at the potential cost of the education sector.

To promote further his ideology of public and private equivalence, Goodsell persuaded the Askin government that the State’s managers were as deserving of knighthoods as captains of industry. He was knighted in 1968. Before his retirement in July 1971, he belonged to at least thirty-five educational, health, service, cultural and sporting bodies. He was a member of the council of the University of New South Wales and of several of its committees; a director of Unisearch Ltd and the Medical Foundation; a member of the New South Wales State Cancer Council and of the board overseeing Prince Henry, Prince of Wales and Eastern Suburbs hospitals; a member of the Captain Cook Bi-centenary Celebrations executive committee; president of the New South Wales group of the Royal Institute of Public Administration; and director of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. He was also an active Rotarian. In 1967 the University of New South Wales named the new School of Commerce building after him, and the State government followed suit in 1970 with a new office block in Sydney—testimony to his achievements in administrative reform, which placed him in the top rank of twentieth-century public servants.

Throughout his career Goodsell remained a devoted family man. He was short, with a round face and an avuncular appearance. Despite his reserve as a young man, the later sobriquet of `jovial Jack’ was bestowed with good reason, although he could be serious and formal. He genuinely liked to talk to those on the `shop floor’. On his retirement in July 1971, he claimed that his greatest satisfaction was being thanked by public servants for having given them back their souls. His four articles published (1950, 1957, 1962, 1970) in Public Administration, while predominantly factual, contained some astute observations. Survived by his wife and their three daughters, he died on 3 July 1981 at Ashfield and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the Public Service Board (New South Wales), 1960-71
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Mar 1969, p 2, 5 July 1971, p 7, 8 July 1981, p 8
  • B. N. Moore, Administrative Style: Its Effect on the Functioning of an Organisation (PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 1986)
  • Public Service Board, Records of the Chairman and Board Members (State Records New South Wales).

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Citation details

Ross Curnow, 'Goodsell, Sir John William (Jack) (1906–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/goodsell-sir-john-william-jack-12553/text22597, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 15 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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