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John Lloyd: tap future APS leaders who can avoid PC ‘group think’ and ‘virtue signalling’

Mandarins need ways to tap the public sector leaders of tomorrow on the shoulder rather than wait patiently for the cream to rise to the top, thinks Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd.

And, if it was up to Lloyd, the bright young things identified for promotion would be the ones most willing to challenge the prevailing “politically correct” ideas, which he sees as “group think” driven by “do-gooders” whose constant “virtue signalling” threatens the development of good policy advice.

Canberra is “particularly vulnerable” to having “the diversity of views and opinions that go to good policy advice” stifled in this way, he said yesterday afternoon in his farewell address to the APS, hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia at the National Gallery.

“I encourage you as leaders to be vigilant about this and show the courage to express views and pursue ideas that may challenge the dogma of accepted group think,” said the commissioner, who resigns tomorrow, well over one year before the end of his full term.

“Just as importantly, support others that have the courage to stand up and question the prevailing orthodoxy.”

During his tenure, the APS Commission has been closely involved in a push by departmental secretaries to put in place more active talent management and succession planning.

This is something Lloyd believed was missing from public administration in the past due to the principles of merit-based recruitment and promotion, which have traditionally limited the direct influence of senior public servants over the precise composition of their teams compared to their private-sector counterparts.

When he first asked APS leaders about the biggest human resources issues they were dealing with, Lloyd said talent management was “top of the queue” in many of those conversations.

“It was the one thing that most people commented on; they had to spend a lot of time developing talent,” he said, answering a question from Australian Taxation Office chief operating officer Jacqui Curtis.

“Though I think in the past we felt that the public service merit selection process made sure the cream came to the top, and that would guarantee us a pipeline of talent, now I think that is not sufficient and it was necessary for us to develop [more active talent management initiatives].”



Lloyd said the APS secretaries’ succession planning initiative was working well, with personalised professional development plans for individual employees giving current leaders more confidence in those to follow.

“It has to be done, and in the public service commission we’re now giving … tool kits and information for people — EL2s and EL1s — for their talent potential to be identified and developed,” he added.

“So I think it’s an integral part of what we’re doing; it’s important for our future, and I’m very much in favour of it and … although it’s been a reassuring exercise, it’s been a gap, I think, in our past and it’s good that we’re now addressing that to have a more considered, thorough approach to talent in the future.”

The commissioner also sees competition for talent getting stronger in future and repeated his view that governments should aim to close the divide between the different workforce sectors,  so that “career interchange between the APS, the private sector and state governments became more common”.

“This is not easy and we need to approach it in a determined fashion focussing more on the opportunities and less on the hindrances to mobility,” said Lloyd. “I think the interchange of younger professionals will offer opportunities for good outcomes.”

So long and thanks for all the deregulation

The speech and a series of gentle questions from APS secretaries and senior executives gave the outgoing commissioner an opportunity to talk about the topics he finds most interesting — from human resources, workplace relations and cutting red tape, to supporting people with disability and working with Indigenous leaders like Tom Calma to build a staff network for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander senior executives.

“The members of this group are, to a person, outstanding Australians who have come together to use their skills and resilience to build Indigenous representation in the APS, including the SES. It has been a privilege to work with them.”

The APSC’s role in a special entry program and support at work for people with disabilities is an area of personal interest for Lloyd, who had a child with cerebral palsy and volunteered as a director of three charitable organisations supporting people with the condition over the years. He described this as a privilege and said it was ultimately “uplifting” to be part of a group of people coming together to support people with cerebral palsy.

He also got to dispense a few interesting personal views:

  • Like many of us, he hates the regular “tinkering with departmental names” that every government feels the need for.
  • The Victorian government led by Jeff Kennett, which appointed him executive director of the Department of Business and Employment, was “the best organised and most reformist” he has ever worked for.
  • He believes the APS, however, is more professional, better resourced and has more intellectual depth than any state government.

It wouldn’t be John Lloyd’s valedictory speech without references to the combative world of industrial relations, something that is “in his blood” and “the lens through which he sees the world” in the words of colleagues, quoted by Department of Foreign Affairs secretary Frances Adamson as she welcomed the outgoing commissioner on stage.

“The cutting of red tape has been an ongoing crusade for John and one for which we as public servants I think should be grateful,” Adamson added. “I certainly am, John.”

The DFAT chief also listed the commissioner’s latest proud achievements in his chosen field: “implementing a government policy that sought to restrain wage growth” and driving “the removal of terms and conditions he saw as out of step with contemporary workplaces and community expectations” in particular.

Industrial relations, Lloyd noted in his speech, was “consistently the policy area with the sharpest contest between the Coalition and the ALP” and had thus “spawned many political leaders” over the years.

Throughout his term, he has never shied away from leaning strongly to the Coalition side of that contest, and at times seemed to relish his role as a key target of the opposition and the public service unions.

His parting words were no exception — beginning with a chuckle at his propensity to make Senator Penny Wong “unhappy” and a joke about his ongoing relationship with the Institute of Public Affairs, where he was formerly director of workplace relations and productivity.

“I believe the system today is too regulated and inflexible,” he said. “This is a risk that will only be amplified if the ACTU agenda of more and deep regulation gains traction. In that case employment prospects would be damaged.”

He only made brief mention of recent complaints that he may have breached the code of conduct he was appointed to enforce, by maintaining his ongoing relationship with friends at the IPA from his office, and the subsequent investigation under the auspices of the Merit Protection Commissioner. Normally a man of few carefully chosen words, Lloyd went out with the same posture he has held throughout a turbulent term; as if to stare back at his critics and shrug, as though their attacks are mostly statements of the obvious fact that he does not agree with them.

“I have had a fulfilling career,” he told his colleagues.

“I have stayed true to my values. I have copped criticism — some recently that still has not been brought to conclusion, following a process that I have found most unsatisfactory.”



Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.