Public expectations are high and trust is in short supply: Peter Woolcott


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Here is a transcript of the APS Commissioner’s speech delivered to the APS Wide Conference in Canberra in February 2020. 

Good morning and it’s a pleasure to be here.

I would like to echo others in acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we meet on today and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.

I want to thank the Minister for his time with us and for his speech setting out the government’s high expectations of the Australian Public Service; but also for his appreciation for the myriad of things we do to keep Australia safe and prosperous.

What I will do today is focus in a matter of fact way on the challenges facing the APS and on how we are looking to address them.

Before I do so, I want to start with a few personal reflections on the summer we have had.

Peter Woolcott

Everyone in this room has probably been impacted one way or another — whether it be the devastating bushfires or the hail storm that ripped through Canberra only a matter of weeks ago.

I know many of you and your families have suffered through this.  The coronavirus has added another challenge.

Against this backdrop, the public service — you — have continued to deliver day in and day out for Australians.

As difficult as this period has been, you have a great deal to be proud of and you should not forget this as we go about our business.

Often these stories are not told, but they matter. They matter to people filling out forms, connecting with government or receiving government assistance.  Let me give two brief examples which typify this:

  • Services Australia employees reduced a 17 page Disaster Recovery Payment page form to five — meaning Australians affected by the bushfires didn’t need to fill out endless forms to receive payments; and
  • Health and DFAT employees are navigating one of the most complex geopolitical environments to evacuate Australians from Wuhan.

While all this was going on, you professionally delivered significant structural changes to the APS with no disruption to services.

Services Australia, an agency that was directly impacted by these changes, continued to field over 120,000 calls from Australians that were experiencing devastation.

It is a privilege to be part of a public service that constantly delivers what is asked of them and critical services that matter to the people.

Back to the focus of today’s speech and to tackle what is next.

I was in the prime minister’s office when the Thodey Review of the APS and its terms of reference were set up. Now, as the public service commissioner, a fair swath of the recommendations accepted by the government fall on the commission and the secretaries board to implement.

It is not always the case that you get to help reap what you helped sow — I regard it as something of an honour.

So I will talk a bit about the Australian Public Service Commission’s approach to this challenge and what we hope to deliver for the Service over the course of this year.

It builds on past reviews

Much of it is about cultural change and that takes time and co-ordinated leadership. But it is also about structure and how we acquire and develop our capability.

What strikes me is the strong sense of confluence about what we need to do. We have been talking about it for some time now. And the Thodey Review helped crank the conversation up to another level.

As you know, David Thodey presented his report to government last September.  It proposed wide scale changes to the APS to ensure it is fit for the future.

These essentially focussed on the need for a more joined up, people-facing, data-enabled, capable and trusted public service able to deliver effectively in a radically new operating context.

The government agreed with the majority of the independent panel’s 40 recommendations and asked the secretaries board, led by the Secretary of PM&C and supported by the APSC, to take these forward. This was to begin with a rapid planning phase. This is underway.

But the review was building on strong foundations. If you go back and look at Terry Moran’s Blueprint for Reform in 2010, it is striking how the Thodey Review has built on this work.

Moreover, you look at the work of the Secretaries’ Reform Committee under Rosemary Huxtable and again you will see a rich vein of complementarity and the strong sense of direction for the reform agenda.

Importantly, the prime minister outlined his guideposts for the public service in August last year and so much of what the Thodey Review outlines dovetails with the government’s thinking.

And let me say here that when I talk about these strong foundations I include very much the service itself. The APS is well positioned to meet the challenges it is thrown. The experience we have had over summer has demonstrated that very clearly.

We’re navigating a new world

The latest State of the Service Report paints a picture of a public service that is fully engaged and committed to the task facing us.

I know people enter the public service for different reasons, but essentially our culture has many strengths.

Above all, it maintains an uncompromising emphasis on serving the government and the people of Australia with integrity.

The fact that technology has made everything more immediate and connected doesn’t change that.

But what is different now is the sheer pace and scale of change.

To take one aspect of this — the acceleration of technology. Predicting the future can be a fool’s business, but you would be equally unwise not to understand the trend lines — which are remarkable and have the potential to move from the linear to the exponential.


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Whether you look at Moore’s law, which states that the processing power of a computer doubles every two years; or Koomey’s law, where the energy efficiency of a computer battery doubles every 18 months; or Kryder’s law, where the amount of data storable in a given space will also double every 13 months — it is clear what is happening.

Fei-Fei Li, Head of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, said in non-technical language, “We live in a mind-blowingly different world than our grandparents”, and this will be all the more true for our children and grandchildren.

As we grapple with these changes to society, the public service must also tackle increasingly complex policy problems and adapt to new priorities, including digital transformation; a growing demand for the rigorous evaluation of policies; security and privacy concerns; and a renewed focus on person-centred service delivery.

The APS, like many institutions in western democracies, is under challenge. Public expectations are high and trust in short supply.

