The APS taskforce: setting it up and supporting policy implementation

By Shannon Jenkins

February 18, 2021


Australian Public Service taskforces should engage with key stakeholders and policy implementers early on in their process to ensure the taskforce’s work is successful, according to two senior bureaucrats.

Speaking on the latest episode of IPAA’s Work with Purpose, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Simon Duggan and Australian Public Service Commission first assistant commissioner Patrick Hetherington shared their experiences with leading taskforces.

Their insights follow the recent release of a new toolkit designed to guide APS taskforces through each stage of the taskforce lifecycle.

Setting up the taskforce

Good administration is essential to running a successful taskforce, according to Hetherington.

“This is going to sound silly, but the most difficult thing for me in leading a taskforce was actually the administrative side of things … All of the kind of project management side of things — how you harness the diverse skills of the team, et cetera,” he said.

“But how do you set it up? How do you get it to run effectively? How do you make the most of technology? We were playing around with GovTeams trying to figure out, how do we get this thing to work for all of us? How do we collaborate properly virtually? All of those things were terribly challenging.”

Assigning someone the role of handling some of the administration early on and proper record keeping are also important, he said.

Reflecting on his own experience of setting up a taskforce, Duggan noted that meeting with key stakeholders from the beginning and avoiding making assumptions is also useful.

“I’ve made myself the discipline of actually going to those stakeholders with just very open questions and saying, ‘Here’s what I understand is the task I’ve been set with. What are your perspectives? What are your objectives from this?’” he said.

“And so by the end of that first week, I had all those perspectives, and was able to craft really great terms of reference, which, circulating that, all the key stakeholders were able to go, ‘Yep. You’ve nailed it. Let’s proceed on that basis.’”

While the creation of a taskforce can be useful to tackle many problems, Duggan noted that there are some situations where they are unnecessary. This includes instances where the issue that needs to be solved is already the responsibility of an existing department. In these cases, he said, the capability or capacity within that department may need to be bolstered.

Policy implementation

Duggan and Hetherington said it’s important to engage with the right public servants early on in the taskforce’s process to ensure that policies actually get implemented once the group has finished its work.

“It starts with really strong engagement at senior levels of those who will ultimately be, I guess, responsible for implementation,” Duggan said.

“Particularly if an agency is going to be the implementing agency, having them on from the start, is critically important to the success. The policy piece, the solution piece is in some ways the easy part, sometimes all the problems come to bear in the implementation side of the house,” Hetherington added.

“Certainly the authorising environment, who is supporting this, who is pushing this from a senior leader perspective, really does add a lot of weight to the success or not of the outcomes of a taskforce’s work.”

The Taskforce Toolkit

Late last year, PM&C’s Policy Projects and Taskforce Office was commissioned by the Chief Operating Officers’ Committee to develop a practical online toolkit for taskforces, to address a lack of support and guidance, according to the office’s senior adviser, Teresa McMichael.

“And the other sort of impetus for this was the government’s commitment to develop best practice guidance on problem solving and dynamic ways of working across agencies, which is one of its responses to one of the recommendations in the APS Review,” she said.

The office consulted more than 700 staff who’ve worked on taskforces, conducted surveys and held workshops to create the toolkit, which has been designed to be used by staff at all levels.

A ‘lessons learned repository’ was also created to accompany the toolkit.

“So that was something that several stakeholders suggested, noting the value of learning from the experiences of others, and there was a real desire to have a way to share those experiences,” McMichael said.

“So we created the repository where taskforces could upload their learnings, things like what worked well, what didn’t work well and why, and then share it on there for the benefit of others. So there’s actually nothing on there yet, but I really hope and encourage taskforce leaders to start contributing and using that resource.”

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