Human capability of our national security workforce is vital to strategic success

By Margaret Joseph

December 2, 2021

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There has been little public attention paid to the unique challenges that arise for Australia’s national security workforce. (Mikolaj Niemczewski/Adobe)

Australia’s changing strategic environment poses increasingly urgent questions for the capability and resilience of national structures and institutions. In 2019, the Independent Review into the Australian Public Service (APS) concluded that the APS was ill-prepared for “the big changes and challenges” Australia will face through to 2030.

Workforce is one of the most important factors to consider in this strategic equation. The APS Review found there had been a ‘service-wide failure to manage and invest strategically in the APS’s most valuable asset – its people’. The recommendations of the review have led to a range of reform initiatives across the APS, including a Whole-of-Service workforce strategy and activities to improve career pathways, diversity, and staff mobility.

To date, however, there has been little public attention paid to the unique challenges that arise for Australia’s national security workforce or to how strategic workforce reform might impact or alter that community. This is despite the central role of the national security workforce in realising national strategy.

Broadly defined, the national security workforce spans defence, intelligence, law enforcement and border security functions. It includes both APS and non-APS agencies, like the intelligence agencies and spans uniformed and non-uniformed personnel. In the absence of consistent reporting on job functions across different organisations, there is no figure readily available for the total number of national security staff. However, it is a sizeable community. Security clearance figures suggest those required to engage at least periodically on issues at the SECRET level and above, which would include contractors, number over 250,000. 

The national security workforce is navigating new and significant tasks. Defence has embarked on the most ambitious capability acquisition program in its history, with significantly increased national spending on defence at a time of increasing volatility in Australia’s regional environment. This program includes the National Naval Shipbuilding Enterprise, at the cost of up to $183 billion. At the same time, Australia’s broader national security community is confronting hybrid threats and the increasing likelihood of parallel and concurrent security challenges, domestically and regionally.

Australia requires a national security workforce that is postured and equipped to deliver ambitious programs and navigate strategic disruption. Achieving this involves recruiting and security vetting the rightly skilled people at the right time; retaining experienced personnel both to manage activities but also to train and mentor those at the early stages of their careers; and supporting staff to develop the skills they need to operate effectively in a complex environment.

Secrecy has inhibited public research on the national security workforce, although key documents like the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review and the Defence Transformation Strategy have paved the way for greater openness about internal factors within organisations. More research is needed on the most effective long-term approaches to workforce. The following proposals, however, could be explored in the short- to medium-term.

Firstly, in an increasingly competitive labour market, a more coordinated approach to recruitment across the national security community should be adopted. One option would be an annual Australian Jobs in Defence and National Security Forecast, highlighting the broad opportunities in this sector to potential employees and indicating where and when opportunities will arise, including in the next 2-5 years. This initiative would have the aim of reaching a more diverse audience than is usually the case when individual organisations promote specific jobs. It would also stimulate interest across academic institutions and professional networks.

Secondly, there needs to be additional attention paid to the professional development of the existing workforce. The Australian Public Service is undertaking professionalisation of selected workforce streams, such as Data, Digital and HR. Consideration could be given to creating a dedicated national security practitioner stream. This would allow structured career management and learning to occur. This approach would bring greater consistency, clarity and coherence to professional expectations across the community. It would also support staff retention, providing new opportunities for staff investment in their own careers with the active engagement of their respective agencies.  

Thirdly, national security organisations should work collectively to maximise mobility and flexibility. Mobility is important both for staff development and retention but also to meet national strategic priorities. There are no quick fixes for skills shortages. It is difficult to mitigate against global competition for talent which may drive more Australians to seek professional opportunities overseas, especially following the end of pandemic restrictions, But greater mobility can be a useful short-term strategy to meet changing priorities.  For example, the Independent Intelligence Review highlighted that staff with certain in-demand skills and experience were not being properly deployed across the intelligence community, to the detriment of outcomes. For areas of continuing skills shortage, like cyber security, different organisations must be prepared to coordinate on where to deploy skilled staff and for what duration.  

Overall flexibility for staff would also benefit from increased attention. For example, remote working remains a problem across classified workplaces, because of the need to observe IT and physical security requirements. Investing in solutions to support secure work from a broader variety of locations is needed. This investment may prove particularly useful to retain experienced staff mid-career who are looking to balance family or caring responsibilities or health challenges, with their professional duties.   

In conclusion, as Australia pursues more ambitious national strategy, it is important to focus on the people who will realise that strategy. In the past, human capability has often been taken for granted, but there is growing awareness of its importance to realising national strategy. The APS Review represented a major shift in how public service leaders need to conceive, think about and plan for workforce. Highly skilled, technologically adept and agile workforces are required to meet the demands of Australia’s more uncertain strategic environment. It is vital that national security organisations be at the forefront of these developments.

Margaret Joseph’s Masters’ thesis examines workforce challenges across the national security community. Margaret has worked on defence and national security policy and programs over the last 20 years. The views in this article are her own and not those of the Department of Defence.

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