Peter Woolcott: where to for the Australian Public Service

By Peter Woolcott

Thursday October 11, 2018

This is the ‘APSwide conference’ keynote address, delivered by Peter Woolcott, Australian Public Service Commissioner on Wednesday, October 10, 2018 in Canberra.

As Woolcott’s first APS address since taking up the appointment as commissioner, he used the address to introduce himself and illustrate the changes he has seen in the world over the course of his public sector career. He identified several changes the APS will need to make:

  • Adapt, but carefully, offering “a sense of continuity and stability” in contrast to the private sector’s “gale of creative disruption”.
  • Learn to become “politically astute” in its advice and persuasive in carrying its arguments, needing to understand the impact of options on the community.
  • Improve working relationships with state and local government, across portfolios and silos, and increasingly it will need to employ the Taskforce model — what Peter Shergold called the “Hollywood model” — for policy development and implementation.

Great pleasure to be here. Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people and pay my respect to Elders past and present.

I have been the Commissioner for some seven weeks. It has been a process of talking to a great many people and in particular some of the eminence grise of the APS. It has been a process of figuring out what I don’t know and starting to fill in the gaps.

My role, as Commissioner, is set out clearly in section 41 of the Public Service Act. Put simply it is to help ensure the professionalism, integrity and effectiveness of the Australian Public Service now and into the future.

The Public Service Act places the APSC at the centre of this great institution, but genuine influence only comes from the ability to persuade through the force of ideas and through the ability to marshal support. I see myself working in the closest possible way with Secretaries and the Government to ensure that we meet the expectations of the Australian people.

My background is DFAT. That does not make me an outsider in the APS, but it does give me a different and I would argue valuable perspective on Government and its challenges.

I joined DFAT and the Australian Public service in 1981. It was a very different world then. How different I will briefly illustrate.

I was posted to Kingston, Jamaica as the 3rd Secretary. Sent in a rush to replace a colleague who had had enough, given it was then one of the most violent countries on earth, and because the then High Commissioner (Gordon Bilney now sadly dead) needed to return urgently to Australia to stand for preselection for the seat of Kingston in South Australia – which he subsequently won for the Labour Party.

Apart from Gordon Bilney (who only came back to pack up), and myself, there were three other Australian based colleagues, an administrative officer, a personal secretary and a communicator. We covered the whole Caribbean on behalf of Australia. If I wanted to send a cable or a report for example on Soviet mischief in Cuba, Grenada or Suriname then I would dictate the message to the secretary, she would type it out and hand it back to me for correction. I would then make changes and she would re-type the whole thing. It would then go to the communicator to be re-keyed for the third time onto a cryptographic tape for dispatch. We were charged by the word so verbosity was not encouraged. No computer, no mobile phone, no email – not even a fax machine.

At one stage the Jamaican Telephone Company fell afoul of the local trade union movement and their central exchange was demolished in protest activity. We were cut off for many weeks from all telecommunications contact with Australia. When we eventually came back on line our absence had barely been noticed. In the two years I was there we had no official visitors.

Now we live in an utterly changed world.

The acceleration of technology, the speed of decision making, our global inter-connectedness, and the changes brought about by social media in the way we receive our news, how we relate to each other and how we consume – has profoundly altered the fabric of community. What marks us now is a sense of uncertainty.

The APS like many institutions in Western Democracies is under challenge. Never have expectations been higher from the public while there is a wider question as to the extent the Government and the APS control all the necessary levers given globalisation and the rise of powerful non-state actors.

Meanwhile, the Government is grappling with the challenges posed by the complexity and interconnectedness of issues; geopolitical tensions and shifting power relativities and by of course, rapid technological change.

Government wants and needs a strong public service – although there is always going to be debate about how much it needs to pay for it and what elements are better done by civil society or the private sector.

It has set up two reform processes to ensure the APS is fit for purpose.

The first is the modernisation roadmap outlined in Budget Paper Number 4 and you heard Minister Mathias Cormann refer to that work. Six streams of work have been commissioned with the APSC focussed particularly on Workforce and Culture. This has a short to medium term focus with Secretaries working on how to establish a roadmap for an APS determined to improve citizen and business experience and delivered by an efficient and sustainable public sector.

As the Minister noted in his speech, modernisation and innovation are nothing new and we have to use this to improve the public’s experience of Government by putting them at the centre and delivering fair outcomes to them.

However, as technological advances continue at pace, including augmented intelligence, so too will the expectations of Australian citizens in the way they engage with government services. Data will be fundamental to how we respond to public expectations that policy and service delivery will be increasingly personalised and place based.

The rate of change, particularly technological change, is unprecedented and the challenge for the APS is to be agile, deliver conveniently, protect information and deliver better policy and more efficient services.

Much work is underway but we have to be careful to build trust and the social licence from the public. We need to ensure that appropriate safeguards and community consultation occur when implementing major data and digital projects so as to avoid undermining our broader agenda of more effective policy implementation.

