Nine recommendations for the renewal of the public’s trust in the Australian Public Service

By Mark Evans & Nicole Moore

September 13, 2019

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The Australian Public Service (APS) has a fundamental role to play in helping bridge the trust divide between government and citizens, as David Thodey, the chair of the current review of the APS, highlights in Trust is a foundation stone for good [APS] work.

With this aim in mind, and with the support of members of the Secretaries Board, Democracy 2025 partnered with Mosaiclab and the Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub at the Australian National University to establish a deliberative jury to scope the nature of the trust problem and examine what the APS could do to address the divide.

The deliberation included 21 nominated delegates from every member of the APS Secretaries Board and the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Office, plus four former secretaries and deputy secretaries, to provide institutional memory. The serving public servants were drawn from the SES (4) and Executive levels 1 (6) and 2 (7), with one representative from the APS 6 band.

The deliberative process is described below. The format of the conversations ensured that every voice is heard through a combination of professional facilitation, high-quality supporting documentation, and focused outcome-driven agenda. The agenda is designed to allow participants to refine their own views and define their highest priorities.

The thoughts of the deliberative jury focused on the questions of what a trusted public service would look like and how the  APS can create. The findings demonstrate it is time for the APS to renew itself to strengthening its capacity to better support the needs and aspirations of Australian communities. That’s in line with Thodey’s preliminary recommendations.

So, what can the APS do to help bridge the trust divide? Nine recommendations have been tabled for consideration by the Secretaries Board, stimulated by the desire of jury members to serve the Australian community and support the needs and aspirations of Australian communities.

  1. To maintain the central role of the APS in the Westminster advisory system, capability needs to be enhanced through the adoption of the best innovation and evidence-based practices.
  2. To ensure programs and services are fit for purpose, citizen-centred design should be a first principle of policy and service development.
  3. To ensure that programs and services meet the needs and aspirations of the citizenry, the APS should embed a culture of authentic, early, regular and open citizen engagement to drive policy development.
  4. To counteract truth decay and communicate effectively with the citizenry, the APS needs to engage in public policy debate to justify actions, explain policy and present evidence in an honest and reliable way.
  5. To benefit from the diversity of knowledge and experience in different sectors, APS staff should be mandated to rotations in other sectors and jurisdictions.
  6. To improve civic and whole of government understanding of public policy decisionmaking, a public right-to-know guarantee should be provided through an open government information framework (subject to normal exemptions).
  7. To build strong and effective working relationships between ministers, political advisers, and the APS, collaborative learning and development opportunities should be developed and senior departmental officers rotated to adviser positions in Ministerial offices.
  8. To ensure a sustainable future, long-term strategic policy systems should be built on key policy issues (e.g. the economy, climate, ageing, geopolitics, education, health and well-being).
  9. To deliver on the APS’s role as defined by the 1999 Public Service Act, courageous and authentic leadership is required at the senior executive level. This should be enshrined and measured through the achievement of the APS vision, putting public service values into practice, meeting accountabilities and delivering positive outcomes for Australian communities.

The deliberative jury’s recommendations focus on building trusting working relationships between the APS and Minister’s offices, other jurisdictions of government, the media system and the Australian citizenry. Additionally,  emphasis should be on inclusive policymaking for the long term and building institutional capacity to adapt to longer-term challenges beyond the short-term electoral cycle. The jury notes that this will require reaffirmation of some of the key features of the Westminster model of parliamentary government; in particular, the independent nature of the APS and its ability to recruit its leadership free of political interference, discharge its stewardship role and meet the terms of the 1999 Public Service Act.

It will also require celebration of what is authentically Australian about our Westminster system and the central role of an independent APS in both maintaining and enabling public sector institutions and services to flourish.

Professor Mark Evans and Nicole Moore are members of Democracy 2025, at the Museum of Australian Democracy,  Old Parliament House.

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