Senior Executive Service 25th anniversary

Last updated: 13 Mar 2014

This page is: archived

The establishment of the Senior Executive Service (SES) in 1984 sought to create a Service-wide strategic leadership in ideas, management, and ethics in accordance with the Westminster principles and conventions of public administration as they operate in the Australian model of government.

The 25th anniversary of the creation of the SES provides an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements made during this time, and to focus on the challenges ahead.

APS leadership milestones

1902 Public Service Act 1902 provides for senior employees immediately below Secretaries to be placed in the Clerical Division

1920 Royal Commission on Public Service Administration (McLachlan Commission) recommends establishment of a ‘second division’

1922 Public Service Act 1922 creates the ‘second division’ and ‘assistant secretaries’ which direct important and distinctive work

1928 27 second division employees (0.3 % of APS)

1948 292 second division employees (0.7 % of APS)

1958 Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Commonwealth Public Service Recruitment (Boyer Committee) recommends better defining and streamlining the role of the second division

1964 Six SES classifications standardised across departments, including only positions with policy advising and top management responsibilities

1968 624 second division employees (0.5 % of APS)

1974 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration (Coombs Commission) established and recommends a number of changes to the Second Division

1982 Joint Committee on Public Accounts report on senior APS management makes similar recommendations to the Coombs Commission

1983 Review of Commonwealth Administration (Reid Review) makes recommendations consistent with the Coombs Review and JCPA report. The Hawke Government releases a white paper, Reforming the Australian Public Service, that recommends among other things the establishment of the Senior Executive Service

1984 Public Service Reform Act 1984 legislates the new senior executive service to create a unified, cohesive senior staffing group with distinctive selection, development, mobility, promotion and tenure arrangements

1,651 SES employees (1.2% of APS)

1987 First set of SES core capabilities issued

1990 The six SES classifications are restructured into a three band structure to enhance the optimum use and flexible management of the SES; performance pay first introduced.

  • Revised SES core criteria promulgated
  • Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration Report—Development of the Senior Executive Service—on the SES approach and its effectiveness

1994 Public Service Review Group (McLeod Review) established to make recommendations on a modern and flexible management framework for the APS

1996 The discussion paper, Towards a Best Practice Australian Public Service, is released

1999 Public Service Act 1999 with further responsibilities described; capability framework and current selection criteria developed

2005 One APS–One SES statement requires SES to exhibit common capabilities, share common values, common ethical standards and a common commitment to self-development and collaboration

2009 SES 25th anniversary

2,845 SES employees (1.9% of APS)

SES 25th anniversary

Photo: Terry Moran AO

Terry Moran AO,
Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

The emergence of strong and proactive public sector leadership has been built on reforms to the strategic and executive management of the Australian Public Service (APS).

The establishment of the Senior Executive Service (SES) in 1984 sought to create a Service-wide strategic leadership in ideas, management, and ethics in accordance with the Westminster principles and conventions of public administration as they operate in the Australian model of government.

Over time the complexity and subtlety of the demands on the SES have increased. We’ve seen accelerating change and demands from governments and Australians for the APS to be more responsive, work better and faster, and to be more accountable for results rather than just due process.

In today’s devolved and contestable environment the APS leadership group is being asked to develop and deliver innovative policy and service delivery responses to complex policy challenges like climate change, water reform, Indigenous disadvantage and mental health.

These challenges demand leaders who are outward looking, flexible, innovative and adaptive in the way they shape policies and deliver services. It also requires leaders who can assist their staff deal with the complexity and uncertainty that characterises today’s environment.

The Prime Minister has articulated four key challenges for the future APS leadership group moving forward.

The first is to enhance the strategic policy capability of the APS. For the APS to become innovative, think big and take account of the future, the SES will need to be bold in its thinking, adopt a responsible approach to risk, and become more outward looking. This will require leaders who can tap into and exploit a wide range of ideas and views and reassess traditional ways of working and solving problems.

The second challenge requires the APS to renew its efforts in the delivery of citizen centred services. To succeed the SES will need to better link policy creation and program implementation. This will require leaders who can engage with a range of stakeholders and be outwardly accountable for their decisions and actions.

The third challenge is to rebuild the concept of One APS–One SES. The SES needs to be a collegiate cadre of leaders with the interests of government overall being uppermost in their minds. The SES must learn to work collaboratively across departments. The ability of the SES leadership group to think and act strategically will be central to our success in tackling contemporary policy challenges.

Finally the SES must invest in its staff and develop the right people. This was identified as one of the three key workforce challenges facing the APS by the 2008–09 State of the Service agency survey. Agency responses continue to confirm that people management, capacity to steer and implement change, and capacity to think strategically are the most common skill gaps for the SES and the SES feeder groups. This suggests that investment in leadership development will be essential.

The creation of the SES has been critical to Australia’s success story. It has helped to produce a flexible and adaptable class of apolitical and professional public servants who serve and are responsive to the government of the day. These attributes remain critical in today’s rapidly changing devolved environment which demands organisational agility and responsiveness and a flexible approach to public administration.

The 25th anniversary of the creation of the SES provides an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate these achievements, and to focus on the challenges ahead

Terry Moran
Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Message from the Commissioner

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the creation of the Senior Executive Service—the key leadership group in the Australian Public Service.

