This APS review will be different, says Commissioner

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday September 26, 2019

Peter Woolcott. Image: Australian Public Service Commission.

The Australian Public Service Commissioner has called on the APS to be “less hierarchical” and more collaborative.

Commissioner Peter Woolcott delivered a speech to the APS Wide National Conference in Sydney last week.

According to Woolcott, the public service faces a plethora of difficult challenges, like how to work in a rapidly changing society, how to manage complex and interconnected issues, and how to implement national solutions which cut across jurisdictions. Adapting to new priorities such as digital transformation and privacy concerns, while building career pathways and advancing the capability of the APS are also big issues.

He noted that while accountability and commitment to delivering the best results for Australians is “embodied in the APS values”, the APS must be less siloed.

“The Prime Minister has challenged the APS to demonstrate these values in a rapidly changing environment by working smarter and working more collaboratively to deliver outcomes on the ground that make a real difference to people’s lives,” he said.

“Good ideas and sound delivery approaches are not the monopoly of the public service. While we still have the authority that comes from the institution that is the APS, there is no room for nostalgia nor complacency.

“Our advice has to be well argued and persuasive and open to challenge by political advisors, think tanks, lobby groups and NGOs. Similarly, the services we deliver ourselves need to be tested against credible alternatives.”

Thodey review predictions

The government will respond to David Thodey’s APS review “in the fullness of time”, according to Woolcott. He argued that the outcome would not be like that of any previous reviews.

“It is likely to propose wide scale changes to the APS to ensure it is fit for the future. I expect it will focus on the need for more joined up, people facing, data enabled, capable and trusted public service able to deliver effectively in a radically new operating context,” he said.

“Some of the more sceptical among you will point to the numerous reviews of the public service over the last 15 years and question whether this will be any different. 

“It is different this time — and different for a number of reasons. Firstly, you have strong direction from the government with the PM’s sharp focus on implementation and the Australian people; second you have an APS leadership that is committed to reform and understands absolutely the importance of good governance and staying relevant; thirdly, the speed of technological and societal change is creating its own momentum; and finally, layered on top, are public expectations.”

Culture of capability

The commissioner highlighted the importance of maintaining a culture of integrity with a focus on improving the lives of Australians.

“In building a high performance culture we also need to develop an APS that is willing to experiment with different ways of working and this will require a cultural and organisational shift. We are currently working in a much too hierarchical structure with rules that discourage innovation and risk. Being open and curious, and embedding a culture of continual learning will be important, along with investing in the capability of our people,” he said.

He noted that past State of the Service Reports have found building capability for the future is a must for the public service, adding that the capabilities needed to be an effective public servant are not static.

“The nature of work is changing and in this increasingly digital world, digital skills and data analysis have been highlighted by agencies as a priority area for capability development,” he said.

“Add to this an aging population and younger generations entering the workforce means that we are seeing changes to the way people want to work,  an increased importance on soft skills, STEM skills and a new approach to learning – in fact continuous learning.”

To tackle this, Woolcott said, the APSC has set up a taskforce which has been working with HR and business leaders across the APS to develop an evidence-based product for a workforce strategy by December 2019. 

A formal professions model will also be established to lift in-house skills, improve capability and provide rewarding careers. The APSC has looked to other governments for inspiration, including New Zealand, the UK and Singapore.

“In the UK, for example, when you join the Civil Service, you become part of a profession. Your profession offers networking opportunities, career routes, training and development programmes,” Woolcott said.

“A formalised professions model has the advantage of being able to help define and support career paths for both generalists and specialists, providing opportunities that value expertise and management capability.”

He added that the model must be flexible, and needs to build career paths for core professions that create a common understanding of the skills and experience needed at each level, with a way to gain these. The first profession models will be announced in October.

In the final topic of his address, Woolcott highlighted the importance of mobility and adaptability in the public service.

“The ability to quickly re-configure ourselves around a problem is going to be crucial in managing complexity. We do this in a crisis and we do it well. It needs to be more commonplace and part of a cultural shift in the APS,” he said.

“But we also need a balance. Too much or poorly targeted mobility can have an adverse impact. Government needs deep expertise from its public service. The traditional view of mobility within the APS has focused on individuals moving internally and across agency boundaries.

“We are working with other APS agencies, the private sector and state and territory governments to broaden this view of mobility to include movement to and from the different tiers of government, the private sector and the not for profit sector, with a focus on the end results for citizens, communities and business.”

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