Reactive, slow, professional: what leaders really think of the APS

To get a sense of what federal mandarins think of the Australian Public Service, one need look no further than the APS Review’s latest release of consultation results.

Since its draft report outlining the reforms it sees as important, the review panel has sought feedback online and through events, including a meeting of the APS200 — comprising secretaries, agency heads and deputy secretaries from across the APS.

The event’s 128 participants were asked to write down one word describing the APS as it currently stands, and one word depicting the service as they hope it looks in the future.

The APS at present is “slow”, “reactive” and “fragmented”, think its own leaders — but also “professional”, “capable” and “resilient”.

Words public service leaders associate with the APS as it currently stands.

“Siloed”, “committed” and “diverse” also made prominent appearances.

Asked what they would like to see, the mandarins offered some very different words. “Energised”, “collaborative” and “dynamic topped the list.

How leaders would like the APS to look in future.

“Connected” and “agile” also ranked near the top.

Asked what change to the public service made them most excited, many APS200 members nominated collaboration, working across silos and shared vision. Investing in skills and taking advantage of technology were also commonly named.

Reflecting on discussions, Department of Jobs and Small Business Secretary Kerri Hartland suggested, “we have the opportunity to stop being the bouncer and instead be the DJ, and collaborate more.”

Many leaders said they were concerned the reforms would fail to gain momentum.

One wrote they were worried “that the cynics (25%) kill off the enthusiasm of the 75% who want to lead this and stay enthusiastic.”

Said another: “Getting ministers engaged is hard — most don’t care about building capability in the APS, even ministers responsible for the APS.”

But Martin Parkinson, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, made clear the authorising environment for change was there:

“If you feel that you need authority from me or from the Secretaries Board, never ask that question again, because I’m telling you: you’ve got it.”

Another workshop, including staff from graduate to SES level, identified strategic allocation of funds and resources as the most challenging to achieve. Other key barriers were lack of investment to develop people and fragmented and outdated systems.

The review also received online feedback. One of the most liked comments was:

“A return to centralised pay and conditions would strengthen the ‘one APS’ mantra. Individual agency bargaining has been a ridiculous waste of time and resources. While the lawyers and HR firms will lament the loss of their snout in the trough, their contribution to agreement making has been symbolic at best.”

Another concerned the use of contracts and the hoops many have to jump through to maintain their job:

“… Where a process has been run initially to determine the suitability of a candidate, once they have performed the same role for up to 3 years, can a report not be presented to the delegate for consideration and the individual made ongoing.”

Review taking the feedback on board

Over the six week consultation period, the review received 467 comments on how the strengthen its proposals, what they’ve missed and tips for implementing change, as well as 30 new submissions, bringing the total up to 741.

The panellists said three pieces of advice stood out:

  • Be clear and specific in the recommendations, what each means in practice and how they can be achieved;
  • Build capability across the system because there is little confidence the current system can support doing things differently; and
  • Strike a balance between standardising the way the service works and giving public service organisations the flexibility they need to carry out very different responsibilities.

The comments also gave a sense of what enables change to happen, said the panel:

  • Senior leaders and staff name genuine collaboration as well as support, encouragement and trust from management as important ingredients for change;
  • Senior leaders also need to feel they have authority to act, there are clear priorities and there is sufficient time and scope in their roles to drive change;
  • For staff, they suggest more informed allocation of budgets, more investment in people’s skills and abilities, updated systems and a culture which allows risk and failure.

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