The SES—in supporting Secretaries and agency heads— forms the critical interface between the APS and the government and its ministers. When a federal election results in a new government, the transition of power is seamless, largely as a result of the professionalism and expertise of our APS leaders.

We take for granted the role the SES plays in leading the APS to achieve high quality policies and services for the Australian community within a responsive and ethical framework. However, the SES as we know it today has evolved and developed over a long period of time. As its environment, circumstances and the needs of government changed, so has our leadership group.

To commemorate the formal establishment of the SES twenty-five years ago, this document provides an overview of how the APS leadership group came into being, what it looks like today, and where it might be headed.

We work in an exciting period of challenges and change, with possible reforms to the public service in the near future. As a career public servant with a range of experiences across several agencies, I’ve been proud to support successive governments in implementing their policies and programs. I am especially pleased today, to be in a position to participate in the new opportunities ahead.

Carmel McGregor
Acting Public Service Commissioner

Then:

[We need a] …unified, cohesive senior staffing group with general leadership and management skills which could effectively be assessed and flexibly deployed in accordance with the requirements and priorities of the…[government].
Hawke Government, 19831

Now:

We must build long-term capability and capacity by investing in APS leadership … A public service that is characterised by excellence—policy innovation, policy creativity, policy contestability, long-term policy planning and a parallel commitment to excellence and innovation in how we best deliver services to the Australian community.
Rudd Government, 20082

The contribution of a long tradition

In celebrating the achievements of the Senior Executive Service (SES) it is important to acknowledge that the SES is part of a continuum of a strong and enduring public sector leadership group. This leadership cadre—supported by the wider Australian Public Service (APS)—has played a pivotal role in key nation-building efforts and in doing so has made a significant contribution to Australia’s success as a nation.

The contribution started at the very beginning with the establishment of the legal and administrative foundations of the Commonwealth and the APS in 1902. Serving the Nation 100 Years of Public Service captures the optimism common among senior employees on Federation:

…we hold a unique position, in having an entirely new service, untarnished by any evil traditions. It is in our own hands to make history. We are associated with the birth of a nation.3

Key nation-building efforts the APS leadership has supported include Australia’s participation in the global conflicts of 1914 and 1939. In 1914 the fledgling bureaucracy took a lead role in co-ordinating the war effort. This was no mean feat—by late 1916 one out of every four eligible APS employees had enlisted.

The Great Depression impacted deeply on the APS and overall staff numbers were dramatically cut. In 1933 the then Minister for Trade and Customs acknowledged the efforts of APS staff:

The Tariff Board…could do no more than they are doing. By rare devotion to duty and reckless disregard of personal recreation and health, they carry on in a manner which, to my mind, is little short of superhuman…they have been struggling under a burden infinitely beyond their strength…Advancement to a senior or even relatively junior Customs post at Canberra, or to a Ministerial office, is more or less a sentence of premature death.4

Between 1942 and 1945 the APS leadership group also implemented the Chifley Government’s social welfare reforms which widened income security coverage to encompass widows’ pensions, funeral and maternity benefits, unemployment and sickness benefits, and tuberculosis benefits.

The growth and expansion of the Australian Government’s powers after the Second World War was reflected in the increasingly complex and diverse responsibilities of the APS and its leadership group. The APS became active in education, trade, industry, environment and conservation, and indigenous policies and programs. The APS leadership’s achievements in this regard are nothing less than remarkable. Like all industries the APS was affected by the acute manpower shortage—particularly ‘of officers with proved executive and administrative experience’.5

In the 1970s the leadership group worked with successive governments to implement major national policies in relation to Indigenous Australians, the environment, social welfare, and health—including the implementation of Australia’s first universal health scheme, Medibank (now Medicare).

Throughout the 1980s, the leadership group again played a significant role in developing and implementing wide ranging economic reforms that progressively enabled Australia to compete successfully in the global economy— reforms like reducing barriers to trade and foreign investment, commercialisation and some privatisation of government-owned businesses and increasing labour market flexibility.

In the 1990s and the new millennia, the leadership group has guided the design and implementation of a diverse range of major national policies such as the GST and the privatisation of government-owned assets, and implemented and subsequently dismantled the diametrically opposed workplace relations policies of successive governments.

More recently the APS leadership group has supported the Government’s response to the global financial crisis, including implementation of the national stimulus package. Prime Minister Rudd has acknowledged the strength and contribution of the leadership group to these initiatives:

Through the work on the nation building plan, I have seen a public service filled with capable and committed individuals, able to perform under intense pressure. 6

The development of the SES—from humble beginnings

Photo: Duncan McLachlan

Duncan McLachlan (pictured) led the 1920 Royal Commission on Public Service Administration

The concept of an integrated, top-level policy advising and management group—a ‘senior executive service’—was first developed in 1983–84, however, as we have seen the evolution of the APS leadership group dates from federation.

The Public Service Act 1902 provided for the APS to be divided into four Divisions—the Administrative (including all Secretaries and other senior positions), Professional, Clerical, and General Divisions. Senior employees immediately below Secretaries were placed in the Clerical Division.