The second stream is the establishment of the Thodey Review. This is longer term and inherently more difficult given that it is trying to imagine the world and the APS out to 2030. The commitment and intellectual depth the panel is bringing to this process is extraordinary. I have had the opportunity to have a number of discussions with David and the panel. Secretaries most recently met with them in Sydney to talk through a range of issues.

The Thodey Review is asking all the right questions about the capability, culture and operating model of the future APS. It is looking at advances in technology; it is looking at societal and geopolitical volatility; it is looking at changing expectations and it is looking at the changing nature of work.

It is the first root and branch review of the APS since the Coombs Review of the 1970s. Looking at previous reviews of the APS it strikes me that many of the recommendations remain current, but have not been implemented. The Thodey Panel will doubtless look at this, ask why and whether we have the incentives right.

Their recommendations will underpin the future direction of our work to ensure the APS is fit-for-purpose in order to ensure we engage effectively with key policy, service delivery and regulatory issues into the future.

The APS is certainly not broken, but it does need to be ready to respond quickly to changing community needs and to take advantage of emerging technologies.

The APS is full of committed and talented people who joined to make a difference. While we need accelerated change, we need to be careful how to manage this. What might be happening in parts of the private sector – Schumpeter’s, I quote, “gale of creative disruption” – shouldn’t be replicated in the APS. Government and the public want from the APS a sense of continuity and stability – services and functions still need to be delivered and advice still needs to be provided.

Now my last job was with the Prime Minister as Chief of Staff and it left some indelible imprints. They in part frame my approach to many of the issues confronting the APS and reinforced views that I have long held in the other jobs that I did in the public service as a Foreign Service Officer.

And there is one big lesson I take from my time in DFAT – and that is the quality of governance and the quality of institutions is what sets apart the prosperity of countries and citizens. It is not resources, not iron ore, not gold nor oil but the ability to organise and deliver on the social contract between the Government and the people.

The APS is no longer the monopoly it once was. While we still have the authority that comes from the institution that is the APS we are working in a much more contested environment. Our advice has to be well argued and persuasive and is open to challenge by political advisors, think tanks, lobby groups and NGOs. Contestability is how it should be and the APS has to deliver in this environment. There is no room for nostalgia and no room for complaining.

We also have to accept the strength of the challenge for influence that comes from the rise of NGOs and single issue groups. They are highly mobile, well-funded and adept at utilising social media to influence reform. It is the APS which has to bring the wider lens to any issue and ensure that Government has all the relevant data and analysis that it needs to make a decision.

We also have to get better at engaging in policy discussions with civil society and the private sector to ensure a full understanding and testing of the views of stakeholders if we are to provide the advice needed to Ministers.

We need to recognise that there has been a shift in the nature of power. That as a result of new communications technologies, power is moving to coalitions and networks. As a consequence, the APS has to engage ever more actively with civil society and business. They have always had a stake in the outcomes, but they are now crucial players in shaping them.

We also need to be thinking imaginatively about how the working relationship between the APS and Ministers Offices can be enhanced. The APS needs to encourage its best to work in Ministerial Offices – to give them a deeper understanding of the speed with which things move and the pressures that quickly bear down on Ministers. It will make them better Public Servants and it will make for better government.

We also need to do better at assisting political staff to understand how to utilise and work with the APS.

Now this must never undermine the apolitical nature of the APS, but is rather to ensure that the APS remains, and I quote, “politically astute” in its advice and persuasive in carrying its arguments. Our advice also needs to understand the impact of options on the community.

Government works at its best when Ministers and their Offices work closely with agencies in pursuit of an outcome.

We still don’t do whole of Government as well as we need to – fragmentation and silos are a constant. And we don’t do whole of Governments – and by that I mean working with State and Local Governments – particularly well at all. The community do not differentiate between different levels of Government and to meet their expectations we need to work more closely with colleagues in State jurisdictions.

The fact is we cannot fix complex issues through stove-piped processes – they do not fit neatly into boxes. I think increasingly the Taskforce model for policy development and implementation is the model for the future.

The ability to quickly re-configure ourselves around a problem is going to be crucial in managing complexity. To set up an agile operating environment in which accountability and resources are shared not siloed. We do this in a crisis and we do it well. It needs to be more commonplace and part of a cultural shift in the APS.

This leads me to a central role of the APSC which is to help build and maintain the capability of the Australian Public Service.

The changing nature of work is dynamic with rapid advances in computer power and data growth, advances in artificial intelligence, digitalisation and automation.

Add to this an aging population and younger generations entering the workforce we are seeing changes to the way people want to work, an increased importance on soft skills, STEM skills and a new approach to learning – in fact continuous learning.

Essentially our capability requirements can be summarised as requiring an increased demand for higher skill levels, digital and data skills and the emergence of new hybrid jobs.

As a public sector, we are going to need to be flexible so as to respond quickly both to the Government and changing community needs as a way of taking advantage of emerging technologies.

