APS under review: David Thodey asked to pick up where Nugget Coombs left off


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced an independent review of the Australian Public Service as a whole, led by CSIRO board chair David Thodey and reporting in a year’s time.

Thodey, a former Telstra chief executive, will be joined by former Environment secretary Gordon de Brouwer, University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis, Coca-Cola Amatil managing director Alison Watkins, ANZ’s digital banking boss Maile Carnegie and University of Sydney chancellor Belinda Hutchinson, who also chairs the board of defence contractor Thales Australia.

They have been asked to produce “an ambitious program of transformational reforms to ensure the APS is fit-for-purpose for the coming decades, and to guide and accelerate future reform activities”.

All departments of state and any agency employing staff under the Public Service Act will be covered, except for the parliamentary departments.

Everything from the public service’s “capability, culture and operating model” to performance measurement, cost-effectiveness and its “architecture and governing legislation” will be examined, with a view to determining how the APS needs to change so it can meet a list of broad objectives:

  • driving innovation and productivity in the economy;
  • delivering high quality policy advice, regulatory oversight, programs and services;
  • tackling complex, multi-sectoral challenges in collaboration with the community, business and citizens;
  • ensuring our domestic, foreign, trade and security interests are coordinated and well managed;
  • improving citizens’ experience of government and delivering fair outcomes for them; and
  • acquiring and maintaining the necessary skills and expertise to fulfil its responsibilities.

The review website, which went live this afternoon, explains:

“The APS needs to be apolitical and professional, agile, innovative and efficient — driving both policy and implementation through coherent, collaborative, whole-of-government approaches.

“It must have the capability to meet core responsibilities and deliver functions, and to understand and deploy technology and data to drive improvement.”

“The APS has a long history advising successive Australian Governments and serving the Australian people well,” the PM said in a statement. “But a range of global, technological and public policy developments are transforming our economy and our society, presenting both opportunities and challenges.”

Turnbull believes it is time for another review because “many of the fundamentals of Australia’s public sector in 2018” still reflected the outcomes of the royal commission led by Herbert Cole “Nugget” Coombs in the 1970s. As a preamble to the terms of reference puts it:

“The structure, approach and operations of the APS reflect a framework for public administration shaped largely by the 1974-1976 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, and refined by subsequent inquiries and reforms.

“It is therefore timely to ask whether the APS’s capability, culture and operating model are suited to harness the opportunities of a transformed Australian economy and society, in an increasingly complex global context.”

“Crucially, this also means ensuring our public service attracts and retains people with the appropriate skills and capabilities to fulfil its functions,” the PM added in his statement.

The review panel will consider views from within and outside the APS, supported by a secretariat based in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, reporting to Turnbull via PM&C secretary Martin Parkinson, who is being supported by Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd.

The panel will look at the experience of public servants, as well as the work they do.

That means questioning whether the APS is “an employer of choice, providing enriching work for its employees, nurturing talent and being an exemplar of innovation and adaptability” as well as its success in “providing security, driving productivity and jobs in the economy, improving citizens’ experience of government, and delivering fair and equitable support where it is most needed”.

The statement says the APS needs to change as social and economic change accelerate over coming years, in line with a recent report from Innovation and Science Australia.

“The Government is determined to ensure Australia capitalises on the opportunities this provides to drive innovation, increase productivity, create jobs, improve citizens’ experience of government, and deliver better services,”

“The APS has a critical role in assisting government manage and respond to new and emerging challenges — both in policy and implementation. But it must be best placed to harness the opportunities, with the necessary in-house capability to both develop and implement solutions.

“The APS must retain the key competencies and capabilities to discharge its responsibilities.

“The recent Innovation and Science Australia report, Australia 2030: prosperity through innovation, concluded the APS has to transform to meet the challenges of a digitally-enabled economy. This means improving the capacity of the APS to innovate, collaborate, and to use data and technology more effectively.”

It all sounds like a very big job for the panel of six, and their PM&C secretariat, with the long shadow of Nugget Coombs looming as ever in the background.

They are asked to look at “leading domestic and international public and private sector practice” and link their recommendations to existing “reform activities already underway across government, particularly the work of the APS Secretaries Board” as well as having a close look at previous reviews and what was learned in trying to implement their recommendations.

“The panel will consult widely, both within and outside the APS, including with an advisory group of current Commonwealth ministers and a reference group of eminent individuals with a diverse range of domestic and international, public and private sector expertise,” according to the website.

The Secretaries Board also wrote to APS employees to share the news with their own letter.

Top image: David Tholey at the recent IPAA ‘Doing Policy Differently’ forum, where the then-theoretical APS review was a topic of discussion.

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