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No more hiding in the hierarchy: APS commissioner on the limits of layers

It would be lovely to think that with the new year starting, fresh leaves could be turned over and failures left behind.

But the three key questions posed in December by He Who Must Be Obeyed – the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson – were not just sparkly decorations to be packed away with the Christmas tree.

To recap, they were:

  • How well do you know the public that you serve?
  • How ready for disruption are you?
  • What’s your big idea? What big policy idea or program could you achieve for Australia?

It was the Australian Public Service commissioner, John Lloyd, who stepped forward to respond up-front when giving the vote of thanks to Parkinson at that event on December 11.

One such idea, he said in his usual diffident way, was to reduce the public service hierarchy.

He is hardly the first or the only person to have the view that the current structure is archaic. Cast back to the 2014-15 First Principles Review of Defence, chaired by former Rio Tinto managing director David Peever.

The report said the then Defence Materiel Organisation was top-heavy, with the structure up to 11 layers deep. “This has led to a disempowered delivery organisation,” it said bluntly.

It also said, “Narrow spans of control in middle management indicate layers of hierarchy and process that weaken innovation, empowerment and accountability, and encourage micromanagement and underutilisation. They also result in poor career development.”

Last year, former Environment secretary Gordon de Brouwer suggested reducing the Senior Executive Service by one layer, principally by merging bands 1 and 2, and strengthening the executive levels below.

John Lloyd told The Mandarin this week he believed that, in future, management hierarchies would become less and less relevant, while the APS was unfortunately still caught with its historical 11 official classification levels (broad-banding and the rapid disappearance of the two lowest classifications notwithstanding).

“My sense is that the future of work is to be organised more around teams, where authority does not so much come from supervisory authority but more from being a team whose members and leaders have different skills,” he said. “With the hierarchy under challenge, we need to start thinking about how to deal with that, how we mandate work-level standards and that kind of thing.”

Lloyd noted that some banks and other companies were moving away from strict hierarchies and the team approach was already embedded in the IT industry.

While public service work-level standards were being kept under constant review, he said it would take creative thinking as to how to use them for promotions, appointments and remuneration, if arrangements were to become more flexible, with team leaders having different skills and attributes.

Keeping costs under control was also important. “Weak managers often take a soft approach and want to give higher pay than is justified, so such questions have to be dealt with at the embryonic stage. But my view is that we have got to really look at that.”

Performance management also needed to be re-thought. In the commissioner’s view, it should always be a regular conversation and a two-way dialogue rather than an annual discussion between manager and employee.

“Employees need to come with views about what they want, their aspirations, what they need to do. Too often they sit back and let management tell them what to do.”

A team approach also made it far more difficult to hide behind a hierarchy when it came to accountability.

Lloyd would love to see a real team structure trialled, most feasibly in a small agency.

As for Parkinson’s edict that the APS get to know the people it serves, he observed that on returning to Canberra three years ago he felt the service had become less engaged outwardly.

He also acknowledges that too much dependence on digital communications carries a risk of depersonalising the public service.

“I try to encourage people involved in policy formulation to get out and meet with constituents. If you [just] get on a website you can’t get to know people – you need to be engaged.

“And, while a lot of industry associations waltz through Canberra and give their views from the top, innovators don’t tend to belong to industry associations and you won’t meet them if you don’t get out and about.”

Lloyd remembers how instructive it was, when he was at the earlier incarnation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, to meet face-to-face with small industry contractors from towns and suburbs around Australia and hear their stories.

“It taught me a really good lesson that we were not just there to look after the Grollos and the Multiplexes.”

In his view, Treasury secretary John Fraser’s move to open interstate offices has worked well in enabling officials to mix with people in finance and business. Treasury’s culture, he thinks, is sufficiently robust to withstand the risk of undue influence from outside players.

Now let’s see what the year brings, in terms of the APS’s responses to Parkinson’s questions.

Image: Josh Calabrese.

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.