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David Thodey Q&A: your burning questions about the APS review answered

Two months ago the Australian government announced David Thodey AO, chair of the CSIRO board and former CEO of Telstra, would chair a panel conducting an independent review of the Australian Public Service.

Thodey spoke with The Mandarin as the review panel calls for public submissions by no later than Friday, July 13.


What are you hoping to achieve with the review?

Thodey: This is a unique and exciting opportunity for us to sit back and really determine what we can do now to make sure the public service continues to be an inspiring, attractive place to work.

We also want to ensure it continues to make a difference to all Australians. That’s what we want to do in serving both government and citizens. I’m excited by the opportunity and I do think it’s a great credit to the government to say let’s have a look at it. We need it to include all sides of government, all parts of society, because this is for the good of Australia. That’s what we’re committed to doing and I know my panel colleagues are excited by that opportunity.

It’s difficult, it’s complex and we want to come out with practical and implementable recommendations that can really make a difference. That is difficult, but we’re committed to the task and hopefully we’ll come through with something that will make a contribution to this country.

Is the APS review just for the boffins?

Thodey: I think it’s absolutely critical that this review is seen as serving all Australians and that we get as broad a group of submissions and feedback as possible. We need suggestions and good insights from all Australians right across the spectrum. That’s including academic, industry, the public service, private sector, small business, big business and citizens. Because this is our public service and we have a responsibility to help see it evolve change and transform itself to serve all Australians.

Does the APS need fixing?

Thodey: This is not about fixing the APS. I don’t think it’s broken. This is about taking time out to look at where we think the public service needs to be by 2030. In light of all the changes and global impact, the changing nature of society and expectations that really makes the public service continue to serve all Australians and we’re taking time out to think that through.

I do think this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and that’s why I’m keen to encourage as many people as possible to contribute.

Can people make confidential submissions to this review?

Thodey: Absolutely. We’re subject to legal requirements around people who submit comments, and we’ll encourage people who want to remain confidential as much as we would encourage people to make comments that we can make public.

Is this a cloak to cover job cuts in the APS, as raised by the CPSU?

Thodey: Absolutely not. This is not a cloaked endeavour to reduce the public service. This is about creating a more vibrant and effective public service that all of us are proud of. So we are very keen to engage with the union as we work through this, and would welcome their contribution and ideas about how we make the public service fit for purpose.

The secretariat supporting the review are from the same body being reviewed: the APS. Do you feel sufficiently independent to say whatever you need to say?

Thodey: I feel absolutely independent. I’m delighted to have a strong set of public servants who are helping us think through this, which is absolutely critical because of the complexity of the public service.

But I have no doubt in my mind about our independence and we will give independent and fearless advice as we work through this.

There’s no minister on the panel for the review, but that interaction between minister’s office and APS will be an issue for the review to deal with. Where will you get that input?

[Panel member Gordon de Brouwer worked in a ministerial office earlier in his career]

Thodey: We will be considering all the components of the public service and the interactions we have, both departments to minister, minister back to department, the minister’s office and federal state relations. The definition of the review includes all those elements, so I’m not concerned we won’t get good feedback and I’m sure we’ll come to some judgement on that.

Public and private sector work has been seen as philosophically different. Is that immutable?

Thodey: There is a difference between the private sector and public sector in the nature of the work. It is far more complicated working in the public sector, you have far more stakeholders than you do in the private sector. The private sector on the other hand is far more, probably, outcomes driven than you would see in the public sector because of the nature of it.

However both are very important in the proper functioning of society and we need to have people who understand the private sector and the academic world. And we need the ability that people move more seamlessly between the three.

I think in all the work that I have read, looking at this area, Australia does not score highly in this area of cross-collaboration between those three different working environments. I am very committed to that. I think we need more people with those skills.

On capability, we will be looking for what are the core capabilities for the public sector to have to be effective and dynamic going forward. Then, others will look at how they do that, but we’re looking at trying to build the capability of the public service.

David Thodey’s answers have been sparingly edited for grammar only.

The Review Panel is calling for submissions in response to the Terms of Reference. The closing date for submissions will be 11.59pm AEST Friday 13 July 2018.

The Commonwealth’s Secretaries Board have encouraged APS employees to contribute.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.