Let me go back to learning because we need to think about it differently – not in chunks that we have largely completed as we enter the workforce, but as a continuum. We need to focus on training and in particular re-training for those in jobs which will change with technological advances.

We are also supporting the design and implementation of talent management in the APS, as an important element in positioning the service for the future.

We know that talent management is critical to business success and sustainability in private sector organisations; the public service is no different – in serving governments and citizens into the future, we need the best and brightest people in critical policy and service delivery roles.

Let me now talk about greater permeability in the APS.

We need to be able to mobilise capabilities when and where required.

The traditional view of mobility in the APS has been focused on the individual moving between departments or portfolios. This equates to about 2.5 per cent of employees per year.

Traditionally, we haven’t focused on mobility from an organisational or system perspective. We know that mobility can foster diversity of thinking, contestability of ideas and assist in capability development – lifting the overall capability of the APS, not just the individual.

We also know that the workforce of the future will be more mobile, will have multiple careers and will engage in more gig and short-term work. Younger people are not necessarily going to join the APS for life – they will move in and out. This should be encouraged by our processes not discouraged.

We also need to build flexibility into the system to respond quickly to emerging issues and mobilise our workforce appropriately in response.

However, we need a balance. Too much or poorly targeted mobility can also have an adverse impact and we can lose subject matter expertise.

Deep expertise is and will remain crucial to Government and must be a core capability of the APS. This is particularly so in those specialised agencies, often sitting outside Departments, including those with specialised regulatory functions.
We also need to ensure a skilled cohort of program and project managers. A core capability given that the APS is moving increasingly back into delivery.

Such a system should have porous boundaries in and out of the public sector and strong connections with the private sector, community groups, academia and State jurisdictions. In this way we will obtain and develop the capabilities we require in the APS of the future.

It is fairly simple – it is actually not about us. It is about the people we serve and we need to be much more citizen centric.

Now, while building and maintaining the capability of the APS will be a significant priority for me, it will not diminish the importance of my statutory responsibilities as Commissioner to uphold the integrity and values of the APS. I thought Glenys Beauchamp spoke very well about this, this morning.

The principles of good public administration, embodied in the APS Values and Employment Principles, are central to the democratic process and the confidence the public has in the public service.

Culture is the foundational set of values and behaviours that underpin the APS. There will always be a need for APS values, a set of expected behaviours, and a culture that reflects a professional APS workforce.

Going by what is happening in other democracies, we can expect that trust in the public sector will be increasingly challenged. It is difficult to build trust, and all too easy to lose it. The APS will need to continue to operate with the highest integrity. With a more mobile workforce, moving in and out of the public sector, from organisations where integrity may not be as central, we need to ensure that the focus on integrity remains strong.

Coupled with this is the need to ensure that within our culture there are engrained patterns of working with the Australian people to develop and deliver services. It is here that they largely interact with us and here that we earn and maintain their trust.

And diversity remains a critical part of our direction. We need to reflect the Australian community whether that be in regard to women, indigenous people, people with disability and people from non-English speaking backgrounds. We need to redouble our commitment in this regard.

But we need a wider view to ensure we do not become inward looking and complacent. And this leads me back to a more permeable APS – one that is more engaged with the private sector and community groups.

On workplace relations, the APSC will continue to play an important role in supporting agencies through their bargaining. We will help to deliver fair, effective and sustainable workplace arrangements that are in line with the Government’s bargaining policy.

We need to make the best use of scarce resources and ensure that our terms and conditions are fair and in line with community expectations. That we maintain a workplace environment where people can be comfortable who they are.

And we also recognise that the nature of work itself is changing and that we compete in a contested market for talent and individuals’ expectations of their employers continue to evolve.

So in closing, let me say that a great deal of work is already being done on the challenges at hand. The work of Secretaries through the ARC and other mechanisms will continue and there is a strong sense that while this work needs to dovetail with the direction of the Thodey Review, it doesn’t need to wait upon it. There is much we can do now around modernisation and service.

Let me go back to my DFAT roots and talk about the importance of statecraft. The diffusion of power as a consequence of the emergence of new powers has challenged both the existing global institutional arrangements and the old way of doing business. We are dealing with a much more fluid ideological landscape where the West’s vision of modernity and human rights is under challenge.

We find ourselves in a challenging and far more transactional international environment. We have to be tough minded in pursuing our national interests. We have to toughen up our sense of being in this together and securing outcomes that reflect our values and promote the well-being of our citizens. To do this we have to get the APS right.

As APS Commissioner, I am aware that I follow a long line of strong and committed Commissioners. Peter Shergold, Helen Williams, Andrew Podger, Lynelle Briggs, Steve Sedgwick and John Lloyd – just to name a few. They all brought their own priorities and strengths to the role – just as I will.

My focus will be on building our capability, upholding the integrity and values of the APS to continue to support Governments now and into the future. Most of all, I am determined to keep the APSC at the beating heart of good government.

I look forward to working collaboratively with you all.

Thank you

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