E: Opening up the APS

Last updated: 05 Feb 2016

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Problems exposed

The reviews conducted by Hanger, Hawke and Scales serve as a cautionary tale about what happens when the APS fails to seek and heed external perspectives. Hanger found that governments and public administrators are often not aware of the complex relationships within a particular industry. Without proper consultation and analysis, they are likely to misunderstand or underestimate the impact a policy will have on it.[182] In the case of the HIP, a lack of subject matter expertise within departments resulted in advice being predicated on false assumptions. Indeed the perspective of industry was ignored. When "extensive advice was given, it was put to one side". [183] In the case of the NBN, even when a decision was made to undertake a major redesign, the government failed to engage with industry early in the process.[184]

In both the HIP and NBN, the perspectives of external parties were buried in process and bureaucratic structures. Experience often resided with those lacking positional authority or who were too intimidated (or busy) to raise their concerns with decision makers. When external experts were hired there was a tendency for them to be absorbed as 'one of the team,' blurring their independence and diminishing the value of their contribution.[185]

Hanger and Hawke highlighted concerns with the governance and reporting frameworks established to assist decision-making in the HIP. Hanger found that roles were vague, not clearly articulated or misunderstood.[186] Critical decisions were taken within a collective body that enabled members to remain passive participants in the decision-making process. Hanger noted that debate or dissent within this group appeared to have been rare: it was easier to agree or remain silent than to contest issues.[187] Many of those involved now regret not being more forceful in their views at the time.

Problems addressed

Governments—Commonwealth, State and Territory and local—are increasingly commissioning the delivery of their services by community organisations and businesses. This brings with it the imperative for openness—to ideas, to people, to places and to different ways of getting things done. If outside organisations are simply contracted to deliver services as if they are public agencies, the benefits of outsourcing will be lost. Their views need to influence decisions on the programs they implement. When people who see the world differently work together constructively, their deliberations are more insightful. There is less acquiescence and more interrogation. As the advice of public servants becomes more contested, it has never been more critical that APS leaders (and the advisory bodies that support them) welcome the perspectives of delivery partners, community advocates and citizens—the latter both as 'customers' of government services and as contributors to political debate.

The role of a public service 'outsider' is to be a circuit breaker. They need to act as a provocateur, challenging accepted wisdom. To do so they require permission to put forward alternative views and must be given the authority to challenge the dominant mindset. They, in turn, will need to understand the emphasis on accountability in a public sector environment. Managing such a diverse team will not always be easy. For diversity to work, it requires people to act with humility, respecting and considering different perspectives. It takes a skilled leader to balance the benefits of diversity with the camaraderie of teamwork.

Being a public servant is not necessarily the career for life it once was. The median length of service in the APS is now less than 10 years.[188] Increasingly, people both within and outside of the APS do not want to be tied to a single career, let alone a single organisation. This can deliver benefits to the APS. public service leaders are recognising that they need to promote the movement of people in and out of the APS.

Ian Watt AO

"We'll also need to drive productivity by investing in our people…ensuring that our workplaces are open to ideas and routinely generate innovations both in policy work and in delivery systems—including our corporate systems, and building a culture that is up for transformational change—one which readily accepts that what may have seemed previously unthinkable is not only thinkable but achievable." (December 2013). [189]

Ian Watt was the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2010 to 2014

Employee mobility has the potential to diversify the knowledge, skills and experience of employees. Agencies can benefit by recruiting staff who are interested in public administration but come to the sector with different skills and perspectives.[190] Cross-sector exchange and mobility programs can provide greater appreciation for each other's distinctive operating environments. Outsiders can come to understand the inner workings of government and the far-reaching consequences of public policy. Insiders can gain greater appreciation of the impact of public sector interventions, not least the burden imposed by regulatory 'red tape' and the consequences of learned dependency. It is for such reasons that greater mobility should be encouraged by aligning incentives, promoting exchange schemes and launching a flagship program that can provide an authoritative imprimatur for collaboration between the public, private and community sectors. Mobility is not a 'silver bullet'. It can only deliver real and lasting benefits if it is supported by a culture that genuinely values external perspectives and acknowledges that a range of views and approaches improves both policy design and implementation.

