Era of frank and fearless advice not over but competition rising: APS commissioner

By Jackson Graham

December 1, 2021

parliament house lit up golden
DFAT hosted the inaugural Space Policy Dialogue between Australia and the Republic of Korea. (lhboucault/Adobe)

Public servants are facing intense competition for providing advice to government but the sector hasn’t left behind a golden age of offering frank and fearless guidance, according to APS commissioner Peter Woolcott.  

It comes amid a string of parliamentary reports, including on APS workforce capability last week, making recommendations for the government to stem rising spending on consultants costing taxpayers one billion dollars a year. 

Woolcott told a Mandarin Talks event this week that while contract spending was up to agency and department heads, the commission was addressing gaps in the APS’ workforce capability. 

There are always going to be short-term jobs, or labour-hire or consultants,” he said. “Where I also come from though, I absolutely get fundamentally that the public service has to be about its own capability.” 

An Australian National Audit Office report found last year the total value for consultants reached a low in 2013-14 before growing each year to $1.2 billion in 2018-19. 

Woolcott, who joined the APS at the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1981, acknowledged there was a perception of a bygone golden age of frank and fearless advice. But he believed public servants still offered the counsel expected of them, as they always had. 

“I’m not seeing this golden age … maybe it existed,” he said. “I have enormous respect for public servants now. They provide and ministers expect them to provide advice which is hard headed.” 

Woolcott also acknowledges the APS no longer has a monopoly over advice, with a minister’s officers, consultancies, social media, stakeholders and interest groups also playing a role. 

“That’s why it is so important when we provide that advice we understand the political context in which we’re operating in without crossing the line,” he said. 

“We also [need to] understand what the stakeholders are going to be arguing. What the differing views are going to be. And that our advice is best in terms of whole-of-government and data-based. We have to make sure it’s very strong. 

“That is a change. And the role of ministers’ offices has strengthened over the years. And they bring in a bit more contestability around that advice.” 

Woolcott reeled off moves he’d made to improve APS capability, including a workforce strategy, support for departments and agencies to develop workforce strategies, a learning and development action plan, a new APS academy, and a professional model to focus on gaps in digital, data and strategic human resources. 

Among initiatives is training for public servants to learn to interact better with ministerial offices and vice versa. 

“One of the things it comes down to is just speed. If you’re a minister … you are worried about your electorate, parliament, the cabinet, you’re worried about the media, and then you always have to worry about the policies of the portfolio you are running,” Woolcott said. 

“The speed at which things move is really fundamental, and a whole lot of things that work in context that public servants need to understand to properly engage with ministers and their offices. 

“You can teach that, if you’re got the right people teaching — which we have.” 

But the learnings are on both sides, Woolcott says, and ministerial offices are also being refreshed on where the lines are for impartiality in the public service.

“I have to say, when you have seen a senior public servant working up on the hill for a while; it doesn’t matter which party he has worked for, they learn so much from that experience. They are changed in the way they think and the way they work,” he added. 

“We still want to get our best people up into key jobs on the hill as well as part of the process.”  

The state of the service report, launched on Monday, does not make mention of labour-hire or consultant usage. The APS Commission has told parliamentary hearings it does not collect data on labour-hire workers as it is only required to compile a headcount on people employed under the Public Service Act. 

The Mandarin reported in October on challenges for agencies and departments to hire suitable candidates through consultancies. 

Responding to this, Woolcott said whether the appropriate skill sets were being contracted was a question for the agency heads, but he advised organisations to ensure consultants brought transferable knowledge. 

“[If] you get a consultant and they know what they are doing, you get them to transfer their work with your team,” he said. 

“The speed at which technology is moving, the complexities, there’s always going to be a role for consultants. The fundamental challenge for the APSC and for the public service is to make sure we are developing our capabilities for the future.”


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