In 1920 the McLachlan Royal Commission on Public Service Administration recommended that a new ‘second division’ be established which:

…should include officers who, under Permanent Heads or Chief Officers, are required to exercise executive functions in directing the work of more important and distinctive branches of the Service.7

This was the first singling out and recognition of a small group of senior employees and the important role they played in supporting their agency heads and Ministers.

The Public Service Act 1922 formalised the creation of the second division with new classification structures. It also resulted in the general acceptance of the term ‘assistant secretary’. In 1928, the second division contained a total of 27 employees comprising 0.3% of the APS.

Following World War II, there were several attempts to introduce a more coordinated approach to the management of the second division. This recognised that the role of government, and therefore the APS and its leadership group, was growing more complex and demanding. Some of the proposals included introducing more rigorous selection methods and advanced training programs specific to this group.

However, successive governments generally opted to allow the second division to gradually develop over the next forty years, rather than formally legislate any new arrangements.

The only significant change to occur during this period was in 1964, when the former Public Service Board in a review of occupational categories, concluded that:

… policy advising and top management is a distinctive and integrated function and even where a top management position does have a professional or technical content the choice of occupant should, in a high degree, be on the basis of administrative and/or managerial abilities.8

As a result, the second division was reduced to six classifications standardised across departments at branch, division and deputy secretary levels, and included only positions with policy advising and top management responsibilities (while recognising that some also had professional and technical responsibilities).

The creation of the SES—a quiet revolution

Photo: Bob Hawke

Bob Hawke,
Prime Minister of Australia 1983–91

Despite little overt change, there were increasing concerns in government about the performance of the APS—in particular, that its highly centralised form of policy advising and administration was undermining the capacity of governments and the APS to respond to economic and social change.

From the 1970s international economic pressures had begun to impact on Australia’s national budgets and against restrictive government controls. A better educated constituency was also leading to increased expectations of government and the APS.

In response to these pressures and concerns a number of critical reviews were undertaken—the 1974 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, the 1982 Joint Committee on Public Accounts report on senior APS management, and the 1983 Reid Review of Commonwealth Administration—that significantly influenced the reform agendas of successive Australian governments.

The common finding of these early reviews was the need for a more open, efficient and responsive public service. In relation to APS senior staffing, the findings of these three reviews and the 1958 Boyer report were remarkably similar.

The four reports all agreed on six central features of desirable senior staffing arrangements. Each recommended a distinctive, senior executive group. Each proposed that the senior staffing group be open to entry at all levels from outside of the public service. Each argued for structured and planned mobility of senior staff. Each proposed a formal staff appraisal system. Each sought better training for senior staff… It is particularly significant that each of the reports identified the need for strong central co-ordination of senior staffing policy…9

Against this background the Hawke Government released a white paper, Reforming the Australian Public Service, in 1983.

Arrangements at the senior levels of the Public Service are critical to a productive and responsive relationship between Governments and the Service in the formulation, implementation and administration of policies and programs. …a key element in the Government’s plans for the reform of the Australian Public Service centres upon Department heads and their senior managers.10

The white paper introduced, for the first time in Australia, the concept of a ‘senior executive service’ which saw ‘the critical group of senior advisors and managers as a unified APS-wide group’.11 This would be achieved by reshaping the second division into a:

…unified, cohesive senior staffing group with general leadership and management skills which could effectively be assessed and flexibly deployed in accordance with the requirements and priorities of the [APS].12

Through these reforms the Government sought to enhance Ministerial control over departments while revitalising the leadership cadre. The reforms took up most of the earlier reviews’ recommendations. The changes provided the new Senior Executive Service (SES) with more responsibility for day to day management; opened up the senior levels to outsiders; and made clear that SES could be deployed throughout the APS as required.

Public Service Reform Act 1984—SES provisions

  • SES described as undertaking higher level policy advice, managerial and professional responsibilities
  • SES could be deployed within and between departments to best promote the efficiency of the APS
  • SES guaranteed freedom from political interference in selection, appointment and promotion to the SES
  • Positions opened up to competition on merit from outside the APS
  • SES could be appointed for fixed terms
  • Promotions and appointments made by Public Service Board
  • Redeployment and retirement arrangements made distinct

The second reading speech introducing the Public Service Reform Act 1984 to parliament described its aim as to create:

…new arrangements for senior management, with the dual purpose of ensuring a fully productive relationship with government and enabling senior managers to realise their full potential.13

The SES now had distinctive arrangements for selection, mobility, development, promotion and tenure articulated in legislation.

Photo: John Dawkins

John Dawkins,
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Public Service matters, 1983–84

The opening up of the SES to outside appointments inevitably led to assertions that the new arrangements threatened the independence of SES employment decisions. The new provisions guaranteeing freedom from political interference in the selection, appointment and promotion to the SES responded to such perceptions and accusations of politicisation of the APS.

