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The rise of ‘public service professions’: information managers to lead the way

Specific public service professions could begin to emerge in coming years as organisations raise professional standards in areas like digital information management and human resources that have traditionally been seen as jobs for generalists, according to the Australian Public Service Commission’s human capital chief Ian Fitzgerald.

Speaking yesterday afternoon at the launch of a new interactive, online capability matrix developed by the National Archives to guide the improvement of digital information and records management, Fitzgerald said the APSC was keen to copy the UK Government’s move to create 22 official “civil service professions”.

He is particularly interested in the UK’s “government knowledge and information management” profession as well as his own area, human resources, which had traditionally lacked professional standards and credibility in the same way as information and records management.

“Too often in my view, and particularly in the five years I’ve been in the public sector, too often we’ve seen some roles as roles that anyone can do,” Fitzgerald said. “And I find that really surprising, and that is different to my experience in the private sector.”

National Archives of Australia director-general David Fricker said public service organisations needed a new cadre of information management experts to provide high level advice, and probably a new c-level position. “Perhaps we need something like a chief information governance officer, who is actually making sure that the activities and the policy frameworks are in place,” he said.

By the end of 2020, agencies will all employ “designated information management specialists” who will be required to meet professional standards and hold particular qualifications. Fricker said the NAA would be working with the education sector and industry to achieve that goal through recruiting people with some of the necessary credentials and others on the way to getting them, or providing the professional development opportunities to existing staff.

More than running an IT system, digital information management is “completely entrenched” within everything the public service does and hopes to achieve, according to the Archives boss.

“We need to make sure that as part of the overall governance of organisations — the decision making, the policy making, the operational decisions in all government agencies — information management is recognised,” he said. “That information managers have a seat at the table when those important decisions are being taken. When spending decisions are being made, when strategies are being formulated, when decisions are being made about amalgamation, or … machinery of government changes.

“We need to make sure that information managers are recognised and that they have a seat at the table.”

But while the NAA will be leading the way in raising professional standards for digital information managers, in the APS, Fricker is very clear that all public servants need a solid understanding of best-practice ways to create and manage digital government information, not only a small group of specialists. As such, the new capability matrix is uniquely stratified to underpin professional development for three streams: digital information management professionals, IT people, and all other public servants.

“We have to recognise that ICT staff within organisations have got to be more included, have got to more knowledgeable, have got to be more aware of information management issues and so we need professional capabilities for ICT staff,” he added.

The online capability matrix, which went live after the launch at 4.30pm yesterday, is more “interactive” than a hardcopy document and contains links to relevant resources. But it’s only the beginnning of the journey, Fitzgerald pointed out.

The APS Commission’s HR boss used a quote from the UK Government’s 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan to illustrate his view:

“The old idea of a civil service generalist is dead. Everyone needs the right combination of professionalism, expert skills and subject matter expertise.”

“To me that’s common sense,” said Fitzgerald. “There are consequences if information is not managed well and there are opportunities if information is managed well.

“Of course, the framework is just a starting point. It must be operationalised, and this occurs when it becomes the foundation for clearer role definition, development, performance management and where warranted, promotion decisions.”

Fitzgerald said the APSC’s 23 capability reviews of major federal departments and agencies confirmed that information management is “a critical enabler of strategy delivery and leadership capabilities” in big organisations in this day and age. Of course, the huge and growing amount of data being created all the time only increases the challenge.

“Good policy is based on good information,” he said, adding that government agencies should take more interest in increasing their absorptive capacity — their “ability to recognise unique value in new information, to assimilate that information and to turn it into something that is valuable” — like the top private sector firms do:

“I think it’s even more important in the public sector than the private sector to be doing that well. And I can say after 23 reviews that there is a system-wide need to improve information management capability in the APS.”

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Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.