Coming on three years after the creation of the office of the New South Wales public service commissioner, the inaugural holder of the role has an act of Parliament and three major frameworks under his belt, and a public sector employee survey showing those frameworks are having an impact on the 400,000-strong workforce.
Graeme Head took stewardship of the “large complex animal” that is the state public sector workforce just as the then O’Farrell government’s commission of audit was finalising its diagnosis of the sector. The audit recommendations by Dr Kerry Schott gave the commissioner’s office a mandate and a direction to take on significant reform to the way the public sector is managed in NSW.
Head told The Mandarin he was “very fortunate” coming into the role to have almost immediate access to Schott’s diagnostic covering issues such as capability, systems and performance culture. It formed “the basis for developing a framework for reform designed to not just respond to the specific issues that Dr Schott had identified, but really put in place the fundamentals for a high-performing public service”.
The pivotal areas to delivering on the promise of high quality services to the community are values, capability, culture, all of the aspect of workforce management and practice in the public sector, according to Head:
“We’ve got a clear statutory remit; it’s a very independent office in the way the government established it. It has a comprehensive set of functions around leading good practice in workforce management, and it has very strong powers to support those functions.”
Head sees his role as a capacity builder across all levels of the public sector, ensuring its workforce has the right abilities to deliver the best possible outcomes for communities. His priority in the short term? “Respond to all the areas that require reform and improvement in the commission of audit, and to build the framework for driving reform,” he said.
Those reforms were the development of the Government Sector Employment Act, a new capability framework, a new performance management framework, and a new recruitment framework. All three have been implemented this year, and the new legislation mandates NSW agencies incorporate those frameworks into their business processes and practices.
The GSE Act gives the commissioner the power to compel agency heads with directives when immediate responses to issues are required, as Head’s first directive earlier this year tackling high bullying reports. The frameworks, also empowered via the GSE Act, allow the commissioner to shape the public service workforce in the medium term.
The capability framework is an underpinning reform for all the others, with a new directive for more accurate framing of role descriptions, and that recruitment processes must address the capabilities that are specified in those role descriptions. Head says they’ve also mandated new processes in recruitment to ensure a greater use of “objective assessment” for testing people against those capabilities.
“I think the general view within the sector and externally is that very strong progress has been made on all these fronts, and the GSE Act itself really mandates the comprehensive update of these processes within specified periods of time … It deals with the core capabilities from top to bottom in the public service, both the capabilities of chief executives to the capabilities of the most junior positions.”
In addition to general capabilities required by all public servants, Head and his office are also developing occupation-specific capability requirements, starting with a set of requirements for IT professionals in the public service. Work is currently underway, in consultation with agencies, on occupation-specific capability sets for finance professionals and human resources professionals. With the performance management framework, Head says the early results are promising.
“We know in the short period of time since the new performance management framework was rolled out there’s already been an improvement in both the extent to which staff get formal performance agreements and also the quantity and quality of informal feedback people are receiving.
“So we’re aware from our monitoring of work that there’s been an increase of the formal activity of performance management and good progress being made in rolling that out. Just through the preliminary employee survey, that’s already tracking with people telling us that they’re in fact happening in their workplace.”
The complex consultation task
With the NSW public sector the largest workforce in the country, Head acknowledges the challenge in effective consultation.
“It’s a large, complex animal and driving change across something that big is a complex process. So I work in partnership with the nine secretaries, and through a very sophisticated set of collaborative arrangements with departments and smaller agencies, to make sure that the reform is being implemented vigorously. But also that we’re addressing issues that are important to individual agencies on the way.”
Externally, stakeholders are almost as numerous, and growing as the Baird government seeks more input from the other sectors. Head says these discussions need to address a lot of issues: the role of government, how is that changing over time, how do different sectors expect to interact with the public sector, and to what extent does the public service’s current capabilities align with what is needed today and what is needed to effectively interact with those groups.
“We have good processes for dealing with stakeholders internal to government but we also do a lot of work interacting with people from other sectors, and a lot of leadership development work is increasingly exposing leaders in the public sector to ideas and perspectives from other sectors of the community.”
Head is assisted by an advisory board chaired by Peter Shergold, former secretary of the Department Prime Minister and Cabinet. While Head has the powers to develop the reform frameworks for immediate impact, Shergold is tasked with exploring the strategic issues of future reforms. The advisory board has taken on three issues to examine in details: productivity in the public sector, collaboration between the public sector and other sectors in delivering services, and how to measure customer satisfaction with government services.
These reviews will work in tandem with the reforms and assessment currently underway, Head says.
“The business of delivering the best services in the best way to citizens actually requires constant process of vigilant self-reflection. What are we good at? Who do we partner with? What’s the nature of the relationship? What does that mean in terms of the abilities we need?
“All public sectors that are approaching their circumstances with a thorough and open mind are engaged in that process of constantly reflecting on how they do what they do, whether they bring the right things and whether they’ve got the right skills to do things in the way they need to be done. The commission plays an important role in the way NSW supports the sector, and supporting the implementation of the reform direction determined by the government.”
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