All appointment and promotion decisions in the Senior Executive Service will be taken by the Public Service Board through the exercise of statutory powers properly independent from any Ministerial directions. The only staffing decisions where Ministers have a role in the public service are those on secretaries of departments, which have always been ultimately and properly for the government of the day.14

The new arrangements also emphasised the nature of the SES as an APS-wide management resource with provision for its members to be deployed in and between agencies, making mobility a core element for developing a unified SES. As is the case today, the then Government wanted:

… to see greater mobility among its senior executives and the development of senior staff who increasingly can bring broader perspectives to the process of government, as a result of experience gained in policy advising, program management and in central co-ordinating agencies.15

However, mobility proved to be problematic. Some agencies implemented interchange programs (after responsibility for this was devolved to agencies in 1988) and/or organised placements as part of their own leadership development activities. But mobility between agencies was less successful:

Secretaries embraced the idea…but when put to the test, secretaries were prepared to give up less able people, not their better ones and receiving secretaries were not prepared to take less able ones but would take the good ones. It was very hard going.16

The revolution continues unabated

The creation of the SES in 1984 marked the beginning of a sustained period of public sector reform that has led to fundamental changes in the way the APS operates. The APS is no longer change resistant, slow to move, rule bound, or unresponsive to community needs. This shift away from traditional ways of working and problem solving were driven by four key and enduring themes:

  • a new management ethos;
  • a new principles-based statutory framework;
  • the need for new leadership capabilities; and
  • a renewed focus on embedding a cohesive senior leadership group.

A new management ethos

Photo: Launch of the SES Development Programs

Launch of the new SES Development Programs by Denis Ives, the Public Service Commissioner, 1992

According to the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration 1990 report, Development of the Senior Executive Service, ‘the establishment of the SES came early in a period of unusually intense change for the senior public service…’ the general direction of which was:

  • an emphasis on devolution or ‘letting the managers manage’;
  • a change in focus towards ‘management for results’;
  • increased responsibility and accountability or ‘making the managers manage’.17

Each of these directions impacted directly on the roles and responsibilities of the newly created SES.

Letting the managers manage

The last 30 years has seen a progressive delegation and then devolution of resource management responsibilities from central agencies to individual departments.

Public sector reforms through the 1980s and 1990s in particular sought to reduce detailed intervention by central agencies within a framework of service wide standards and expenditure controls. Central agency management of the size of the APS was gradually replaced by direct control of employee numbers by individual agency heads, with closer integration into financial budgeting processes.

The devolution of responsibility for personnel management, policy development and financial management underpinned the Hawke Government’s clear desire to reassert political control over policy-making, while letting agency heads run their organisations. The reforms placed greater emphasis on responsiveness to government, parliament and the community, while still maintaining traditional public service ethics and values.

This culminated in the Public Service Act 1999 which vested employer powers in agency heads within a principles-based framework and the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 which reinforced agency head formal responsibility for the effective, ethical and efficient use of resources. As a result, individual departments and agencies and their senior leadership cadre now have opportunities for greater flexibility in how they manage their money and employees.

Compared to 1975 there is now little regulatory control from central agencies.

Managing for results

In the 1980s, Australia’s public sector reforms focused increasingly on improved efficiency and effectiveness and a stronger emphasis on results.

Consistent with the increasing focus on managing for results, financial reforms replaced process compliance with performance control. A key initiative in 1984 was the Financial Management Improvement Plan that sought to improve public service management and accountability. Underpinning the plan were the principles of the devolution of management to agency heads, improved corporate and business planning, increased public accountability, and greater emphasis on the evaluation of effective performance.

Managing for results remains a central focus of today’s SES. Today the Australian Government’s Budget creates a strong link between agency strategic plans and their funding.

Photo: Michael Keating AC

Michael Keating AC

Making the managers manage

According to a former Secretary:

The counterpart of devolution to allow the managers to manage were changes to make the managers manage by improving accountability for their performance. In particular the standards of reporting to parliament was greatly improved…while the quality of Annual reports was raised and the information was presented in a more accessible form than previously.18

Managing for results gave the SES clear responsibility for their agency’s performance and, consistent with this, mechanisms for measuring and assessing SES performance also evolved. Although early attempts to implement performance appraisal arrangements were unsuccessful, a performance culture was finally embedded by the late 1990s as SES employees moved progressively to individual industrial agreements.

The law catches up with practice—the Public Service Act 1999

The public sector reforms of the 1980s and associated changed management arrangements, practices and principles were at odds with the prescriptive and rules-based Public Service Act 1922. However, it took until 1999 for the statutory framework to catch up.

In 1996, the then Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, the Hon Peter Reith MP, released a discussion paper, Towards A Best Practice Australian Public Service.

The paper is styled as a blueprint for reforming the delivery of government services…[and] notes the value and important role of the Senior Executive Service (created in 1984) but also criticises the SES in some respects, eg its performance in exhibiting and communicating a collective vision of the Service.

The Government is determined that the leadership potential of the SES be further developed. Commitment to devolution must be balanced by shared perspectives, effective communication, joint training and collegiality. Without collective leadership the traditional ethos of Public Service will be lost.

The success of the APS will increasingly depend on the ability of its executives to adjust to new challenges. The current SES selection criteria need review to ensure that they reflect what is needed for APS leadership and that they —and the selection processes employed—do not limit the ability of Agency Heads to select the executives best suited for the job. The objective is to ensure cohesive leadership not to impose inflexible selection methods.19

The Public Service Bill 1997 was introduced in June of that year and, following numerous amendments proposed by parliamentary committees, the then Opposition and minor parties, the Bill was finally passed by the Parliament and given assent on 11 November 1999.

