‘Missing-in-action’ senior officials need to take a long walk in the hall of mirrors

By Verona Burgess

Wednesday December 5, 2018

Two in five APS employees wonder what their senior officials are contributing to the agency’s work. These ‘missing-in-action’ executives might want to update their New Year’s resolutions, writes Verona Burgess.

The rebuilt State of the Service Report 2017-18 marks a turning point for the Australian Public Service Commission under the new commissioner, Peter Woolcott.

His people have done a remarkable job in just a few months to rehabilitate this vitally important public document.

This year it is structured on three themes: culture, capability and leadership, and we’re going to cherry-pick shamelessly.

One message that stands out is that despite all the work being done to improve leadership, at least 40% of the Senior Executive Service needs to take a long walk in the hall of mirrors – more of which later.

In testing times, public service pulls together …mostly

First, it comes as no surprise that the APS, like everyone else, is grappling with public trust, transparency and citizen engagement. With the promised Citizens Survey to come, we’ll all learn more.

On the integrity front, the work that agencies have been doing to embed the public service values into performance management frameworks, induction programs and training courses has borne fruit.

Rates of investigations for misconduct are dropping, as are the perceived rates of bullying and/or harassment; corruption investigations are also down. Having said that, in the employee census, 4395 or 4.6% said they had witnessed corrupt behaviour, most commonly cronyism and nepotism (figures the report says need to be approached with caution). More than two-thirds of all respondents said it would be hard to get away with corruption in their workplace.

Then there is risk management. Although the report says it has improved in the four years since the risk policy was introduced, only 28% of staff agreed that appropriate risk taking was rewarded in their agency.

Those who viewed their workplace as operating in a high corruption-risk environment had more positive attitudes towards risk management than others.

This report also links risk management with innovation. The overall APS innovation index score was up 2% to 64%, and staff of agencies with a high innovation index also perceived their agency as having a positive risk culture.

On innovation, 53% of respondents said their workgroup had implemented innovations in the last year. Two-thirds related to processes, and the top three improvements were on efficiencies (30%); service delivery (26%) and client experience (13%). Innovation through incremental rather than transformational change was most common in the APS, the report says.

Poor change management continues to be a sore spot, as in other comparable civil services. Just over a third of APS employees believed that change was managed well in their agency. Good communication by SES with employees had the most significant impact.

The measurement of performance and productivity remain elusive, despite the government’s policy of linking pay rises with agency productivity gains.

The Government Business Analytical Unit is undertaking a pilot to measure productivity of certain public sector functions, assessing their performance against ‘known drivers’ of productivity including risk tolerance, innovation, use of technology, employee engagement and workforce capability. That should be interesting, if we ever get to see it.

On collaboration, it is a no-brainer that poorer policy outcomes remain associated with a disconnection between front-line service delivery and relevant policy areas.

Engagement gap should be a big wake-up call

There is a lot on engagement, and the overall index score for the APS was 70. There was also a high correlation between a high agency index for engagement and an active, highly regarded SES.

Which leads us to leapfrog over the rest of the discussion of engagement, wellbeing, and building and mobilising capability (including the continuing urgent need to improve data-related analysis and reporting skills) to the perennial issue of leadership.

With the highest positive employee scores for the SES still looking less than stellar, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

At the top, just 65.4% of staff rated their SES manager as being of a high quality, and it’s downhill from there to only 44.9% rating him or her as giving their time to identify and develop talented people – findings which the report says are of considerable concern.

Scores were even lower when employees rated the SES in their agency more broadly. At the top, only 59.9% agreed the SES actively contributed to the agency’s work (which begs the question, whatever does the other 40.1% think they were doing?). Just 46.3% said communication between the SES and other employees was effective. At the bottom, only 43.3% agreed their agency SES worked as a team.

The closer the SES were to their staff, both as immediate supervisors and in physical proximity, the better they were regarded, as is usual in employee surveys. And, broadly speaking, around 30% of respondents neither agreed nor disagreed with the various propositions.

Employees’ ratings of their SES have also improved since 2011-12 when, for example, fewer than 30% thought their agency SES gave time to identify and help talented people. In that report, there was also a massive (and embarrassing) gap of more than 40% between how the SES rated themselves as leaders and how agency staff saw them. Let’s hope that gap has also narrowed.

Despite some evident improvements, this should be a big wake-up call for the SES as a cohort. They need to put more effort into fostering staff talent, improving their own leadership skills, managing change better, working as a team, communicating with their underlings, and supporting and providing new ways of working in the digital environment, among other ‘pain points’.

The correlations between high levels of SES visibility, performance and communication and high employee ratings of their agency’s performance in a range of areas are unmistakeable.

It is hard to know just how the APS can become a fit-for-purpose workforce for the future if the gaps are not closed further.

There is plenty of room for the SES to make another ‘must do better’ New Year’s resolution for 2019.


Former Liberal Senator Brett Mason may have left the parliament in April, 2015, but his obsession with unscheduled absences, or ‘sickies’, lingers in an appendix to the State of the Service Report 2017-18.

The average number of unscheduled absences per employee during the year (mainly sick leave, but also carer’s and miscellaneous leave) has remained 11.4 days for the last two years. Large agencies averaged the highest at 12.3, down from 12.5.

We can’t resist mentioning that the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority had one of the highest rates at 15.5. Home Affairs had 15; Comcare 15.6; Human Services 16.1; and the National Archives of Australia the most at 17.1. The lowest rates were in the Future Fund Management Agency (4.8); the Office of the Inspector-General of Taxation (5.5); the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (5.6); Cancer Australia (6.6); and the Australian Human Rights Commission (7.3). The report does not hazard a guess as to why.

Verona Burgess can be reached via email on [email protected]

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