It has home-grown hindsight, but can the public service change?

By Verona Burgess

October 4, 2017

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Few senior public servants walk away from their careers with never a care in the world. Most retain a deep and abiding passion for public policy and administration, along with a perennial itch to fix the problems that bedevil government.

Valedictory orations by departing secretaries and agency heads have provided many wise insights and ideas about the direction of the Australian Public Service.

Occasionally these, and speeches by serving secretaries, are collected and published, most recently in the Institute of Public Administration, Australia’s Twelves Speeches 2016 – a year of speeches from public service leaders, that included contributions from Peter Varghese, Mike Pezzullo, Martin Bowles, Jane Halton, Frances Adamson, Glenys Beauchamp, Finn Pratt, Dennis Richardson, Heather Smith and Martin Parkinson.

There was also the Australian National University’s 2012 collection, With the benefit of hindsight  – valedictory reflections from department secretaries 2004­–11, that contained speeches from Roger Beale, Andrew Podger, Allan Hawke, Ric Smith, Dennis Trewin, Joanna Hewitt, Peter Shergold, Robert Cornall, Mark Sullivan, David Borthwick, Peter Boxall, Patricia Scott, Michael L’Estrange, Ken Matthews, Ken Henry, Lynelle Briggs and Terry Moran.

That’s quite a roll-call. Yet there does not appear to have been any effort within the APS to produce, let alone publish, a systematic analysis of this large body of thought, which might help solve some entrenched problems and contribute to shaping the public service of the future.

In the last few months alone there have been more valuable observations from Dennis Richardson (Defence) and Gordon de Brouwer (Environment and Energy), while the now former Health secretary Martin Bowles will give his valedictory speech on October 17.

Correcting executive classification

Let’s take just one example: de Brouwer’s suggestion to reduce the Senior Executive Service (SES) bands from four (including department secretaries) to three by merging the SES 1 (assistant secretaries or branch heads) and SES2 (division heads); and to strengthen the Executive Levels, in particular EL2.

As he put it: “My sense is that, over the years, as problems have occurred or mistakes been made, management of issues and briefing responsibilities have been progressively elevated and sometimes centralised. I suspect that too often senior executive officers have ended up doing the jobs of executive level officers as a way to manage risk, that they too often (usually unintentionally) crowd out more junior officers, and that those EL officers in turn do not have the opportunity to learn on the job and hone their analytical, conceptual and communication skills and judgment. The result is that we are not developing the next cohort of leaders and senior leaders to think and to have the ability and courage to provide good and persuasive strategic and operational advice to ministers.”

Referring to the APSC’s work level standards, he went on to say, “The distinguishing characteristics of a good SES officer are strategic oversight and ensuring the capability of teams, with greater complexity the higher the level. The heart of public sector management is the EL, whose job requires strategic professional expertise, problem solving and leading teams and stakeholder engagement with autonomy.”

It is worth reflecting also on the 2011 review of the SES by former Environment secretary Roger Beale, commissioned because of concerns about the 50% growth of the SES between 2005 and 2011.

In a nutshell, Beale observed that, while not widespread, there was some over-classification of jobs including at SES3 (deputy secretaries) and also some under-classification. Over-classification was estimated to cost $6 million. Of the small sample, 21% of SES3 jobs were over-classified as were 6% of SES2; and 23% of the SES1 fell in the bottom 10% range of work value. Mercifully, however, he did not recommend any increase to the three-level SES structure (four including the secretary); consultants Mercer had recommended adding another level.

De Brouwer was not advocating mass SES staff cuts (EL numbers were already sharply reduced in 2013 and 2014); nor a particular method of redesigning the jobs. But it would seem from his observations that over-classification and perhaps some under-classification are still at issue, especially at SES1 level, a cohort whose large numbers relative to the rest of the SES can create a logjam, especially in big agencies. Years ago, one former Defence secretary privately described his SES1 group in deep frustration as a management black hole from which “nothing goes upwards and nothing goes down.” The cohort is also not protected by the agency-wide workplace agreements with the unions.

The numbers tell a broad story. The recently released APS Statistical Bulletin 2016-17 shows that of 152,095 total staff at June 30, there were 1982 SES1 (or 1.3%); 560 SES2 (0.4%); and 124 SES3 (0.1%) at their base classification. Of the 137,239 ‘ongoing’ staff there were 1913 SES1, or 1.4%. SES2 comprised 0.4% and SES3 0.1%. Back in 2002, SES1 comprised just 1% of all staff; SES2 comprised 0.3% and SES3 0.1%.

Nobody is suggesting branch heads should simply be put on the chopping block, much as many EL2 officers do dream about it. But de Brouwer’s remarks about reforming the SES structure should be taken seriously; he did not make them lightly. Perhaps their time has arrived.

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