Incremental reform now, ‘real cultural change’ later: why the APS has two reform projects

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday November 20, 2018

While the Australian Public Service Review panel works on a list of public recommendations to flesh out its five-point “vision” for the high-performance bureaucracy of 2030, its secretaries are privately working on their own plans for reform at the same time.

The main differences, it seems, are in timing and publicity. The message from senior mandarins at a recent conference in Canberra was the time is ripe for administrative change, and there is plenty that should be happening without delay, while the external review panel looks to a more distant horizon.

Department of Human Services secretary Renée Leon told delegates at the Institute of Public Administration Australia ACT division conference that thinking 10 years ahead allowed one to look beyond “the many frustrations” of the here and now and consider longer-term issues like “the future of work” in a public service context. In contrast, she said secretaries were working on “incremental change” that could happen sooner.

The APS reform committee is coordinating “modernisation” projects in the short to medium term and is an exercise in reinvesting some of the money scraped out of budgets in previous years. It is guided by the Roadmap for Reform that Public Service Minister Mathias Cormann announced in this year’s budget, which also confirmed the committee would work together with the independent public review.

Leon said asking about how the APS should be in 2030 was much like the broader national policy research undertaken by her former department on future directions in employment and industrial relations. She found herself constantly reminding people that the future is connected to the present; what is referred to as “the future of work” has “actually started right now”.

“That 2030 horizon is very much the same,” Leon said. “It’s more than 10 years away, but the work that we have to do to become who we need to be is already on foot.”

“There’s a continuum that David and I have talked about between the work that the review is doing with that much more extended horizon and the work that the APS Reform Committee led by secretaries is doing to engender reform in the here and now.”

Outcomes can unite the sector in a collective endeavour

Speaking directly after the latest update from the chair of the review panel, David Thodey, Leon said the comments she “found most resonant” concerned the need for a modern public service to look outward more, and secondly to focus on working towards more clearly defined outcomes.

Leon took Thodey’s comments as an endorsement of listening to citizens and organisations when considering these reform projects, “not sort of just navel-gazing about how we can get more of what we want in our daily work”.

In a practical sense, she suggested the Commonwealth might do well to copy the system adopted in New Zealand, among other places, “where the government sets some clear outcomes and then the public service can be united in a collective endeavour” to achieve them. This is a similar system to Closing the Gap but for all of government, with accountability enhanced through public reports.

“That kind of focus, I think, is what many in the public service would really welcome because I know all the public servants who I’ve ever dealt with or led, what we’re here for actually is to improve services and policies for the benefit of the citizens of the country,” Leon said.

She thinks most in the APS are looking forward to the independent panel providing a new “framework” that allows them to enhance public engagement, as well as transparency and accountability around performance.

Kerri Hartland

APS is not immune to workplace change

Discussions about the future of work and the future of the APS are intrinsically linked. The employment department has been busy considering issues like the influence of technological change on demand for certain skills and the growth of more flexible (and usually more insecure) forms of work for quite some time, although its focus in on the wider economy, of course.

Earlier in the day, current Department of Jobs and Small Business secretary Kerri Hartland continued this discussion, reminding her colleagues they are not immune from the rapid change that is affecting all employers and should be thinking about their own department’s future workforce requirements.

She said they would need to think about having sufficient “flexibility and agility to adapt to changing demographics” while giving their staff opportunities for “life-long learning” – the model that is widely seen as the best way to facilitate a workforce where people can successfully change jobs regularly over their career.

“Finally, are we looking enough in the mirror at the utilisation of programmes that we developed for the broader economy and applying it in our own departments?” Hartland asked.

“Change is ongoing in our workplaces and planning will be the key. We need to do our best to anticipate those changes so we are in the best possible place to satisfy the complex policy, and delivery challenges that workforce changes will bring.

“We also need to ensure we’re looking at our own on-the-job training in our departments, and throughout the APS, and apply the lessons we are promoting to others.”

Woolcott: don’t wait for wait for review conclusions to act

Looking ahead, even to 2030, inherently involves a lot of “guesswork” due to the rapid and accelerating pace of change, in the view of the new APS commissioner Peter Woolcott, who also took the opportunity to remind his senior colleagues that the secretaries’ reform committee is trying to build momentum behind current modernisation projects right now.

“We know certain things around demographics, around technology; there’s a lot we don’t know about how fast that change is going to be,” said Woolcott, noting that the government might also change before the independent review hands down its report next year.

In the commissioner’s view, the panel has been a positive development simply because it has brought a conversation about public service reform out of the executive suites and into public, providing a range of ideas that could influence the reform going on in the present.

“I think that conversation has been fundamentally important and that in itself is going to help a lot in terms of our work and what we’re trying to do, because there’s a lot that we as the public service can and should be doing now and for the future, in terms of being much more agile and adjusting to events.”

The secretaries’ APS reform committee is working through six streams covering all the bases, suggesting a lot of overlap with the issues being considered by the independent reviewers:

  • Workforce and culture
  • Structures and operating models
  • Citizen and business engagement
  • Investment and resourcing
  • Policy, data and innovation
  • Productivity

“This is the sort of work we just need to be doing now,” said Woolcott.

“There’s no point in waiting. We don’t need to wait for David on this and he wouldn’t want us to wait. This conversation, as I say, has been hugely important. David has been very active in that [reform committee] work as well.”

Like Leon, the commissioner thinks one of the best things about the independent review is it might lead the APS to see itself more as “a trusted partner” – not just with the government, but with everyone else in Australia including citizens, business groups and single-issue interest groups, “because that’s actually a real cultural change” in his view.

“I think the public service has been a bit insular,” said Woolcott.

“That would be my sense. It knows that it has to work with government and to serve government. We also know that’s a much more contested space. It’s not as easy as it used to be, 30 years ago when essentially it had a monopoly on political advice. We don’t anymore. So that’s much more difficult and there are certain skills we’re going to have to continue to develop to be able to maintain our appearance in terms of that advice.”

The new commissioner acknowledged that the consequence of the APS being largely cloistered away from the public is that it’s “not very good” at stakeholder engagement, and suggested that the concept of “partnership” was something his fellow mandarins would do well to think about more deeply.

Watch the state of play session below, or visit the IPAA ACT website for the other sessions from the IPAA ACT 2018 conference.

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