Over the last few decades, there have been various attempts to encourage mobility between business, the community sector and the public service. Mobility was identified in the 2010 Ahead of the Game report as a key mechanism for APS employees to expand their career experience.[191] There are well-established exchange programs operating in a number of departments, including in the Treasury and the Department of Industry and Science. The APSC is working with the BCA and ANZSOG to trial secondments to BCA member companies. Despite these stratagems, many other cross-sectoral mobility initiatives have failed to prosper. In part, this is because insufficient corporate priority has been given to the movement of skilled employees as a means of building an organisation's range of perspectives and experience. Far more can still be done across the APS. Such moves can challenge existing ideas and perspectives about government processes and institutions. Many assumptions are unconscious. Few senior APS leaders have substantial career experience outside of the public sector.[192] But if there is a firm underlying commitment to improvement, the resulting exchange of ideas will be positive.

Glenys Beauchamp PSM

"I'd love us in the public service to get away from 'this is my position number and this is what it says I do.' I'd love to get a much more team-based, agile environment where people are chosen for skills and expertise. I think I've got my challenges cut out for me there." (March 2015) [193]

Glenys Beauchamp is the Secretary of the Department of Industry and Science

Opportunities for mobility need to be provided under formal arrangements. If not, the risk is that public servants who would benefit most from gaining greater breadth in their career will believe they have no other option but to resign from the APS, even if their original intention had been to return in a year or two. With resignation comes a number of potentially significant financial implications for the individual: lost superannuation contributions, reduced sick leave entitlements, and a resetting of the 'clock' on long service and maternity leave. The APS should not be seen as an allowance-driven workplace. However, it needs to be recognised that public service employees do wear significant financial risk when moving in and out of the APS. Often the framework of enterprise bargaining prevents them from renegotiating conditions on their return in the way that individuals from the private sector are able to do.

A simple solution is to utilise the existing leave-without-pay provisions more widely. By allowing employees greater access to leave-without-pay for a couple of years, they can take up opportunities for an approved purpose outside of the APS, yet remain connected to their home agency and maintain their conditions. Why is such an approach not more widely used? The problem is in part because of cultural expectations: someone wishing to have time out of the APS may not seem to be a committed public servant. This resistance to letting public servants leave temporarily is no doubt accentuated at present by the fear of losing talent at a time when the APS is contracting.

Secretaries should remove any barriers to mobility that exist in their departments' policies and practices. They should manage leave liability within their departments through centrally-funded corporate overheads for approved work experience purposes where they are persuaded that outside experience will benefit the APS. Better still, Secretaries should actively encourage staff to participate in external activities in other sectors that do not raise conflicts of interest with the role they perform in the APS. This could take the form of supporting staff to serve on external boards or participate in a research project.[194] There are still few departments that have negotiated secondment arrangements with partner organisations in the sectors in which they operate. This is a missed opportunity to strengthen relationships, as well as to build staff capability.

It can be even harder to persuade those employed outside the APS to take up an opportunity in Canberra. Senior executives of private sector businesses are generally paid significantly more than their public sector counterparts. For a not-for-profit sector organisation it can often be challenging to lose a key staff member even for a few months. If the rhetoric of cross-sectoral mobility is to be turned into reality, it may well require active support and encouragement at the highest level. Staff who want to move between the public, private and community sectors need to be assured that their ambitions are seen not only as laudable but are regarded as a means by which to contribute to the creation of public value. This tone needs to be set from the top. In some respects we need different narratives about what constitutes a 'successful' public sector career. Perhaps we need to talk in terms of a career in the 'public purpose' sector, only part of which might be spent in the formal structures and institutions of the public sector itself.[195]

This helps to explain why leadership-endorsed mobility programs are becoming increasingly significant around the world. The United States launched the Presidential Innovation Fellowship in 2012. The program is already highly competitive. The nation's best and brightest technological innovators (developers, designers, entrepreneurs, product managers and 'data geeks') are paired with public servants for 12 months to tackle some of America's biggest challenges. Although Fellows receive a full-time salary, it is prestige and public purpose that are the major attractions. The President seeks to harness new ideas "to remake our government"—to save lives, use taxpayer money wisely and build a culture of administrative entrepreneurship. As one Fellow blogged: "You want a participatory democracy? here's your chance. Becoming a Fellow is a commitment to work as hard as you can on behalf of the American people".[196] The United Kingdom's Civil Service has a similar Whitehall Internship programme.[197] Supported by highly competitive and transparent processes, the British and American initiatives attract high-quality candidates to spend time in public administration. Australia could benefit from such initiatives, at an APS-wide level.

