Woolcott and Gaetjens flag more professional streams, APS ‘surge reserve’ under reform priorities

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday September 7, 2020

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The Secretaries Board has agreed to a number of reforms that would strengthen the Australian Public Service workforce’s digital capabilities and enable staff redeployments to continue.

APS commissioner Peter Woolcott and Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens outlined the plans in an open letter to the APS on Friday. They said the reforms would deliver on initiatives set out in the government’s response to the Thodey Review of the APS, released in December 2019.

The board currently has three priorities: to accelerate APS digital transformation, to strengthen APS workforce planning and capability, and to provide continued support to Australia’s COVID-19 response and recovery.

A new Secretaries Digital Committee would be established to help deliver digital transformation commitments and to ensure effective APS digital governance, with the APS to take an “enterprise-wide approach” to investment in and development of ICT and digital systems.

New investment would be informed by a review of the APS’s digital and ICT needs, capabilities, and risks, and common digital platforms that support APS interoperability would be built and reused where possible.

The recruitment of more entry-level digital specialists and the Digital Profession would boost the APS workforce’s digital capabilities, Woolcott and Gaetjens said. They noted that Leading in a Digital Age, an SES leadership program run by the Digital Transformation Agency and the APSC, would be expanded for other APS leaders. Roughly 10% of SES members have participated in the program so far.


Read more: How government agencies are building digital capability across the workforce


The APS has successfully redeployed thousands of staff to critical roles over recent months. During a speech in June, Woolcott argued that COVID-19 had pushed the APS to “break out of some bureaucratic cages”, including barriers to mobility. He had highlighted the importance of the APS retaining the flexibility that has been seen during the pandemic into the future.

“We have learnt much – the value of flexibility and mobility. The importance of collaboration. And the value of thinking as one enterprise and utilising data,” he had said.

“So now is the time to drive reform, drive innovation and lock in the lessons we have learnt to ensure that in the future the public service continues to be fit for purpose.”

Gaetjens and Woolcott have now flagged that a proposal for an APS “surge reserve” was in the works, which would enable APS volunteers to continue to be deployed to a range of critical functions when needed.

Public service commissioners from across governments have also endorsed a National Framework for Public Sector Mobility to “facilitate rapid movement of staff between jurisdictions”, they noted. Under the framework, surge staff would be granted essential worker status in each jurisdiction.

To build key capabilities, the APSC has been developing proposals for more professional streams. Current streams include data, digital and strategic human resources professions. A new APS Workforce Strategy would also soon be released, Woolcott and Gaetjens said. The strategy would outline capabilities needed now and into the future, and would guide APS-wide and agency-level actions to build necessary skills.


Read more: How COVID-19 is driving APS reform


The Chief Operating Officers Committee was created by the Secretaries Board in February 2020 in response to the Thodey Review of the APS, with the aim of breaking down silos in favour of a “one APS” approach. However, its focus quickly changed when COVID-19 hit Australia.

Throughout the pandemic, the committee has dealt with a range of issues including making workplaces safe, communicating with staff, the mental health impacts of COVID-19, and more.

To maintain the APS’s support of Australia’s COVID-19 response and economic recovery, Gaetjens and Woolcott said the COO Committee would continue to address the APS’s operational requirements and facilitate the mobilisation of APS staff to areas of critical need. The Secretaries Board would also keep up their regular meetings.

“To be most effective, we must work together and act as an APS enterprise,” they wrote.

“No single agency can drive recovery or deliver major government priorities alone. We must continue to share data, flexibly move people where they are most needed, and collaborate early on policy or implementation challenges.”

The APS heads encouraged the workforce to remain focused on delivering the best outcomes for Australians and to share their ideas on achieving this within their agencies. They also urged those who are struggling to seek support.

“This is a tough time and it is important that we look after ourselves and support each other. For those in Melbourne and the rest of Victoria, we are thinking of you. Please do not hesitate to use the help and support your agencies provide,” they wrote.

“The APS continues to work hard and effectively to meet current challenges and to make life better for Australians. Again, on behalf of the Secretaries Board, we thank you for your dedication to serving Australians during the pandemic.”

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