ATO’s Jacqui Curtis named as first head of profession for the APS

By David Donaldson and Stephen Easton

Monday October 28, 2019

ATO chief operating officer Jacqui Curtis

The Australian Tax Office’s chief operating officer Jacqui Curtis has been appointed as the first head of profession in the Australian Public Service, signalling a shift to a more structured service-wide approach to professional development.

Curtis has been asked to lead the human resources profession within the APS for two years in addition to her regular job leading enterprise strategy and corporate services at the ATO, where she was in charge of HR for just over two years before a promotion in 2016.

HR is only the first of many fields of work that will be internally recognised as professions within the APS and given a designated leader.

By grouping staff into professional streams, APS commissioner Peter Woolcott said federal mandarins hoped to address “capability gaps across a number of professions” in the APS that had been identified by review after review, and provide more rewarding careers.

Curtis’ role as head of profession is tied to a new HR Professional Stream Strategy, which Woolcott launched at a seminar-style event in Canberra on Monday afternoon.

“This is a program specifically designed to bring together, invest in, and build an expert HR workforce that is valued for its professional expertise and ability to deliver outstanding people outcomes,” Curtis said in a speech to about 1100 public servants at 20 sites around the country, most of them watching online.

She told them their field was the first to become a formal APS profession due to its growing recognition at the top level of leadership, and because development of all other professions to follow would need “HR’s leadership, advice and support” to succeed.

Key elements of the HR Professional Stream Strategy are the establishment of a professional network and a mobility program for people in the field, along with the development of another strategy – one specifically for the HR workforce.

There is also a plan to make recruitment simpler in the HR stream, including for graduates. Woolcott said people who applied for an HR job in the APS would first be assessed by the APSC against general “baseline” skills, attributes and qualifications before their application went to its intended recipient. If they don’t get the job, they will stay in the pool of potentials and another agency could pluck them out for a similar HR role, something like the underused merit-list system but more centralised.

Every two years a new band-3 senior executive (deputy secretary or equivalent) will become head of profession. “This will share ownership across agencies and leverage the diversity of thinking over time,” Woolcott said.

“The responsibilities and accountabilities of the HR head of profession are distinct from those of agency heads. The head of profession will not have any formal authority over agency head decision-making.”

While they won’t be positions of power, Woolcott said the heads of professions would have “enormous influence” with the Secretaries Board. Curtis believes it will be “incredibly powerful” for the HR profession to have this “super top-level support” and a direct line to agency heads.

The shift to professional streams was inspired by similar moves in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Singapore. The UK civil service has 14 professional streams, but it seems APS leaders felt the British model had given the heads of professions too much authority and created confusion.

The commissioner said in the UK, their roles cut across the accountabilities of secretaries.

“We made a decision not to go that far; the secretary’s ultimately the accountable authority for … their staff, but this position will have enormous influence.”

In the APS, this means deputy secretaries who are designated as heads of professions will need strong support from their own bosses to manage their additional responsibilities. Tax commissioner Chris Jordan is a strong supporter by all accounts.

This need for agency support is explicitly recognised in a role statement supplied by the APSC, which sets out what Curtis is expected to do as inaugural head of the HR profession:

  • Champion support for upskilling strategic HR across agencies, leveraging existing hubs of expertise.
  • Along with other senior HR leaders, communicate a clear understanding of what good strategic HR looks like and the value that brings to successful business outcomes.
  • Through collaboration and contributions across all supporting agencies, guide implementation of the HR professional stream strategy and a prioritised program of work that brings it to life.
  • Establish an HR professional network to share knowledge, experience and better practice.
  • Guide identification of current and future professional standards and priority capabilities for the HR professional stream.
  • Encourage capability development and optional certification in HR professional standards.
  • Be a positive role model for the APS and HR profession domestically and internationally.

The idea that the APS might introduce UK-style public service professions has been kicked around for years. In mid-2015, The Mandarin reported that, along with human resources, the APSC considered information management a field ripe for professionalisation.

Read more: Towards a professional approach to public policy: reforming people instead of structure and process

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