‘We’ve turned a corner’: Phil Gaetjens reflects on the public service’s transformative year

By Shannon Jenkins

December 16, 2020

Phil Gaetjens (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens has called on the Australian Public Service to remember and build on the lessons of 2020 as it moves into another challenging year.

In an annual address to the APS on Tuesday evening, hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia, the secretary said the APS was “at its very best” this year, and effectively worked as one enterprise with one dominant purpose — to deliver to the community.

After almost 44 years in the public service, Gaetjens said he has never been prouder of the APS, and encouraged the 2020 graduates to take pride in their first year in the job.

“Bottle the memories and draw upon them for the rest of your career. Remember the purpose, the rapid response, agility, mobility and digital savvy that you have seen this year, and apply them liberally during your career,” he said.

Two measures would say a lot about what the APS has achieved, Gaetjens said: The Australian National Audit Office’s series of audits assessing the government response to COVID-19 — the first of which was positive — and the recently released Citizen Experience Survey results.

The idea of a citizen survey was first proposed by former PM&C secretary Terry Moran in his 2010 report Ahead of the Game. His successor, Martin Parkinson, then floated the idea again in 2017, before he officially established the initiative in 2018.

Read more: Australians became more trusting of federal public services during pandemic: survey

The results have shown improvement in a number of areas during the pandemic, Gaetjens noted.

“To be frank, the picture was not encouraging back in March, 2019,” he said.

“Back then, the number of people who were somewhat to wholly satisfied with the services they used was around 71%. Those inclined to trust APS services were sitting at 59%.”

But results began rising by June 2020, with satisfaction climbing to 78% and trust to 65%.

“These might seem like small changes but they are significant. They show that we’ve turned a corner,” Gaetjens said.

“But these are not just feel-good measures. Analysis of those survey results show satisfaction builds trust, and trust in the APS and other public institutions is the foundation for a healthy well functioning democracy.

“You can’t effectively manage a pandemic and respond to it without public trust. You’re asking people to curb freedoms, to change, or sometimes upend their lifestyles and everyday behaviours.”

The APS must continue to keep up those good results in 2021, the secretary argued, while also focusing on the areas that still need improvement.

For example, the APS must do more to help young Australians understand how, when and what services they need to access, with the survey finding just 43% of 18 to 24 year olds know how to access services, compared to 53% of people in other age groups.

“In blunt terms the feedback is that it’s not about us, it’s about citizens and their experience with us,” Gaetjens said.

“So let me repeat the takeouts of the data. Provide simple and clear information. Do what we say we will, and deliver reliable services, these are key to the satisfaction with and trust in public services. They are also consistent with the prime minister’s focus for us to be citizen-centric.”

The public service will have its work cut out for it next year, but for now, “it’s time to take a breath to rest and digest”, Gaetjens said.

“2020 launched the APS enterprise. Our purpose now is to maintain and improve our enterprise through good policy design, good advice, good collaboration, effective implementation and delivery and good APS governance,” he said.

“2020 has also demonstrated the importance of caring for our own selves, and each other’s physical and mental health. So as many of you head back into a well earned break over summer, come back refreshed. And next year continue to look after yourself and your colleagues, because I’m sure the new year will also prove to be full on.”

Read more: PM&C citizen survey results delayed, heavily redacted version released


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