The new Act was another watershed in public service leadership reform. It holistically updated the 1922 Act reducing it from nearly 300 pages to 56. This was possible because it represented a fundamental paradigm shift from a rules based, prescriptive approach to a principles-based approach. The new Act also caught up with the devolution of APS financial and human resource management to individual agencies.

The APS Values

APS Values introduced in the Public Service Act 1999

The 1999 Act retains the concept of the Senior Executive Service but provides a more detailed description of its responsibilities, building on the 1984 reforms. The Act for the first time includes a clear statement of the APS-wide role of the SES.

Public Service Act 1999—SES provisions

  • SES cadre retained and expanded.
  • SES expected to:
    • provide one or more of the following at a high level: professional expertise, policy advice, management
    • promote cooperation with other agencies
    • by personal example and other means, promote the APS Values and compliance with the Code of Conduct

Key change:

  • selection devolved to agency heads, with Public Service Commissioner endorsement

The new Act also codifies, for the first time, 15 APS Values that form the ethical framework that defines the APS, rather than rules and processes set by a central employer. It therefore places specific obligations on the SES to, by personal example and other means, promote the APS Values and compliance with the APS Code of Conduct.

The ‘right stuff’—an emphasis on capability

Cartoon: Scene from WWI trenches. Leader heads over the top into heavy gunfire while troops hold back

‘In terms of SES selection criteria, I’d rate him high on leadership but low on conceptional and analytical abilities’

Successive government reforms have changed the way in which the APS works and impacted directly on the skills required by senior public servants.

Initially corporate managerialism required the public service to develop a cadre of generalist managers with good program skills. Later, the shift to becoming more responsive meant that public servants needed to hone their negotiation and diplomatic skills as they increasingly worked with community groups and various forms of contractors. And the change in the nature of regulation required public servants to develop a more sophisticated understanding of markets.20

These changes have been reflected in the progressive development and refinement of SES core competencies.

The 1983 white paper, Reforming the Australian Public Service, proposed that departments develop and introduce staff appraisal programs for SES employees.

The first phase (endorsed by Secretaries in 1985) was the identification of the core job skills important to effective performance. These core competencies would establish a shared understanding of the critical success factors for performance in APS leadership roles.

After extensive consultation with SES employees, the first core SES selection criteria were agreed. They included five competencies:

  • human relations skills
  • strategic thinking
  • conceptual, analytical and creative skills
  • adaptability / flexibility
  • achievement orientation.

These were ‘adopted as representing the qualities sought for SES positions across the APS’21 in November 1987, and were used as the basis for all SES selections.

The process of standardising selections lays a very sound basis for equitable and fair decisions—one that is lacking when only criteria specific to the position are used. It facilitates lateral mobility as officers in the selection process can be identified as ‘suitable at level’.22

The selection criteria were reviewed and updated once more in 1990–91, but evolved into their current form ten years later. In 1998–99, a Senior Executive Capability Framework was developed which raised the bar higher by articulating in detail the skills, capabilities and qualities every SES employee was expected to exhibit. Portfolio Secretaries unanimously endorsed the framework to replace the previous SES core competencies in 2001.

The five key elements of the framework were also adopted as a new set of SES core selection criteria:

  • shapes strategic thinking
  • achieves results
  • exemplifies personal drive and integrity
  • cultivates productive working relationships
  • communicates with influence.

The framework provides an integrated approach to selection, development, performance assessment and succession planning for the APS and remains in use today.

A recent survey of all SES employees confirmed that the framework continues to be relevant. Those surveyed strongly agreed that all five capabilities are important for today’s SES, and were likely to be required in five years’ time. Notably, SES employees strongly agreed that the need for two capabilities—strategic thinking and cultivate productive relationships—would increase markedly in five years.23

Senior Executive Leadership Capability Framework

Senior Executive Leadership Capability Framework

Embedding a new culture—One APS–One SES

One of the key purposes of the creation of the SES in 1984 was to reshape APS leaders into a ‘unified, cohesive senior staffing group’. This goal was revitalised in 2005 after recommendations were made in a report investigating APS workforce issues.

This report was overseen by the Management Advisory Committee (MAC), a forum of Secretaries and Agency Heads established under the Public Service Act 1999, which advises the Australian Government on matters relating to the management of the APS. As a result of the report’s recommendations, MAC released a statement for the SES that focused on helping them to understand their role in promoting a strong common identity across the APS.

The One APS–One SES statement provides the most detailed articulation of the responsibilities and expectations of the SES to date and reiterated a:

…commitment to a single SES across a single, devolved APS. … all senior executives [are expected] to exhibit common capabilities, share common values, common ethical standards and a common commitment to development and collaboration.24

It warned that:

The APS operates in a rapidly changing, devolved environment which demands significant organisational agility and responsiveness, and a flexible, collaborative approach to public administration.25

The statement expects the SES to play a key role in modelling and promoting core ethics; to actively foster a collegiate, collaborative and supportive culture; and to be committed to self-development.