A prestigious Public Service Fellowship should be established. Ideally the Fellowship should be directly associated with the status of the Prime Minister. Ten talented senior executives from the business, community or academic sectors would be selected each year by a Public Service Advisory Committee (discussed below). They would work on a range of significant initiatives for the Australian Government. The Fellows would be embedded as members of the team, work with senior public servants and experience public administration first-hand. It is likely that larger Australian companies would recognise the value of the program and would continue to be responsible for a Fellow's salary and other entitlements, although a bursary could be provided by the Government to offset temporary relocation costs. Where salary requirements would be a barrier to participation, for example in the community or small-to-medium enterprise sectors, further financial support could be made available subject to a supporting business case. It can be expected that in the future a business or community leader who receives the 'Prime Minister's Fellowship' will look on the achievement with pride—and, by participating, will help open up the APS to new and challenging ideas.

A scholarship should also be established for ten exceptional leaders from the APS to enable them to undertake an experience-based assignment in a non-government sector for up to 12 months. Similar to the Churchill Fellowship, candidates would be expected to seek out their own opportunity in a business, community or research organisation and make the case for why it would benefit the public sector. [198] Candidates should be selected by a cross-sector advisory panel. Agencies would generally be expected to provide the continued salary and entitlements for successful candidates, although additional financial support might be provided to cover any necessary travel and temporary relocation costs.  Experience in the private sector has highlighted that the benefits of such transfers are more likely to be harnessed when they are accompanied by efforts to ensure individuals maintain links to their 'home' organisation whilst away, and then are adequately re-oriented and supported upon their return, including with career planning.[199]

The Australian Government has a value proposition that is compelling—the ability to contribute to society and to serve in the national interest. Of course, Australians generate public value through many avenues: volunteering their time to not-for-profit activities, joining the Army Reserve or undertaking pro-bono work for causes with which they identify. Social mission often has great public benefit.

How might the APS harness and encourage this enthusiasm for contributing to the public good? There needs to be a focus on creating alternative pathways where individuals in the private and community sectors can quickly and easily contribute to the work of the public service. Whether launching an innovative online service, creating new public markets or initiating large-scale transformational change, the public service needs to attract outsides with the knowledge, experience and enthusiasm to contribute to project teams.

Outsiders can supplement the talent and expertise within the APS. But they should not necessarily be expected to commit themselves to long engagements. Rather in the manner that Hollywood studios undertake film production, the APS could offer people with professional skills the chance to come together briefly as a team, perhaps in a virtual environment, to work on a project uniquely suited to their collective talents and which appeals to their creative impulse. This is not pie-in-the-sky. It may well be that our whole economy is in the midst of a grand shift towards the Hollywood model. Traditional careers are disappearing. More of us will see our work lives structured around short-term, project-based teams rather than long-term, open-ended jobs.[200] The administrative and structural facilities required already exist. The main change needed is cultural.

Michael Thawley AO

"There are not enough people in government who understand how business works, what is required for businesses to become successful, and how rules and regulations get in the way and can steer businesses into ways that prevent productivity." (April 2015) [201]

Michael Thawley is the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

The nature of public service lends itself to such an adaptable approach. Imagine Westminster shaped by Hollywood. It's easy if you try. A project is identified by government (home insulation, perhaps); a group of experts is assembled; they work together for just as long as it is needed to complete its design or oversight its initial implementation; and then the group disbands. Pulling together these 'virtuoso teams' could prove the difference between real success and mediocre outcomes.[202]

Some individuals may even wish to volunteer their time, attracted by a sense of public purpose. For those who dismiss such notions as high-minded nonsense, take a look at the National Library's Trove site.[203] There you will find thousands of individuals who, for no more than online recognition, make millions of text corrections to the Library's collection of digitised newspapers. They see it as a public service. There are many government social, cultural and environmental programs that could harness equally successfully the enthusiasm of citizens.

The fact is that there are many ways that innovation can be brought into the APS. If an entrepreneur develops a leading edge online tool, government should harness that expertise within the public sector when it wants to build its next online help centre. If a State government has significant success in rolling out a complex new program, star performers from that project could be recruited temporarily to contribute to a similar Commonwealth initiative. If individuals have created an exciting online app, they could be persuaded to direct their technological prowess to a similar government project. Occasionally people will be keen to participate on an exciting project for little more than a sense of public purpose. More often people will want to be paid market price for the talent and skills they bring. The key is to be flexible in attracting outside talent into the APS for a short period to work on the design or management of a specific project—and to use the sense of national significance as the lure.

