APS Review update: panel leaning towards a small list of big ideas

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday November 7, 2018

The APS Review panel is planning to craft a concise set of big ideas for public service reform rather than a highly prescriptive blueprint, according to its chair David Thodey.

“If we end up with a list of 50 recommendations that you have to implement, then we will have failed,” he told public servants in Canberra today. He does not want the implementation process to become a long, slow affair, overseen by another committee, according to an update delivered today at the annual conference for the Institute of Public Administration Australia, ACT Branch.

He was questioned later on this point by former public service commissioner Andrew Podger, who said 50 was about the right amount. Thodey said he could still change his mind with a few months to go before reporting but at this stage, he felt that a handful of big ideas was the right approach – trying to do a few things well rather than lots of things badly.

The new APS commissioner Peter Woolcott and the secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, Steven Kennedy, both remarked that public servants should not put positive change on hold and wait for the review panel to report. Both noted there were plenty of organisational changes and improvements that agencies could and should be pursuing now, and as quickly as possible.

The review recommendations will be split between things for the public service to do itself, and changes to legislation or structure, based around five pillars that add up to the panel’s “vision” for the future state of the public service as it evolves between now and 2030.

The panel’s emerging five-point vision

“Being world-class is ‘more than just a metric, it is an attitude, a disposition’ in Thodey’s view.”

“A strong public service that is united in a collective endeavour,” is the first point. This goes towards a stronger shared understanding of overall public service goals, and will possibly include a new overall mission statement for the APS, Thodey suggested.

In the public sector, he said, “You need to be driven by a common purpose, a common sense of what you are doing and why.”

This must include a focus on people and how their individual roles contribute to those goals, Thodey added, quoting Australia’s first public servant, Robert Garran, who spoke of “a nation, not of clauses and sub-clauses, but of men and women” around the time of federation.

The second pillar of the panel’s emerging vision is “excellence in policy, regulation and delivery” through world-class capability. Being world-class is “more than just a metric, it is an attitude, a disposition” in Thodey’s view.

Third, the review panel wants to put the focus on the importance of the APS being “truly an employer of choice” by looking at how its agencies attract, retain, develop and manage staff.

Recommendations under this heading would go to “an exciting employee value proposition” to attract the leaders of the future, and also aim for the APS to become “more porous” so people can move in and out more easily over their careers.

“I started by chance but I stayed by choice,” said one workshop participant quoted by Thodey, as an example of the kind of experience he hopes to reinforce.

Fourth, the public service needs to be “trusted and respected by its partners” – which, he emphasised, include the current ministers and their staff, but also governments of the future, along with state and local governments, business, academia, charities and the broader community.

“Are you easy to do business with?” he asked.

Recommendations here will aim to “encourage collaboration, compromise and clearer understanding of each other’s capabilities and constraints” and, Thodey noted, at on least some occasions the government department can simply try to be the facilitator, more than the leader, in a particular area of policy.

In the Menzies era, he observed, there was a very strong relationship forming an “integrated enterprise” made up of the government and the public service. The Prime Minister spent lots of time with public servants — more than with his own office staff, according to some of his contemporaries.

The big reforms of the Hawke government occurred in a situation where most of cabinet had experienced public servants as their chiefs of staff or senior advisers, he added. “Interesting, isn’t it?”

In all these relationships, with the government, the public or other stakeholders, Thodey remarked that: “Trust is a foundation stone for good work.”

Finally, the APS should also be “renowned for using dynamic, digital and adaptive systems and structures” – or substitute the word “agile” for adaptable if you like, said Thodey – so it manages risk but is not constrained by overly complex rules and processes.

A vein of frustration

“Is there a problem in the authorising environment we have? Are the incentives and disincentives misaligned?”

Thodey said the panel had received around 400 discrete individual suggestions within the submissions, but still wanted to hear more ideas from individual public servants.

“We’re seeking suggestions that are truly transformative,” he said.

The panel is clearly very conscious of the fact that theirs will only be the latest in a long line of reform projects of a broadly similar nature and want their report to stand out as much as possible, a task that perhaps gets harder with each wave of reform inevitably running over much of the same ground.

Thodey said the panel did not want to just dump its recommendations on the APS – it wants the review to be a collaborative effort with as much input from all levels of the many diverse agencies in the service as possible.

He told the conference delegates, “it’s actually the leaders in this room that make more difference than reports.”

Thodey is also keen to address some “tough” questions.

“Is there a problem in the authorising environment we have? Are the incentives and disincentives misaligned?

In his view, all great organisations are defined by the people they are made up of and all experience extraordinary periods of change or disruption. Having performed well in the past, he added, was no guarantee of ongoing success.

“We all need a confident, independent and impactful public service.”

Thodey also observed that from the views he had already heard, the APS was not exactly broken, “but there is also a vein of frustration running through many of the comments” of public servants.

Submissions indicated various challenges and frustrations, including a lack of confidence and recognition of the role of a public service among politicians and the public, growing “fragility” in relationships with stakeholders, and a divide between senior executives and the rank and file.

There is also a sense that the jobs could offer more opportunities for individuals to fulfill their potential and more job security on one hand, and a constant struggle to find, and importantly to retain, high performing staff, on the other.

Part of the panel’s work has involved gazing into the future, considering where current global trends might lead, and what are likely to be the facts of life in the next decade.

The shift towards personalisation will continue, the panel assumes, as will the need to “embrace data and analytics at scale”. The importance of organisational boundaries will continue to wane, said Thodey, and funding will continue to be scarce.

“You will not have an abundance of resources. It is just the way of the world.”

Glyn Davis senses momentum for a major rethink
Ex-mandarins weigh in on the future of the APS
How Andrew Podger reimagines the APS
Martin Stewart-Weeks: what is the point of the public service?
Agency heads allow regulations to wilt: Treasury insiders
Heavyweight operational agencies enter Thodey’s ring
APS review hears all about the view from the bottom
David Thodey Q&A: burning questions about review answered

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