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The plan to transform public service skills and knowledge

Would you like to know how difficult it is for the public service to fill key roles during a global skills shortage? “Every time we advertise for a cybersecurity vacancy on APS Jobs, there are approximately 250 other employers posting the same vacancy on Seek,” says Rina Bruinsma, acting deputy commissioner of the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC). 

And that isn’t the only problem the public service confronts while it struggles to match job opportunities with available talent: “Often we’re advertising jobs in Canberra, and 90% of the talent we actually need is in the regions.”

Bruinsma, who has spent much of her public sector career in Finance and Employment, says the incredibly tight labour market is driving much of the commission’s thinking right now. 

“It will be a key priority and challenge for 2022,” she says. “This is about securing a pipeline of talent that isn’t necessarily Canberra-based and isn’t limited to service delivery roles. We want people from outside of Canberra working in policy, regulatory and program roles.”

Right now, the APSC’s best minds must find ways to entice and foster top-quality talent, especially in hotly contested disciplines such as data and digital.

Bruinsma says it’s part of the APSC’s response to recommendations from the 2019 Independent Review of the Australian Public Service led by former Telstra chief David Thodey. The review outlined a vision for a more integrated, people-facing, data-enabled, capable and trusted public service. 

“We can’t see the Thodey review as a one-off,” she says. “The public service really needs to continue to evolve in line with technology and citizen expectations.” 

Enticing talent in regional areas

With digital and data identified as areas ripe for transformation, Bruinsma and her team need to attract experienced professionals who are keen to make a difference in the public service. They also want to build digital capabilities through upskilling existing staff and luring quality university graduates through the APS Academy.

Under the supporting regionalisation package, the APSC is establishing four academy-aligned campuses alongside universities in regional areas. The first of these, at the University of Newcastle’s Callaghan campus, was announced in May. It will initially offer up to 30 placements for students in computer and data science, information technology, software engineering and cyber security. 

Bruinsma says at least three academy campuses, including Newcastle, will be operational from January. 

“We want to go where the talent is,” she says. “We’re going to establish these [campuses] alongside universities in the regions to bring apprentices, cadets, interns and graduates in data and digital to work with us.

“At the same time as they’re studying, they’re building a relationship with us. They’ll have professional supervisors on those campuses with them. Our graduate programs lead to ongoing work with the APS, so the salaries and the wages stay in the region.” 

Bruinsma says the APS benefits because it will attract candidates who wouldn’t choose to move to Canberra or consider the APS for a career. “We already have really successful graduate programs; we have pretty high retention rates for our graduates and trainees,” she says. “We really want to target data and digital, and forge strong relationships with the universities so the training they’re providing is exactly what we need. 

“Students are able to stay in the region, but they’re able to pursue a career opportunity that they would otherwise have had to move to Canberra to take up.” 

Bruinsma says the academy campuses complement the other APSC initiative – four APS hubs in regional Australia. The APSC hopes these multi-agency hubs will enhance regional employment opportunities.

“Our annual APS census shows that people who work in the public service do so because they feel like they’re contributing to the communities they serve – they want to make a difference,” she says. “And there’s such a variety of projects and opportunities available.”

Bruinsma acknowledges that scrapping for scarce resources will likely mean departments and agencies fighting among themselves. “When you’re dealing with skills shortages, [agencies] are [competing] against each other, [because] we’re all recruiting for the same talent,” she says.

“Quite often I’ll make an offer to someone, and I’ll be gazumped by another agency that’s offering more. We need to think about our workforce and recruitment strategies from a whole-of-APS perspective.” 

Aiming to be a leading digital government by 2025

One of the key recommendations in the Thodey review is for the APS to undertake a major capability rebuild to strengthen in-house expertise. To help bolster internal data and digital skills, the APSC has embarked on basic digital literacy and fluency training across the entire workforce. 

“The [APS] academy is designed to uplift capability and skills in ‘APS Craft’, which is all the things you need to know to be a good public servant,” says Bruinsma. 

“We also have our ‘professions’ programs – HR, data and digital professions. These are membership-based groups that if you come into the APS in those disciplines, you’re surrounded by a community of like-minded experts. You can network and we provide specific training and development opportunities and events.”

Although the DTA is responsible for delivering on the ambitious target of making Australia a global digital leader by 2025, the APSC’s task is to provide a workforce that’s ready for the future. 

“The whole idea about the pipeline and the campuses is to help us future proof,” Bruinsma says. “It doesn’t solve the immediate skills shortage but we’re trying to get ahead of the game.

“The DTA has done a digital review, which provides a baseline for APS digital and ICT capability. They are also looking at the projects in the pipeline, such as digital identity and trade systems so that we can start to plan ahead for the skills that we need for specific projects.” For example, the DTA is in the final stages of migrating government buyers and sellers to BuyICT.gov.au, which it says offers enhanced functionality and a consistent user experience. 

Bruinsma says there’s been an increasing recognition across the APS about the importance of using human-centred design to improve customer interactions.

“Public servants can’t sit behind their desks in Canberra and design something for the end-user,” she says. “We have to co-design and think about the user experience, and we need to attract that skill set into the public service.”

And because citizens need to trust the public service to be custodians of their personal data, Bruinsma says departments and agencies “have a much higher bar than the private sector in terms of how we manage information”.

“Services Australia and the DTA are really trying to understand the customer life journey,” she says. “Rather than going into a government office and speaking to five different people about different life events, you’ll go in and get a ‘wraparound’ service. 

“That’s the ambition. We have made progress but there’s room for improvement.”

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