This is not to imply that purely because someone is from outside the public sector they are better. In fact, 'outsiders' may flounder when put in the complex environment of public accountability, competing objectives and ambiguous authority. Conversely, many public servants could blossom as 'intrapreneurs' if given a chance to work with greater autonomy on the design or execution of new policies. When a person's expertise and experience is valued and they are placed in a position where they are able to influence, they can contribute to the creation of major public projects or programs, whether or not they are career public servants.

Those who have senior decision-making responsibility for the design and delivery of public programs have very demanding roles. They are typically chosen on the basis of their knowledge of the program area and their management skills. They cannot, however, be expected to be an expert on everything. SROs will often need to draw upon a broad set of competencies, skills and experience if they are to address successfully the complex issues posed by large programs. Diversity of knowledge can contribute to more effective program management, a better understanding of the risk environment and achieving a stronger alignment of policy to outcomes.

John Lloyd PSM

"We've got to be looking not just at what public sectors are doing, but what we can drag out of the private sector… In certain areas I think the private sector's leading companies are at the leading edge of implementing change, of how they're implementing IT, of their personnel practices, and there's so much we can learn from that." (March 2015) [204]

John Lloyd is the Australian Public Service Commissioner

One way to achieve that goal is to establish 'advisory boards', as proposed by Hanger.[205] Such boards could provide an environment that would allow preconceptions and assumptions to be challenged and assist the SRO to make better decisions. It would also be beneficial if the Department's CRO participated as a member of the advisory board when a major departmental initiative was planned. This is not a call for a proliferation of new boards or committees: rather, it is recommended that a diversity of perspectives should be incorporated into the program governance structures that already exist within the APS. The harnessing of private or community sector experience needs to become common practice, particularly at the point where policy is translated into implementation.

If we look to the example of the HIP, it is clear that there would have been enormous value in having someone at the table with practical knowledge of the hazards of working in the insulation industry—a person able to draw attention to issues not fully understood by policy makers. The HIP PCG needed people who had a depth of experience in the industry. In their absence, the PCG decided to relax safety training requirements.[206]

It is challenging to put together a committee that reflects a balanced representation of the interests involved, but the objective needs to be pursued with greater rigour. When considering the membership of such bodies the governance roles must be clearly understood and articulated. External appointees should have a solid foundation of practical experience that is more comprehensive than that available within the APS. They must be encouraged to speak their minds. Their views should be listened to and conveyed to the minister. For their part, external committee members will need to understand the appropriate constraints of confidentiality and accountability within which public policy is designed and implemented.

An advisory board would not take over the managerial responsibility of the decision-maker. Rather, its role would be to proffer sagacity and common sense. Some critics point to difficulties in involving outside parties who may have something to gain by being involved in these fora: sometimes they can be portrayed as little more than rent-seekers pleading special interests. Such concerns are misplaced. Probity issues can usually be addressed by foresight and due diligence, and a skilled public servant is well equipped to appreciate the difference between lobbying and advice. The APS must also be mindful not to fall back on 'friendly faces'. Dissent should be respected, and valued as an input to policy design and decision-making. When advice is needed on major projects, the APS should look beyond the 'usual suspects'. Industry associations and unions may well provide good members of an advisory group, but the greater percipience often comes from individual companies, community organisations or people with first-hand experience. Members should be sought for their particular experience rather than selected as organisational representatives.

Successive Australian Governments have underinvested in public service reform. Efficiency dividends help to reduce costs, but on their own they do not enhance productivity. Public servants themselves have often sought to stay ahead of the game, but their blueprints for reform tend to look backwards and inwards in the pursuit of enhanced capability. When major projects fail, they often do so not just because of poor processes but because of a lack of imagination. We need not wait for the next crisis. Public sector reform should be conceived as a continuous process, driven from within but supported by outside expertise. As has been recognised in the UK, "small, mixed teams combining people with experience, skills and connections outside Whitehall, as well as career public servants, can strengthen the [Civil Service] reform design, while maintaining focus, energy and momentum".[207]

A Prime Minister's Public Service Advisory Committee could be charged with driving this approach. It should itself embrace membership from the private and community sectors. There exists a profound appetite amongst many public servants for change. They need to be encouraged to go further. Exciting things are already happening in the APS but their transformative potential often goes unrecognised. Too often the most interesting innovation remains at the margin of public administration. What is needed is authoritative leadership. Australia can learn from other nations like Canada and New Zealand, which have established advisory bodies to drive significant reforms over the past five years, helping to ensure that their public services are ready for emerging challenges. I have had the privilege in recent years to work on public sector reform agendas in New South Wales and Queensland and have seen first-hand the positive changes that can be implemented if there is the will. Equally important, I have witnessed how perspectives from outside the public sector can add significant value to the processes of reform. The Commonwealth should follow suit.