These high expectations are echoed by minister Hunt and by the prime minister.

In his address to the service, the prime minister made clear the critical role the APS plays in the delivery of policies and services for the benefit of the Australian people.

The APS needs to position itself for the future. And part of that is working differently.

We need to be less hierarchical and more team based; we need to be less siloed and re-fashion our services around people and businesses rather than agencies; we need to work better across jurisdictions; and we need to be focussed on outcomes and how best to utilise technology and develop our capability and leaders for the future.

The power shift

Another change is that the APS is working in a much more contested environment for influence.

This is the way of the world.

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 complacency.


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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.

It is important we get our capabilities right, including the ability to influence our stakeholders — for it is the APS that brings the wider lens to any issues and ensures that the government has all the relevant data and analysis that it needs to make a decision.

We also need to think about the interface between the APS, ministers and their offices. When it works well, government works at its best.

From my own experience, there is a strong need to improve and roll out better training and guidance for APS employees and ministerial staff in their respective roles and how they can work most effectively together to develop and implement the government’s agenda, and continue to deliver the very best for Australia.

We should be encouraging our best and brightest to work in ministerial offices — to understand the different pressures and time frames that ministers work under.

The APS Wide Workforce Strategy

So let me touch on how we are doing all this and what these reforms will mean for the service and for you as public servants.

I’d like to begin by talking about the APS Wide Workforce Strategy that is under development. It is a crucial piece of work that will shape and inform many of our reform related efforts.

The strategy will take a holistic approach to APS workforce management and building critical capabilities and digital and data literacy.

It will impact on a wide range of workforce domains, including recruitment, learning and development, leadership, performance management, retention and mobility.

Through the APS Workforce Strategy we will be recognising that the capability of the APS workforce is developed and maintained by considering the entirety of the employment lifecycle.

Among other things the workforce strategy will inform both a whole-of-APS learning and development strategy and an overarching professions model for the APS.

A professions model provides a unifying framework across agencies that includes clear pathways for recruitment, and career development, along with opportunities for professional learning and networking.


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We launched a professional stream for human resources professionals, with Jacqui Curtis from the ATO appointed as the Head of the HR Profession.

We started with strategic HR as a profession as we need strategic HR in order to get the other professions in the APS right.

HR professionals across the APS will be key to the successful implementation of the workforce strategy.

This year you can expect to see the professions model expanded, starting with digital and then a separate data stream. These will play an important role in strengthening capability and specialist expertise.

The APSC will also be working on an APS learning and development strategy, which will target the capabilities we need for the future, the reskilling we need for the future, and the leadership attributes we need for the future.

Remaining relevant

Central to this will be the creation of a lifelong-learning culture.

The quality of the APS is derived from the capability and integrity of its people.

So, in thinking about how we develop our capability, there are a range of questions we need to answer, focussing on what should the APSC deliver, what is best done by agencies, and how best do we actually deliver it?

Rather than being standalone activities, under the strategy, learning and development will link to performance and career management to build strong skills and capabilities.

The APSC is partnering with the Department of Education, Skills and Employment to develop a reskilling framework for the APS.

The framework will establish a plan to help us to reskill our workforce in occupations of diminishing utility and ensure that employees can continue their APS career in roles where there is increasing demand or in new and emerging areas.

For example, preliminary modelling shows the APS would see a strong increase in demand for digital and data-related skills, including intelligence and policy analysts, as well as people skills.

Through our reskilling framework and the L&D strategy, we will support staff to transition into these roles.

At the same time as we invest in capability, the government has asked us to do a comprehensive review of the APS classification structure to see if it remains fit for purpose in our changing environment.

Again, I don’t have any quick answers, but the questions we will be asking are whether we are too hierarchical; are there too many layers in the public service; and how do we build in the flexibilities to routinely and quickly re-configure ourselves around a problem?

This classification review has the potential to shape the service for years to come.

Leadership band

Let me briefly turn to leadership.

The APSC, supported by the secretaries board, will also complete benchmarked capability assessments of all Band 3s in 2020 and will commence capability assessments for all Band 2s and 1s.

These assessments will help target development, guide career paths and identify low capability.

The APS leadership cohort has great strengths and we benchmark well against the private sector in managing complexity and in delivering.

We do, however, have some work to do around ensuring our SES are innovative and that they make the effort to develop the people they supervise; and we also have some work to do in bedding down the 2013 changes to the Public Service Act, which emphasise the role of the SES in focussing on outcomes which are to the benefit of the wider system and not just their agency.

The workforce strategy will also inform the development of a mobility framework for the APS.

We know that mobility is important for the APS — it leads to diversity of thinking and the contestability of ideas and lifts the overall capability of the APS as well as that of the individual.

At the same time, we need a balance. Too much or poorly targeted mobility can have an adverse impact and we can lose subject matter expertise.  Deep expertise must be a core capability of the APS.

