APS annual report: a busy year, with expectations rising

By Stephen Easton

October 17, 2014

Australian Public Service commissioner Stephen Sedgwick looks back over an “eventful year” which saw the new Coalition government rebuild the machinery of government, put the brakes on recruitment, demand further workforce reductions and give agencies less room to move in workplace bargaining.

In his fifth annual retrospective, Sedgwick thanks senior Commonwealth public servants for their “generous support and willingness to collaborate” with the APSC and adds that his own staff “are entitled to feel very proud about what has been achieved” over the last financial year.

Some of those achievements include piloting a scheme to give guaranteed job interviews to people with disabilities and its adoption by 14 agencies, and helping to get 111 new indigenous employees into the service. Employees from such “diversity groups” were also a special focus of new entry and exit surveys, which provide data to improve attraction and retention efforts.

Sedgwick optimistically asserts that the strict new workplace bargaining policy “will underpin productive workplace arrangements across the Commonwealth public sector”, even as it continues to seed growing industrial unrest across the APS.

Capability reviews were run for eight agencies along with one “health check” to assess the impact of a capability review a year or more down the track. The long-term project to replace dysfunctional performance management systems with a “high-performance framework” also moved ahead, through the deployment of a new diagnostic instrument and a learning program for managers. According to Sedgwick:

“Our collaborative relationship with agencies has enabled the commission to develop learning programs that are targeted and relevant. In addition, our ownership of intellectual property allows us to provide APS agencies with flexible program delivery and tailoring options. We have taken a practical approach to implementing our core public service skills programs, working with agencies to define their learning needs to ensure the most meaningful and effective interventions. These are excellent examples of the benefits of cross-APS collaboration and the potentially large savings available to APS agencies when we work together to ‘build once, use many times.”

There was also progress in the ongoing project to reassert a more consistent and effective hierarchy and address the upward creep of job classification levels, through the development of new work-level standards and a supporting classification guide.

The updated APS Leadership and Core Skills Strategy came out in June, and the past year also saw the commission complete its range of senior executive service leadership development programs with the addition of a course for SES band 3 level. Talent programs are next, Sedgwick explained:

“We are also close to finalising a new SES band 1 talent program, having previously successfully delivered programs at band 2 and band 3 levels. These programs contribute to the achievement of the goal of the 2011 APS Leadership Development Strategy to develop leaders with the capability to manage and lead in the changing business environment facing the APS. The programs are subject to continuous improvement and we will endeavour to work with our colleagues to ensure that each program continues to meet the needs of the changing APS context and emerging drivers.”

The commission ran its second APS Human Resources Summit in early December and exported Australian expertise in public sector capability development to Kiribati, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Indonesia and Ghana. It also worked with the Department of Finance in trying to smooth out changes associated with the commencement of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, which replaced the Financial Management Act on July 1. The PGPA reform process is expected to be complete mid next year.

The APSC also examined its own policies, procedures and critical business functions in a range of ways over 2013-14, and moved its financial and human resources systems to the new Shared Services Centre. It undertook workforce planning for the future and started work on a new Reconciliation Action Plan for 2015 and beyond. Sedgwick added:

“We also revisited our strategic plan and business functions. The performance framework and the workforce planning guide (both developed in 2012–13 for the APS) were applied internally to facilitate this process. This experience, at firsthand, reinforced the value of robust guidance that is readily available to assist APS agencies that are undertaking similar processes.”

Looking ahead, the commissioner sees several challenges, chief among them “high (and possibly rising) expectations” of his team’s ability to support APS capability development as budgets continue to shrink. He added:

“The commission is also entering the final two years of a five-year funding deal whereby agencies have contributed cash to support a number of whole-of-APS activities undertaken by the commission in collaboration with agencies. It will be important, therefore, to continue to deliver on the commitment the commission has made at the pace and high quality of the last few years.”

Sedgwick goes on to encourage agencies to continue working actively with the APSC on workforce development, sharing good practice, data collection and looking for innovative solutions to difficult problems:

“This will assist the commission in our research to provide robust insights about the APS as a whole, and to identify systemic issues. Over time, we hope that these findings generate a wider awareness of significant trends and inspire targeted and innovative approaches to address prevalent issues in the APS. The role of senior leadership across agencies remains key to responding to current and emerging challenges, and the commission has an enduring commitment to providing relevant strategic and practical support.”

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