Are the planets aligned for APS reform, or is it more like a perfect storm?

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday November 27, 2019

Peter Woolcott. Image: Australian Public Service Commission.

On the eve of reform, guided by the upcoming Thodey review, the Australian Public Service Commissioner’s biggest concern is change management.

Only 39% of public servants think their agency manages change well.

Peter Woolcott’s second APS State of the Service Report arranges the new data, analysis, and better-practice case studies around two themes — culture and capability — and focuses on leadership as the “critical driver” of both. It contains new data on where staff see capability gaps and is accompanied by agency-level staff survey results for the first time, after 75% of agency heads agreed to publish their figures.

The report conveys the usual enthusiasm and positivity along with a sense that the commissioner sees the planets aligning for a period of substantial and positive change in the APS. But beneath that is some concern about how prepared it is to implement upcoming reforms.

Briefing journalists ahead of the SOSR’s release, Woolcott was keen to emphasise how hard change-management can be, especially cultural change, and cited David Thodey’s claim that about 80% of organisational transformations fail.

Only 37% of public servants say change tends to improve efficiency in their agency, half say it is usually a “positive process”, and 62% say their teammates are happy to implement change when asked.

“The service is in good shape but there are areas we can do better and we need to adapt to meet the expectations of the Government and the people of Australia,” Woolcott said in a statement.

“This includes an APS that deals with issues cutting across organisation boundaries and traditional ways of working — one that is more outward-facing, open to change and innovation, and focused on developing and deploying the right capability.”

The report repeats the message that APS mandarins are not “sitting idle” and waiting for the Thodey report to drop. The imperative for reform is very clear and so are the general directions it will take, as are the Morrison government’s broad expectations, and the commissioner says he is optimistic to see strong leadership from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and department heads.

Woolcott said the Secretaries Board was doing a lot of work advising the PM on his response to the Thodey report, and pointed out the mandarins would also be firmly in charge of the implementation. Meanwhile, departments have already been quietly moving ahead with reform projects, overseen by the Secretaries’ APS Reform Committee led by Finance secretary Rosemary Huxtable.

Woolcott says the committee of department heads, established after the 2010 recipe for reform called Ahead of the Game, has found its place and become a core part of governance in the Commonwealth system. Its collegiality and sense of purpose are quite impressive, in his view.

The mandarins have also been trying to incorporate Morrison’s “six guideposts” for public servants into all of this. A whole-of-APS workforce strategy is also in the works, to guide acquisition of skills and capabilities for the future, and so are several renewed diversity strategies. More funding for another round of capability reviews might be on the cards, but the commissioner is more concerned with looking forward to what is needed, than reviewing what is there now.

Woolcott said the Thodey review had become a “useful springboard” for multiple strands of public service reform, which were being pulled together in what has become “a hugely important conversation … about the public service of the future”.

The PM’s priorities “resonate strongly” with what the Thodey report is expected to bring, Woolcott writes in the report. “So, as the Government considers its formal response to the review, there is no doubt that the APS has the imprimatur to continue, and expand, the reform agenda that is already in place.”

The commissioner said the review panel had produced a “very comprehensive piece of work” and in the SOSR he foreshadows recommendations that are “ambitious in nature and transformational in scope” at the same time as being so predictable they won’t lead to a major change of course.

“It is not yet known which recommendations the Government will accept,” he observes. “However, what is known is that the public service and its leadership are already working towards the change that the current and future operating context requires.”

Like his recent predecessors, Woolcott also sees a need for a lot more employee mobility. Only 3.6% of staff moved to another agency in 2018-19, including temporary transfers, while 70% of staff have only ever worked in one agency and only 29% say theirs provides opportunities for external moves.

Almost all the internal mobility (77.5%) goes on in Canberra, as one would expect.

“Lifting productivity and building capability will require effective mobilisation of skills across the service and my strong sense is the APS has to be more porous and mobile, not only within the service itself but also the state and territory, public services, and also the private sector and not-for-profits,” the commissioner said.

“And that’s partly to foster diversity of thinking and contestability of ideas, and capability uplift.”

Woolcott thinks mobility would help the APS understand the whole Australian community better, in line with the PM’s expectations that it break out of the “Canberra bubble” more often.

“We all know that the government and the APS respond well in a crisis, but how do you make that sort of mentality and bring those sort of skills to bear in more normal and complex situations? That’s the challenge for us: getting the right people to the right jobs at the right time and working collaboratively together,” he said.

Read more: APS State of the Service: new data points to capability gaps in leadership and HR, data and writing skills

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