What is expected of the SES (extract from One APS–One SES)

Photo: Peter Shergold

Peter Shergold at the launch of One APS–One SES

Senior executives in the APS should be working actively to advise and support the government of the day. They do this through well formulated policies, sensible regulation, delivery of effective services, well functioning governance structures and active engagement with stakeholders. This requires an agile and flexible operating style focused on collaboration and the pursuit of practical solutions.

As part of each agency’s senior leadership team, we rely on the SES to:

  • serve their Ministers with dedication, building relationships founded on trust with Ministers and their offices and an understanding of their respective roles
  • have a thorough understanding of the legislative, regulatory and ethical framework that governs their actions and to be able to work effectively within that framework to deliver the Government’s agenda
  • model the APS Values and promote compliance with the Code of Conduct
  • position their work in its context: to know the business of their organisation and of the Government, and contribute to the agency’s broader responsibilities in the Australian community and abroad
  • be results oriented and drive forward work-based reforms
  • connect with other agencies to leverage better outcomes, including through whole of government strategies
  • manage stakeholder relationships in an open and ongoing manner
  • plan for and invest in the current and future workforce to meet changing labour market needs and changing government and community expectations
  • make themselves available to serve on recruitment and selection committees for positions at lower levels
  • integrate both workforce planning and management of line responsibilities with improvements in service delivery to, and employment of, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
  • contribute to their agency’s corporate strategy and directions and champion those strategies and directions in their day-to- day operations

Who are we now?

In 1984 the typical SES employee was male, aged 47, had worked 20 years in the APS in two different departments and was called John.

In 2009, the typical SES employee is male, aged 49, has worked 20 years in the APS in two different departments and is called Peter.

So over the last twenty-five years some things have not changed very much while others have changed significantly.

The table below compares some key SES demographics.
SES October 1984 June 2009
Source: APSED
Total ongoing employees 1,651
(1.2% of APS)
2,845
(1.9% of APS)
Band 1/Band 2/Band 3 73% / 23% / 4% 75% / 20% / 5%
Median age 47 49
Women 85
(5%)
1,054
(37%)
Indigenous 3
(0.2%)
16
(0.6%)
Disability 4.7% 2.7%
Engaged from outside APS in the previous 12 months 32 110
Worked in two or more agencies 54.8% 54.6%
Median length of APS service 20 years 20 years
Median length of 2nd division or SES service 5 years 4 years
Located in Canberra 75% 75%

The main demographic differences are in size, composition and age. SES employees today comprise nearly 2% of the APS compared to just over 1% in 1984. Women now make up nearly two out of five SES employees compared to 5% in 1984. Projections indicate that in ten years time, the number of women and men will be the same.

SES employees, including the main EL2 ‘feeder’ group, are also older overall than in the past. Seventy percent of SES will be eligible to retire in the next ten years.

Today’s SES employees have a very wide range of roles and responsibilities. SES employees manage large programs, projects and workforces to provide policy and specialist advice, or can be in charge of relatively small groups. They can be focused on service delivery, policy advice, corporate management, contract management, regulation, program administration and so on. Increasingly they have significant cross-agency coordination roles.

When compared against other countries with similar systems of government, Australia’s federal public service measures up as highly professional, effective, efficient—and honest. A recent British report that found:

…87% of Australian citizens expressed satisfaction with Federal government services. …[and] listed our public service third in a long list of similar countries—ahead of Canada, New Zealand, the USA and the UK—for its independence from political interference and its capacity to give impartial advice.26

An organisation’s leadership group sets its tone and culture, and affects its capacity to do its job. There’s no doubt the SES has made a significant contribution to the international reputation of the APS.

What do SES employees think about the role they play and the contribution they make?

In the latest State of the Service report,27 92% of SES employees reported moderately high to high levels of job satisfaction, an extremely high result for any organisation. SES employees also reported a very high sense of pride and achievement in their work (93%).

When asked to nominate up to two factors influencing their decision about where they would be in the next five years, nearly two thirds of all SES (65%) nominated ‘availability of interesting work’ as the most influential, and 27% nominated ‘the ability to achieve outcomes and results’.

The importance of intrinsic rewards to the SES can probably be best summed up by the responses to a recent Commission survey of all current SES employees that asked, what were the most important factors motivating them to go ‘above and beyond’ in their current roles.

SES employees overwhelmingly identified ‘the opportunity to make a difference’ as the key factor (64%). The second most important factor was ‘leading by example in the workplace’ (10%). Remuneration was ranked as important by only 1% of SES employees.28

Extract from SES census survey 2009
Reasons to go ‘above and beyond’ in current role Band 1% Band 2% Band 3% All %
Opportunity to make a difference 61 71 78 64
Leading by example in the workplace 11 7 11 10
Remuneration and other employment conditions 1 2 1

SES today, however, also work longer hours than ever before. In this year’s State of the Service report,29 92% of SES employees sampled reported working 80 hours or more in the last fortnight and 43% reported having worked 100 hours or more.

One of the primary reasons for establishing the SES was to develop a distinct leadership group with a unified sense of professional purpose and ethics. How well has this objective been achieved?

