Eight things that will happen to the APS as it undergoes significant change

By Richard Wallace

Wednesday February 5, 2020

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It seems an eternity ago that on 5 December 2019, the prime minister announced significant changes to the structure of the Australian Public Service to take effect from 1 February 2020 as part of the government’s reform agenda.

At the time they were described as Machinery of Government changes. They include reducing the number of government departments from 18 to 14 (in effect the merging of eight departments into four); the removal of five department secretaries, the appointment of a former secretary, and the establishment of a new executive agency within the Social Services Department.

The changes affect an estimated 40,000 public servants out of an APS workforce of about 147,000.

After a tumultuous Christmas and New Year period, here’s how the government and its returning public servants can expect the new reality to play out:

1. As a general rule, change is viewed as a loss, a negative, a sacrifice, rather than a better way forward. The loftier the claim for change, the less likely it will resonate with the people responsible for making it work. Clichés, weasel words, political propaganda, will stifle progress towards meaningful results because some staff (and these people are generally the fulcrum of a functioning group) will need to fully appreciate “The Why” before they can move forward towards implementation.

2. There will be a perception among affected staff (whatever their level and whatever the messaging they receive) that the changes have created ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. This feeling will be most rife amongst corporate areas where an obvious focus will be on the apparent duplication of services, functions and staff. Public servants, on secure footing only a month ago, will feel the carpet has pulled out from under them and their careers are at stake.

3. Emotion will drive reason out of the window. This is a stressful time for people on the receiving end of decisions they are not in position to frame or challenge. In private, they will be tetchy and easily spooked despite the seemingly outward bravura and they will be provoked by their anxieties into taking strange positions that appear out of character with their former selves. Remember, a person’s reality is formed by their opinions, however bizarre or remote they may seem, wrote Marcus Aurelius nineteen-hundred years ago.

4.  In unsettled situations, people and communication skills will become more important than the substance of what is being communicated. The people that progress in these situations are the people that can adapt to a new situation without eroding or compromising their connection to people and their welfare. A familiarity with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would be beneficial.

5.  How much you know will not be as important as the application of new capabilities in the new reality. Collaborating across networks, accessing new information, and the ability to use new language will be highly valued and rewarded.

6.  The ability to appreciate that new situations create, and indeed require, new approaches and new paradigms will be expected. The new leadership will be looking for leaders that accept that, while a certain process worked well in the past, it will probably not be fit for purpose in the future. Openness to new ways of doing and comfort with learning as you are doing will separate the new leadership from the ‘old guard’.

7.  Savvy managers will soon realise the scale, scope and pace of change is relative to the individual NOT the process or the outcome. What you ‘see’ depends both upon what you look at and also upon what your previous experience has taught you to ‘see’. Changes that appear small, easy or a no-brainer for some, may be more difficult for others to get their heads around or assimilate. This is especially the case if they have been working in a certain way for a long time. Emotion is a bigger driver than reason in such circumstances and managers who can connect with staff will see faster results.

8.  Given the opportunity, most people will change back to the way things were. It’s in our nature to stick to what we know rather than put ourselves at risk with something we don’t fully trust. Whenever things change, certainty is among the first casualties, and new certainties take time to create. Which is why some ships need to be set ablaze or sunk for people to focus on the future.

Richard Wallace is with the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture.

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