The passion for making a difference is our greatest asset ‒ and we must preserve that

By Alison Watkins

November 28, 2018

APS review panel member and Coca-Cola Amatil Australia chief Alison Watkins reveals her observations of the public service and dwells on the role of business in contributing to the reform debate.

Earlier this year, I was appointed to be part of the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service (APS), headed by CSIRO chairman David Thodey AO. The review looks at how global, technological and public policy developments have changed the way the community and public service interact; and how to harness these changes to deliver better services.

Alison Watkins

I’m really passionate about helping create a positive future for Australia by ensuring it remains an amazing place to live and work, to get an education, and to grow old. I think it’s important to acknowledge the critical role the APS plays in delivering these outcomes, by shaping national policy and offering stability during the ins and outs of the political cycle.

The APS review has been running for around six months and will report in the first half of 2019. So this halfway point seems a good milestone at which to offer some views, including on the role of business in contributing to these discussions.

The willingness to change

Throughout the review I’ve been impressed by the willingness of APS leaders to change. The APS is large and complicated; it would be easy to be dismissive of the relevance of private sector experience and views but there is a real desire to learn from different models.

“It’s hard to predict what the APS needs to be and what it needs to look like in 2030. I think the most important attribute will be a willingness and ability to adapt.”

As Australia becomes more susceptible to populist decision-making, the need for a strong independent voice and a consistent way of thinking about good policy will become even more important. The APS needs to continue to build consistent and rigorous policy approaches to meet this demand.

I’ve also seen lots of similarities between the APS and Coca-Cola Amatil. We’re a major Australian manufacturer that has been operating for more than 100 years with a strong local employment base. Like the APS, we’re firmly anchored in the lives and economies of the Australian community, with a shared interest in its commercial and social advancement.

And like other industries and sectors, we’re undergoing massive transformation. We’re being disrupted by technology trends and we face the same imperative around talent – attracting the best people and retaining them. These challenges are mirrored in the APS.

There are also differences. The budget process constrains the APS in responding to change, more so than private enterprise which can more quickly reallocate resources. The Public Service is also risk-averse – there are good reasons for this, but it can sometimes make it harder for to adapt and take advantage of opportunity. Finally, there are still very many layers in public service decision-making, which means that institutional change is slow and difficult.

It’s hard to predict what the APS needs to be and what it needs to look like in 2030. I think the most important attribute will be a willingness and ability to adapt. That might mean taking more risks (which will involve making some mistakes) and having a more flexible approach to resource allocation. We’ll hopefully hear more on these topics in coming years.

A ‘social licence to operate’

It’s critical that business leaders are part of the discussion on issues like public service delivery. Business needs to earn what’s been described as a “social licence to operate” by engaging on community issues and helping deliver improvements.

“I’ve always had huge admiration for the calibre of people who work in the APS, and that’s only been enhanced during this review.”

We need to earn more community trust in the way business “thinks” and makes decisions. That’s done through a culture of openness and transparency, and through speaking up on social and financial issues like the APS review, which considers issues equally relevant to our own customers and consumers.

The importance of a business “social licence to operate” is underpinned by the recent Edelman Trust Index, which surveyed 18,000 people in 23 countries. According to Edelman, a surprising 64% of respondents felt that CEOs should take a lead on social change, rather than just waiting for governments.[1]

The message is clear – we can no longer just “stick to our knitting” of P/L and shareholder returns and leave everything else to governments. Business is a major part of the social and economic community; it’s necessary that we take part in the conversation on what works well and what can be improved.

I’ll conclude on this note: I’ve always had huge admiration for the calibre of people who work in the APS, and that’s only been enhanced during this review. There’s a genuine motivation to contribute to a better Australia, through the delivery of fast and effective services in all communities. That passion for making a difference is the Public Service’s greatest asset, and something for all of us to celebrate and preserve.

[1] 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer

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