When asked, just under 40% of SES employees ‘definitely’ saw themselves as part of a broader APS-wide leadership cadre and 44% considered themselves ‘somewhat’ part of this group. The proportion of those most likely to view themselves as ‘definitely’ part of a broader leadership group increased as band level increased.30

A high proportion of SES employees see ‘breaking down silos across the APS’ as a very high priority. This indicates that while many SES employees may not have a sense of formal membership of a ‘cadre’, there are strong common motives to achieve whole-of-government solutions through collaborative approaches.

Into the future: the next twenty-five years

Photo: The Hon Kevin Rudd MP

The Hon Kevin Rudd MP,
Prime Minister of Australia

The Prime Minister has publicly acknowledged the strength and professionalism of the APS and its record of serving ‘successive governments very well’ but suggested that contemporary challenges ‘…require a new generation of public service leadership, a new standard of public service excellence and therefore a new era of public service reform’.31

In doing so, the Prime Minister has suggested that positioning the APS to meet today’s and future challenges requires continuing reform, as opposed to revolution, and has agreed with his departmental secretary’s observation that ‘the APS is not broken—it is not a renovator’s opportunity’.32 So reforming and reinvigorating the APS is once again a government priority.

The Advisory Group on Reform of Government Administration discussion paper—Reform of Australian Government Administration—provides the APS leadership with an opportunity to build on the traditional public sector strengths—apolitical, impartial, fair, and accountable—to ensure that the APS is well positioned for the future. The discussion paper identifies a number of related issues for the APS, including:

  • high quality, forward looking and creative policy advice;
  • flexibility and agility; and
  • high quality, effective programs and services focused on the needs of citizens.

It is critical that the leadership cadre becomes future focussed. Development of innovative responses to both short term and long term policy and program delivery challenges will require the APS to rebuild and strengthen its strategic policy capabilities.

Agility must also become a core leadership capability in our decentralised and complex world if the APS is to meet the Prime Minister’s mandate that the APS leadership group becomes innovative, thinks big and takes account of the future.

The discussion paper defines agility as ‘having the capacity to understand and meet the public’s needs in the short term, adapt to trends and issues in the medium term, and shape public needs over the long term’.33 It links agility and flexibility back to the three recurring key attributes:

  • mobility—to ensure that the APS has the right skills, ideas and experience, and the ability to deploy resources to high priority areas;
  • continuous improvement—to doing things better; and
  • a one APS culture—to foster and enhance cross agency collaboration.

A one APS culture requires the leadership cadre to place greater emphasis on collaboration with partners—both from within and outside of the public sector as contemporary issues and those in the future are likely to cut across the boundaries of public, private and community sector organisations.

These challenges mean that the SES will need to reassess the way in which the APS works and problem solves. The MAC innovation discussion paper34 describes this shift as systemic innovation, or new and improved ways for the public sector to operate and interact with stakeholders.

The responses to a recent Commission survey of all current SES demonstrate that the leadership group is aware of the directions being set for the APS by Government and is very positively disposed towards them.

The challenge for the SES therefore is to continue building on the strong foundation the last 25 years of public sector reform has delivered for future generations of public sector leaders. Each new generation of leaders will need to make a similar investment to ensure that in future the APS is well positioned to face new sets of issues 25 years or more from now.

2009

Conclusion

The APS leadership group has made significant contributions to Australia’s development as a nation. Our SES leaders have worked professionally and tirelessly for successive governments—developing and implementing diverse and increasingly complex policies and programs—in response to shifts in the balance of power between the Australian and state and territory governments and broader social and economic change.

Each generation of SES leaders has faced uncertainty and challenges—from establishing the Commonwealth’s legislative framework on Federation, to mobilising Australia for major global conflicts in 1914 and 1939, to developing and implementing a diverse and broad range of economic measures to ensure Australia’s long-term competitiveness in an increasingly global economy.

It is clear that APS leaders of the future will face greater economic uncertainty, higher citizen expectations, increasing policy complexity, more rapid technological change and a tight labour market. These challenges will require the SES leadership group to develop new capabilities and lead their staff in new ways of working—cross-agency, cross-jurisdictional and cross-sector.

The success of the APS and its leadership group has been based on its ability to change and adapt to new circumstances. It will have to continue to adapt and evolve to meet future challenges.

References

Note. All data is sourced from the Australian Public Service Employment Database housed in the Commission and surveys conducted by the Commission in 2009.

Dawkins, J, Reforming the Australian Public Service—A statement of the Government’s intentions, Canberra 1983

Dawkins J, Second Reading speech Public Service Reform Act 1984

Dawkins, J, The 1984 Garran Oration—Reforms in the Canberra System of Public Administration, 1984

Keating M, The Public Service and Management of the Public Sector, in Ryan, S and Branston, T (Eds), The Hawke Government A critical Retrospective, Melbourne 2003

McDermott K, Senior Executive Service Census Survey: the next five years, (unpublished)

Moran T, Address to Institute of Public Administration Australia Canberra, 15 July 2009, www.pmc.gov.au

O’Neill S, Review of Towards a Best Practice Australian Public Service, Parliamentary Library Current Issues Brief, 1996, www.aph.gov.au

Rudd K, Address to Heads of Agencies and members of the Senior Executive Service Canberra, 30 April 2008, www.pm.gov.au

Rudd K, 2009 John Paterson Oration, Australia New Zealand School of Government Annual Conference, September 2009

