Public service reckons with ‘war for talent’ in competitive workforce market

By Melissa Coade

April 14, 2022

Patrick Hetherington
Patrick Hetherington. (Australian Public Service Commission)

The Australian Public Service Commission’s (APSC) Patrick Hetherington has underscored the challenge of attracting talent in a tight labour market, when the APS was delivering during a period of multiple crises, as a ‘never-ending journey’.

“Much of [public service reform] is about cultural change, and that takes both time and a coordinated leadership approach.

“But it is also about how we attract, retain and develop our people capability; to make sure that our employee value proposition is strong, and that we stay competitive in the war for talent,” Hetherington said. 

Speaking at a virtual event for approximately 26,000 Australian public servants based in Victoria this month, the APSC first assistant commissioner reflected on the challenges of the last year. 

He also painted a picture of some of the challenges the APS would face, based on insights from the latest State of the Service report, moving forward.

“As we continue to deal with the impacts of the pandemic, and other recent events across the country, the challenges that have been thrown at the APS over the past year have been significant,” Hetherington said.

“In my view, your ability to continue to perform and deliver for the Australian community during these extraordinary times is admirable.”

“Your work matters through persuasive policy advice to government, through regulation, and through service delivery, you touch the lives of every Australian,” he said. 

Hetherington said the workforce, which worked across 97 federal government agencies and 14 portfolios, was fully engaged and committed to the task of delivering for Australians. But he also warned demand for bigger and stronger government services meant a tougher task ahead for those administering services, as well as those designing and implementing policies. 

“The demands on group governance, on statecraft and on our capacity to work as a cohesive public service will continue to grow as will the public’s expectation of government,” Hetherington said.

“I suspect it’s not going to get easier.”

Citizen and government needs had shifted dramatically in recent years, the assistant commissioner said, highlighting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, and the flow-on effects of war overseas. And the APS has been moved to respond with ‘rapid changes under increasing pressure’. 

However, to best position the APS to meet similar future challenges, Hetherington said an approach which focused on data-driven services and sophisticated utilisation of technology was needed. This transformation of the service included values-based priorities to lift the diversity of the workforce, consider ways of better collaboration, and promote a ‘one enterprise’ perspective to tackle complex and interconnected issues.

“The pandemic continues to illustrate the increasing complexity of our work, a public health crisis with implications for our economy, our regulatory system, national security and how we deliver services, integrate technology and data, and mobilise our workforce,” Hetherington said.

“This pandemic will pass but the challenges around geopolitical and societal volatility, technological change and economic disruption will not.”

The APSC was working to implement the Thodey Review, Hetherington said, which outlined a vision for a more joined-up, people-facing, data-enabled, capable and trusted public service. This informed the APSC’s workforce strategy, launched last March, focused on lifting people and capability in the public sector. 

“The strategy is the foundation for driving the alignment of APS initiatives and investment to attract the best, develop the capability of the APS employees, and mobilise people to our highest priorities. 

“Implementation of the strategy is supported by the APSC Centre of Excellence for APS workforce planning capability,” Hetherington said. 

“This small team is having a high impact in its support across APS agencies, fostering workforce transformation across the enterprise as a whole, whilst meeting the unique circumstances of agencies. System-level thinking and ensuring the enduring capability of our people is at the heart of APS reform,” he added. 

At the heart of the workforce strategy is the new learning hub – the APS Academy – for mandarins at all stages of their career with a focus on the core craft capabilities that are critical for a world class public service. Senior current and retired public servants lead a faculty which guides the design of the hub’s curriculum and programs.

“These range from foundational training in topics such as integrity, or delivering policy; professional development, in topics such as human-centred design, or engaging stakeholders; through to delivery of SES master classes that recognise the unique operating environment of the APS,” Hetherington said.


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