The mobility challenge is not new and we have a better understanding of some of the barriers. We also know those agencies, like Treasury, who are active and effective in this area.

From our employment data we know that mobility rates between different agencies remain relatively low — but we have little data about moving internally inside agencies.

We must develop incentives, targets and other practical measures to support mobility across the service and also in and out of different sectors.

Such a system should also have more porous boundaries and stronger connections with the private sector and state jurisdictions.

Another foundation for a capable APS is ensuring we have a workforce which is diverse in experience, thought, background, and heritage. It is important that the APS reflects the community we serve and is continually exposed to different ideas and approaches in delivering our services.

Addressing diversity and capability

APS-wide strategies supporting diversity in the areas of gender, disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment are currently being reviewed. We are also investigating options to improve our employment and retention of mature age workers.

We know that the representation of mature age workers in the Australian labour force is increasing steadily, as people choose to, or have to, work longer.


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As a large public sector employer, we need to be reflective of the population we serve — the Australian public, to be able to better understand our customers and deliver services.

We will also work on building a contemporary employer brand and define and promote an employee value proposition that resonates with potential and current employees.

This employee value proposition will form a key component of sourcing and retaining people with the required capability and specialist skills.

Some of you might remember that between 2012 and 2016 the Australian Public Service Commission delivered a program of formal organisational capability reviews across more than 20 departments and agencies.

We are building off what we learnt and restarting this program.

We are going to use this process to identify agency strengths and challenges, and then work out which ones are systemic across the service.

The new round of capability reviews will retain the previous focus on leadership, delivery and strategy and supplement it with aspects of the long-running New Zealand Performance Improvement Framework using a basis they term a four-year ‘Excellence Horizon’.

This four-year excellence horizon is used to describe the context in which the agency will operate in the medium term, the challenges it faces and what it would look like if it succeeds.

It provides a specific strategic focus for the agencies review and facilitates discussions with ministers and other stakeholders about the way that an agency needs to evolve to address challenges and to meet the government’s expectations.

Return to integrity

As I get towards the end, I want to return to integrity.

I see this as key to our ability to serve the Australian public — integrity is a driver of public trust.

Our own integrity is something that we are able to control. As public servants, we have a responsibility to take a values-driven approach to our work.

An uncompromising emphasis on serving with integrity has always set the APS apart, and it is encouraging that findings from the 2019 APS employee census are broadly on a par or slightly improved from 2018 regarding integrity and ethics. We can always do better.

We must therefore ensure that this focus continues. As outlined in the government response to the Thodey Review, the commission will be working to enhance a pro-integrity culture within the APS and to reinforce integrity across all APS business areas and functions.

One way we will be looking to drive these practices is through integrity education and awareness.

These are critical for staff at all levels, and we will be introducing mandatory APS-wide integrity training.

This will not be a simple tick-the-box exercise. Rather, it will be designed to build employees’ understanding of integrity issues in their work environment.

It will help to ensure that all APS employees are equipped to deal with a wide range of integrity-related situations.

This is not about compliance.

This is about giving you the practical tools you need to succeed in a complex environment.

This focus on integrity will be woven into, and reinforced by the development and delivery of a whole of service induction for new recruits to the APS.

There will be a number of modules in this induction package. We are already considering how best to ensure its accessibility, effectiveness and uptake.

Civil services in other countries, such as Singapore, successfully use app-based ‘micro-learning’ for learning and development, and this is something that we will look at here in Australia.

How to be nimble

Overall, APS reform will not be incremental.

In order to succeed, we will need to be flexible in how we implement the reform program, and change will need to happen in a wave, rather than sequentially lining up one project after another.

Now 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.

You may be reminded of the advice by the Prince in Lampedusa’s The Leopard — ‘Change everything just a little so as to keep everything exactly the same’.

And it is true that the government and the public want from the APS a sense of continuity and stability — services and functions still need to be delivered and advice still needs to be provided.

That said, incremental change, old habits and patterns of work are not going to meet the expectations of the Australian public nor the government in helping provide the necessary statecraft in what are fast moving and quite turbulent times.

So 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 change and understands absolutely the importance of good governance and staying relevant; and finally, the speed of technological and societal change is creating its own momentum which we must keep up with.


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My strong sense is that we have unprecedented opportunity to shape the future of this great and enduring institution.

The government has made clear its expectations of the APS, the Thodey Review has fleshed out the scope, direction and urgency of the change that is required, and the senior leadership of the APS — the Secretaries Board — is fully committed to leading reform.

But even more importantly, the consistent message from the most recent State of the Service Report is that APS employees at all levels are invested in and committed to the work of the APS.

You understand the value and contribution you make to improving the lives of Australians and the future of Australia — and you want to do it well. We have a service that is up for the challenge.

This is a core foundation for successful reform of the APS and to ensure its effectiveness now and into the future.

The secretaries board can drive this change, but it will only occur if we do this together.

Thank you.

This transcript is curated from the APSC website.

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