Tacy, L, Senior Executive Leadership in the APS, unpublished

Walsh P, The Role of the Senior Executive Service, Address by the Minster for Finance and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Public Service Matters, Senator the Hon Peter Walsh, to the Australian Government Senior Executives Association, Canberra, 8 October 1985

Australian Public Service Commission State of the Service Report 2008–09 Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2009

Chapter 10: Senior Contract employment: Building responsiveness, control through circumstances http://www4.gu.edu.au:8080/adt-root/uploads/approved/adt-QGU20060914.104311/public/10Main.pdf

Public Service Commission Annual Report 1987–88, Canberra 1988

Public Service and Merit Protection Commission, Serving the Nation: 100 years of public service, Canberra 2001

Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration Report, Development of the Senior Executive Service, Canberra 1990

The class of ’84—where are they now?

Who were the first people to enter the new senior executive service?

1983–84: 212 people were promoted and 32 were engaged to the SES; of these 29 or 5% were women.

2008–09:183 people were promoted and 110 were engaged to the SES; of these 106 or 36% were women.

SES from 1984—where are they now?

These SES are still employed in the APS at November 2009.

Name Joined APS Current position
Blank - no photo available Bob Alexander 1972 FAS, ACCC
Photo John Carlson 1963 FAS, DFAT
Photo Michael Carmody 1983 Agency Head, Australian Customs Service
Photo Brian Cassidy 1973 Deputy Secretary, ACCC
Photo Mark Cunliffe 1978 FAS, Defence
Photo Bill Fisher 1968 FAS, DFAT
Photo Ian Govey 1974 Deputy Secretary, Attorney-General’s
Photo Peter Grey 1968 Deputy Secretary, DFAT
Photo Rex Hoy 1968 FAS, DEEWR
Photo Neil Hyden 1965 Deputy Secretary, Australian Office Financial Management
Photo Jim Killaly 1970 FAS, ATO
Blank - no photo available Tony Kingdon 1968 FAS, Health and Ageing
Blank - no photo available John McCarthy 1968 Deputy Secretary, DFAT
Photo Ian McPhee 1971 Agency Head, ANAO
Photo Mary Murnane 1984 Deputy Secretary, Health and Ageing
Photo Terry O’Brien 1972 FAS, Productivity Commission
Blank - no photo available John Spasojevic 1973 Deputy Secretary, Commonwealth Grants Commission
Photo Bernie Yates 1974 Deputy Secretary, FAHCSIA

1 Tacy, L, cited in Senior Executive Leadership in the APS, 2009 unpublished, 2009:2

2 Rudd, K, Address to Heads of Agencies and members of Senior Executive Service, April 2008

3 Serving the Nation 100 Years of Public Service, Canberra 2001 (2001:19)

4 Ibid 2001:39

5 Op cit 2001:83

6 Rudd, K, 2009 John Paterson Oration, Australia New Zealand School of Government Annual Conference

7 Serving the Nation 100 Years of Public Service, Canberra 2001 (2001:156)

8 Ibid 2001:158

9 Development of the Senior Executive Service, Report from the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration, Canberra 1990 (1990:8)

10 Dawkins, J, Reforming the Australian Public Service—A statement of the Government’s intentions, Canberra 1983 (1983:9)

11 Serving the Nation 100 Years of Public Service, Canberra 2001 (2001:158)

12 Tacy, L, Senior Executive Leadership in the APS, 2009 unpublished, 2009:2

13 Ibid 2009:2

14 Dawkins, J, The 1984 Garran Oration—Reforms in the Canberra System of Public Administration, 1984 (1984:11)

15 Walsh, P, The Role of the Senior Executive Service, Address to the Australian Government Senior Executives Association, Canberra, 8 October 1985 (1985:3)

16 Chapter 10: Senior Contract Employment: Building responsiveness, control through circumstances (page 226)

17 Development of the Senior Executive Service, Report from the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration, Canberra 1990 (1990:10)

18 Keating, M, The Public Service and Management of the Public Sector, in Ryan, S and Branston, T (Eds), The Hawke Government A critical Retrospective, Melbourne 2003 (2003:372–3)

19 O’Neill, S, Review of Towards a best practice Australian Public Service, Parliamentary Library Current Issues Brief, 1996

20 Op cit 2003:379

21 Public Service Commission Annual Report 1987–88, Canberra 1988 (1988:32)

22 Public Service Commission Annual Report 1988–89, Canberra, 1989. (1989:19)

23 McDermott, K, Senior Executive Service Census Survey: the next five years, 2009:8

24 Management Advisory Committee, One APS–One SES Statement, October 1995

25 Ibid

26 Moran AO, T, Speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia, July 2009

27 State of the Service Report—State of the Service Series 2008–09, Canberra, 2009

28 McDermott, K, Senior Executive Service Census Survey: the next five years

29 State of the Service Report—State of the Service Series 2008–09, Canberra, 2009

30 Op cit

31 Rudd, K, 2009 John Paterson Oration, September 2009

32 Ibid

33 Advisory Group on Reform of Government Administration discussion paper—Reform of Australian Government Administration (October 2009) (2009:36)

34 Management Advisory Committee discussion paper, Advancing Public Sector Innovation, August