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APS Review draft: everyone’s heard it all before, implementation is the challenge

A lot of senior public servants and pundits observe there is not much new in the Australian Public Service Review’s interim report, and chairman David Thodey agrees with them.

Thodey stressed that implementing lasting reform would be the primary challenge, combining realism and optimism in his comments at the launch of the consultation draft on Tuesday.

He acknowledged organisational change was always “incredibly hard” but repeatedly stated he was extremely confident that public servants at all levels had the knowledge, desire and ability to carry out a sustainable and successful overhaul of the machinery of government that will become overdue if left aside much longer.

One thing that may set this review apart is a particularly acute awareness of how many have gone before it.

David Thodey. All images by RLDI.

“I think that probably every recommendation I’ve put up there has been already canvassed before,” Thodey said in his speech. “So I’m under no illusions that we have a silver bullet here that will make everything different.”

“But what surprised us was that many solutions and innovations have not been fully realised. You know, some changes lost momentum; maybe they were related to some individual. Others were less effective and maybe, some of those good ideas were simply not good enough.”

In practical terms, the panel will call for a full-time implementation team with a “dedicated senior leader” to keep the ball rolling, set targets and measure progress in meaningful ways – “traffic light reports” won’t be enough, according to a written version of the address published online.

On the subject of performance monitoring, the panel thinks a “productivity metric” should be developed for the public service, which should be interesting at the very least.

The final report will also reiterate the well-known wisdom about managing change; it needs both strong leadership and enthusiastic support at all levels, in all locations and across all functions. “If we get that right, I think you can be assured of a very bright future,” Thodey said.

All on the same page

It was clear the report’s contents were very familiar to the audience when four deputy secretaries got up to summarise the initial reflections of their colleagues, following group discussions at the participatory event, hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia, ACT Division.

“Where’s the ambition here?”

Katherine Jones of the Department of Finance said her colleagues had heard similar ideas discussed for years and it was hard not agree with the four main priorities. They mainly pondered how the APS could best seize this latest opportunity for change.

“Regardless of the outcome of the election, it’s an opportunity for reset within the public service,” said Jones, noting the review comes at a “critical point” in the electoral cycle.

Elizabeth Kelly said the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science had a common first impression — “these recommendations seem a bit naff; we’ve heard them all before” — but it was also noted at her table that well known and generally accepted proposals may bear repeating if they still haven’t been implemented.

Elizabeth Kelly

Transparency and openness is clearly an area where Thodey believes the APS can improve; he returned to it again and again, emphasising it in every possible context.

In his view “the APS culture must invite and, in fact, welcome scrutiny, and provide great transparency” — and good places to start would be capability reviews that are again made public, and publishing more employee census data.

Kelly said her table was “disappointed but not surprised” that an audience poll showed few public servants in the room rated stronger relationships – internal and external — as the change that would have the most impact.

“Sometimes, we think we’ve got all the answers and so we don’t look outside,” she said. “The Commonwealth is full of really clever people, and we do have a lot of answers, but sometimes we think that we have them all.”

The interim report seemed too “internally facing” to those sitting at the Department of the Environment and Energy table. “It’s sort of … the APS talking about the APS,” deputy secretary Jo Evans said.

“And if we really want [the recommendations] to be relevant and to last, then we need to make the process of change much more relevant to the Australian public and the people we’re serving.”

Evans said Thodey had talked of being ambitious but, looking at the interim report, she and her colleagues had wondered, “Where’s the ambition here?”

She said the final report should recommend “conscious legislative change” to have the best chance of being effective. Thodey said the panel wanted legislated outcomes where possible to make sure the changes lasted more than a few years, speaking in a later press briefing.

“Obviously that’s not my decision, that’s got to go to the government of the day, but if we can get to that sort of strength and direction I think it would be great,” he told journalists.

L-R: Jo Evans, Matt Yannopoulos and Katherine Jones.

Unified leadership and a more visible Secretaries Board

Another popular view expressed by three of the four deputy secretaries was that the Secretaries Board and related bodies had clearly played a valuable role but their work should be more visible across the APS.

Jones said having this operating model “enshrined in a formal way” would support a stronger culture of the APS working collectively, so public servants “approach solving problems with a perspective of being an APS officer” rather than as an employee of a particular department.

Thodey described a united, joined-up public service, with greater ability for collaboration, but still made up of separate parts.

“This is not about all being one together, because you all have your individual roles to play, but there is a commonality of purpose that you must share in fulfilling your obligations,” he said in the speech, adding that only the APS itself could come up with that purpose.

