Thodey report: capability reviews coming, ASL cap scrap rejected

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday December 13, 2019

Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrives for Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, December 5, 2019. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The Prime Minister has finally released his response to the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, three months after the Thodey report delivered its findings to the government.

The review, released to the public on Friday morning, made 40 recommendations. It suggested the government undertake regular capability reviews to “build organisational capacity and accountability”.

The Secretaries Board will commence a series of targeted reviews from mid-2020. This will include thematic, cross-portfolio reviews of the delivery of functions and of particular services or policies. Portfolio-level reviews and stocktakes of functions and bodies will also be undertaken. “Prioritised and future-focused reviews of agency capability” will also commence in 2021, supported by APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott.

“The priority in undertaking these reviews will be to ensure the APS is operating productively and delivering the best collective outcomes possible,” the government said.

The APSC will complete benchmarked capability assessments for all SES Band 3s next year. Capability assessments for SES Band 2s and 1s will also commence in the first half of 2020. The board has also begun a pilot EL2 talent development initiative.

“These assessments will help target development, guide career paths, and identify under-performers.”

Of the 40 recommendations, the government has agreed fully to 15 of them, and agreed in part to 20. Two were noted, and three were rejected. It was repeatedly expressed that the government would not be amending the Public Service Act 1999.

Scott Morrison said the Secretaries Board would lead a three-month implementation “sprint” early in the new year, with the support of Woolcott.

The government has agreed to develop a simple purpose statement and a separate, more detailed vision statement to “unite the APS in serving the nation”. The Secretaries Board will engage the APS in developing the purpose statement.

One recommendation called for the APS Act to be amended to give the APS commissioner own-motion powers to initiate investigations and reviews. The government did not agree to provide the commissioner with those powers, arguing that he “has adequate powers to investigate and seek integrity information”.

The review suggested the government “ensure that machinery of government changes are well planned and evaluated, enabling a dynamic and flexible APS that responds swiftly to government priorities”. The government, however, did not agree to this recommendation, stating:

“Decisions on machinery of government changes are a matter for the Prime Minister and will be guided by the Prime Minister’s judgment.”

Recommendation 11 acknowledged the need to improve the way the APS works with ministers. The government rejected the proposal to establish a legislated and enforceable code of conduct for advisers, and to set guidance for at least half of ministerial advisers to have public service experience. However, they did agree to provide better training and guidance on how public servants can support their ministers. The APSC will update its guidance on the roles and responsibilities defining interactions between ministers, their advisers and public servants.

The APS will establish separate digital and data professions in 2020, to build capability and support career paths in these critical areas. Woolcott will lead the development of the professions. The first head of profession to be appointed was Jacqui Curtis, in the human resources stream.

Another recommendation called for the APS to improve cooperation with states and territories by setting a small number of national priorities with clear shared metrics for success through COAG. The government rejected the recommendation, arguing that “existing arrangements are effective … the government does not currently intend to alter them”.

The review identified improved services as a priority, aligning with the government’s recent moves. The Secretaries Board has been tasked with preparing a long-term roadmap of steps to improve and integrate services for Australian people and businesses. This roadmap will, at a high-level, “identify opportunities to link up services for Australians, designed around their needs and practical actions to get there”.

The Thodey panel recommended the government abolish the controversial Average Staffing Level cap once the APS Workforce Strategy is released in 2020, but the government has rejected that idea.

The review also recommended considering a requirement that experience in two or more portfolios or sectors be a pre-requisite for appointment to the SES. The government has said it would not enforce any mandatory requirements, but a new “mobility framework” would make it clear that broad experience including in different portfolios is a highly desirable attribute for appointment to the SES.

The government has dismissed the idea that it move to common core conditions and pay scales over time to enable the APS to be a united high-performing organisation, stating that “current policies around APS pay and conditions are working effectively”.

The PM said the government would invest an additional $15.1 million to support the Secretaries Board and the Australian Public Service Commission to commence reforms. However, he has made it clear that he will be sticking to his six guideposts, which he announced in his first major speech to the Australian Public Service in August:

• Clear roles and priorities – with a clear understanding of the respective roles of Ministers and the APS, ensuring everyone in the APS has a clear line of sight to the Australian people they are seeking to support.
• Better services – with a step-change in the quality of services we provide to Australians.
• Getting delivery right – supporting effective implementation through setting clear priorities, breaking down bureaucratic silos, and being clear on what success looks like and how we’ll know we’re on track.
• Connecting the APS to all Australians – genuinely understanding the needs of all Australians through more external hires, better engagement, openness to different viewpoints and using data and evidence to find out what’s really going on.
• Adapting to change – ensuring the APS is fit for current and emerging challenges, including through digital transformation and more dynamic working methods that break down bureaucracy and hierarchy.
• Reinforcing integrity – honouring the Westminster foundation of the APS and ensuring the APS acts with the utmost integrity.

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