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APS and the missing ‘burning platform’ for improvement

The only heartening aspect of the Australian cricket team’s cheating scandal is that, despite everything, the people clearly believe that moral leadership is of vital importance in institutions we value.

Public service leadership has also been strained recently with the dismissal of former Border Force chief Roman Quaedvlieg and the news that a former deputy tax commissioner, Michael Cranston, will face trial in January on two counts of abuse of office. Then there is the dysfunctional rift between the Australian Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd, and the unions that represent a big chunk of the Australian Public Service.

Yet leadership was a slightly undercooked ingredient in an otherwise brilliant speech, “Doing Policy Differently”, given by Industry and Innovation secretary Heather Smith last week at the ACT Institute of Public Administration Australia, on the public service of the future. Here are a few key points of the speech.

“Arguably, the three most fundamental forces shaping Australia’s future are: China’s role in the international system and the implications for Australia’s prosperity and security,” Smith said. “Secondly, the role of technology and its impact on the future of work; and thirdly, the dangerous ambivalence towards the two features that underpin our democracy: respect for and investment in institutions that support our prosperity, and the erosion of support for openness to the world.”

The APS was, in her view, neither structurally configured nor culturally aligned to help government navigate these and other policy challenges, nor to capitalise on opportunities. “There’s no sense of a burning platform, no sense of strategic preparation for the decades ahead.”

She offered three thoughts on what needed to change.

“First, our way with working with each other needs to transform,” she said. “Our business model needs urgent disrupting. Many of the policy challenges we face require different ways of thinking and working, collaborative horizontal team-based approaches rather than vertical-based hierarchical structures that still form much of the APS.”

The recent creation of super-portfolios (Home Affairs and Jobs and Innovation) and the use of whole-of-government task forces for policy development had raised the bar. “It has led us to rethink the way we do business and how we advise government using the one lense to consider policy and program design, development and delivery.”

A more joined-up corporatist approach could be a new way of delivering for the citizen, perhaps with the APS structured more like a corporation, the Secretaries Board replaced by an executive committee and fewer departments with a common strategic plan and organisational strategy.

“Second, our mindsets and work practices reinforced by our structures need to be less bifurcated between our domestic and international interests and more reflective of the borderless world in which we exist. With the policy issues we deal with increasingly integrated and multidisciplinary in nature, greater mobility within the APS will be essential for us in fulfilling our role.”

That only 2% of APS staff moved agencies last year and 72% had only ever worked in one agency was not a sustainable model for the future.

Third, the APS needed to radically transform the way it engaged with the community it served. “In part, this goes to how we help government communicate the impact of the policies we implement to real effect. But how far have we taken advantage of the innovative approaches to get messages across and to meaningfully engage with the community? My sense is that our practical experience with how to engage with the community beyond traditional information sharing and consultation is rather patchy.”

Beth Noveck, from GovLab in the US, had told IPAA last year, “Public servants need to stop talking for citizens and start talking with citizens.”

Smith added, “For the APS, it means being connectors, interpreters, and navigators. It may also mean being open to citizen juries. This requires a very different approach to collaboration from the traditional approach to policy. This different way of working may mean the APS sometimes plays more of a broker role as a strategic coordinator of policy inputs, and helping to ensure all inputs are fit for purpose, and, in part, to realise the best outcome for the public.”

A root and branch review of the APS as recommended in the Innovation and Science Australia’s report, Australia 2030 (and by several former mandarins, not least Dennis Richardson and Terry Moran) could provide the platform.

Collaboration should be the rule, not the exception, with evaluation of policy and communicating the impacts or benefits front and centre.

“We have a responsibility to work with everyone: government, the private sector, NGOs, academics, and the broader community,” Smith said. “And we need to streamline processes, become more agile and innovative, rewarding people who think deeply about their work, who look for connections, and who understand the best practice at home and abroad.”

Then there was the need to be prepared to fail, fail fast, pivot, and try different approaches.

“Because these are not ordinary times – the work of public policy is increasingly complex at a time when trust in government and the institutions that support government is in decline.”

Rising to the challenge must involve making the most of technology. “Fundamentally, it means not only talking about the need for change, but acting to effect change as custodians of an institution that makes a real difference to the lives of Australians.”

The panel discussion after the speech did turn to leadership, in comments by CSIRO and former Telstra chair David Thodey. More on this, another day: such profound changes will be a huge test of character and leadership for the APS. A bit like cricket, but with fewer fans.

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.