In the press briefing, he explained this was not “centralisation” but something more like greater interoperability, which is not easy to achieve. “In a world where departments and agencies have run very independently, trying to get some commonality in the systems, horizontally, that allows a common approach is difficult and takes quite a lot of time,” he said.

Kelly suggested a stronger and more unified leadership group was particularly attractive to the less influential organisations: “Small agencies want a stronger Secretaries Board.”

According to Jo Evans, there were similar views around the DEE table on both counts – that strong, unified APS leadership was essential, and leading change meant not only describing where to go in broad strokes, but also specifying how to get there.

“Our sense is that some of the reason that some of those earlier reports have fallen over or have been let go of over time is because there’s not quite enough tangibility about what it is that actually has to happen, to make the change real, and if we get a little bit more of that then we can move away from things that might … be more of a sense of direction or purpose, to something that’s actually about what’s the plan, and what are the steps we have to do,” she said.

Evans was involved with the 2010 Ahead of the Game report, which has strongly influenced the current review. She said it was “anchored to the time” of former prime minister Kevin Rudd and then-head of service, Terry Moran, suggesting that was “possibly one of the reasons why these things have lost momentum”.

Thodey later said he hoped the next report would not be dependent on or tied to any particular individual or group, including the reviewers.

The DEE table also felt reform would “rely on having the secretaries and the Secretaries Board lead, own, drive this … in a really unified way” and, according to Evans, generally agreed “they’re not really as visible as we probably need them to be if we’re going to use them as the leadership group for the reform”.

The view from Finance was that Thodey was right that an implementation unit with “dedicated, ongoing resourcing” was also required, although nothing as grandiose as a new department.

“We have to recognise that driving change is really challenging; it can’t be something that people do in a couple of hours through the course of the day, after you’ve done your day-job,” said Jones.

Digital Transformation Agency chief Randall Brugeaud asked Thodey for practical ideas on making sure the changes were about everybody, not just the transformation team.

His advice was to pursue a genuine, honest and very transparent process, giving all staff a real opportunity to be involved, and to have faith that the APS is full of people who are highly capable and keen to do the best job they can.

Positive about professions, concerned about capability

The Health Department table had “a lot of positivity” about the idea of professional streams, said Matt Yannopoulos. But they also agreed public servants all needed a strong understanding of public administration and “how government works” financially – after discussing their experience of secondees and recruits from the private sector coming into high-level roles.

He said they hoped professionalisation and a good understanding of the public service were not an either-or proposition.

Thodey said later the final report would not recommend all staff be forced into one profession or another, but would propose a system to cultivate “deep domain knowledge” as a way to rebuild capability.

“What we’ve heard a lot of is the hollowing out of capability in the public service,” he added, responding to a question from University of Canberra public administration professor John Halligan.

Greater staff mobility within the APS and with other sectors is another classic of the APS reform genre picked up by the current panel. It should be “carefully planned” but allow “career-defining opportunities for all staff” like overseas postings, in the panel’s view.

Yannopoulos said the Health table also discussed the struggles with strategic workforce planning, which the reviewers hope can be solved with a stronger, more active role for the public service Commission.

“In terms of workforce strategy, workforce planning, we’re not very good at making choices about what we contract in versus what we build in-house,” he said.

“We tend to be responsive to the current fiscal rules, versus actually taking a longer term view about what are the core skillsets that we want in the public sector, and which ones should we just buy … when we need to.”

He said Health executives felt a more flexible and adaptable workforce – the ability to “reconfigure your teams and deploy your skills where and when is most appropriate” in Thodey’s words – was an “industrial relations challenge” as well.

Yannopoulos said capability needs were often pretty clear, and in many cases had been for years, but making workforce transition happen was always a struggle in government departments as they were too slow to respond to technological change compared to private sector firms.

Thodey imagines a very different set of interlocking organisations in his speech, with new “rules, systems, structures and ways of working” that make it easier to “get the job done” for government quickly, by bringing together the right people, knowledge and resources together into multi-agency teams.

“As you would expect, we have heard many stories around machinery-of-government changes,” he said.

“These are ultimately the decisions for government to make – but wouldn’t it be great to if the disruptive impact was at least lessened from what see today?

“This is why we see great potential to apply dynamic ways of working and different structures across the service, regardless of department or agency. The objective is to make collaboration the norm, not the exception.”

Top image, L-R: Gordon de Brouwer, Jo Evans, Dr Martin Parkinson, Kerri Hartland, David Thodey, Peter Woolcott, Elizabeth Kelly and Matt Yannopoulos. 

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.