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State of the Commonwealth: push for more capability reviews

Outgoing Commonwealth public service commissioner Stephen Sedgwick is pushing for a second round of agency capability reviews and a re-think of accountability frameworks that discourage agency heads to undertake long-term planning beyond the urgent demands of government.

Speaking at the release of the 17th State of the Service report today, Sedgwick said he now had evidence to prove the APS culture is task-oriented and getting on with the job in spite of the pressures of downsizing.

“The evidence is clear: overall the Australian public service is a well-led, resilient, effective institution. Data gathered in the report, for instance, shows employee engagement has risen in recent years, despite the changes that are currently underway.”

However, the same evidence from 19 externally led capability reviews, self-assessments by agencies and the latest survey of almost 100,000 employees across the APS show “a set of seemingly intractable problems”. These challenges include strengthening the public service’s capabilities, managing risk, change and performance, as well as progressing a sensible approach to shared services.

Further down the list are ongoing issues of lifting the representation of diversity groups, addressing “uncomfortably high perceptions of rates of bullying”, and responding to an unexplained rise in unscheduled absences. Sedgwick stressed he was not concerned about legitimate leave taken.

These so-called intractable human capital problems are being taken up by the Secretaries Board — itself barely more than a year old — to take a more central approach. There has been a tendency for agencies to only address them if the chief executive had an interest, Sedgwick said, but the new board was positioning itself as the de facto steward role of the APS and invested considerable effort and resourcing into addressing capability gaps across the service. Notably, funding for the commission’s first round of capability reviews came from agencies themselves.

The collective experience of the Secretaries Board will be advising government on these enabling matters, including opportunities for contestability and centralisation. However, assessing the APS performance amid conditions of change was not always straightforward.

“The service is one of the largest and most complex businesses in the country. It operates in a highly ambiguous and rapidly changing environment. It’s not amenable to simple bottom-line accountability,” Sedgwick said.

“Both sides of politics are looking to the APS to help them reinvent government so they can deliver against the community’s rising expectations …”

“Both sides of politics are looking to the APS to help them reinvent government so they can deliver against the community’s rising expectations for services and engagement without dramatically higher taxation and while repairing the budget over time.”

The focus on delivery of the agenda of the government of the day has been quite intense in the last few decades, Sedgwick said. So strongly has that message been taken to heart in the public service that “maybe we’ve become too task-oriented, maybe a little bit reactive”. A consequence of that is that less time and effort is spent on building capability that will pay off in the long term.

Similarly, Sedgwick insists agencies must continue to undertake policy research — even when the government isn’t interested.

Frank and fearless advice remains a core responsibility, Sedgwick said, even when the government of the day doesn’t want to listen, “or worse, a staffer of the minister doesn’t want to hear”. He said it would be regrettable if the lesson learned from the royal commission into the home insulation program was to overstate risks to the minister, but leaders in the sector must do more to improve communication flow between the junior employees with the on-the-ground facts and the government making the decisions.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.