The Public Service Advisory Committee should report to the Prime Minister, through the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service. Its terms of reference should be to assist the Australian Public Service Commissioner to drive a more open, collaborative and outward-looking APS. Its members should help identify innovative approaches and imagine new ways of developing or delivering policy—measures that can enhance public sector productivity and raise public service standards. The Committee would not require a large administrative secretariat. Its deliberations should be integrated into the existing work program of the APSC. However, it should have the capacity to generate its own agenda. Membership of the Public Service Advisory Committee must be carefully chosen to bring together the right mix of pre-eminent leaders, who have had diverse experience outside and inside government, but also share a real commitment to enhancing Australian governance.

CONCLUSIONS | Opening up the APS

E.17 Secretaries should support their staff to undertake career development opportunities outside the APS in order to gain beneficial experience.

E.18 Building on existing departmental initiatives, an Australian Public Service Scholarship should be established that provides financial support for ten APS leaders each year to undertake an important project in the business or community sector for up to 12 months.

E.19 A highly prestigious Public Sector Fellowship should be established to provide financial support each year for ten exceptional leaders from the business, community and academic sectors to contribute to significant initiatives in the APS for up to 12 months.

E.20 For high priority large-scale projects, departments should actively source specific talent from outside the APS on a temporary basis to provide a wide range of relevant skills, experience and entrepreneurial energy.

E.21 Program advisory groups should be established within departments that include representation drawn from outside the APS in order to capture a broader diversity of perspectives and knowledge.

E.22 A Prime Minister's Public Service Advisory Committee should be established that includes leaders from business and community organisations, to support the Australian Public Service Commissioner build a more open, collaborative and outward-looking public service.


Notes

[182] Hanger, I 2014, p. 311.

[183] Hanger, I 2014, pp. 301.

[184] Scales, B 2014, pp. xvii, xx, xxx.

[185] Hanger, I 2014, p. 304.

[186] Hanger, I 2014, pp. 303-304.

[187] Hanger, I 2014, p. 304.

[188] Australian Public Service Commission 2014, 'Length of service', 2013-14 Statistical Bulletin, Canberra.

[189] Watt, I 2013, 'Address to the APS: the path forward for the APS', Speech presented to the APS at the Rydges Lakeside Hotel, Canberra, 5 December.

[190] Drew, G & Cooper, R 2011, Job mobility research report: encouraging employees to expand their career experience in the Australian public Service, a report prepared for the Australian Public Service Commission, Queensland University of Technology, p. 4. <http://www.apsc.gov.au/_data/assets/pdf_file/0003/6609/jobmobilityresearchreport2011.pdf.>

[191] Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet 2010, Ahead of the game: blueprint for the reform of Australian Government administration, Canberra, p. ix.

[192] Australian Public Service Commission 2012, APS Statistical Bulletin 2013-12 Section 4: Movements of ongoing employees, Australian Government, Canberra,

<http://www.apsc.gov.au/about-the-apsc/parliamentary/aps-statistical-bulletin/aps-statistical-bulletin-2013-14/section-four#engage>

[193] Thomson, P 2015, 'Public service boss's pep talk: Industry Department Secretary Glenys Beauchamp', The Canberra Times, 29 March.

[194] To address this issue within superannuation, the CSS and PSS superannuation schemes include a 'leave in the public interest' provision, which enables an employer other than the Commonwealth to contribute to the superannuation scheme while the employee is on leave from the APS. See Australian Government Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation CSF07 10/08, Commonwealth Superannuation Scheme, 'Leave Without Pay (LWOP)', <https://www.css.gov.au/storage/2-CSF07.pdf>; Australian Government Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation, Public Sector Superannuation Scheme, 'Leave Without Pay (LWOP)', <https://www.pss.gov.au/your-scheme/grow-your-super/leave-without-pay/?device=mobile.>

[195] Stewart-Weeks, M 2014, 'Redesigning the public service: architecture and culture', blog post, 26 July,< http://publicpurpose.com.au/?p=174>

[196] The White House website n.d, 'Presidential Innovation Fellowship', <https://www.whitehouse.gov/innovationfellows/about.>

[197] The Social Mobility Foundation website 2015, 'Whitehall residential program', <http://www.socialmobility.org.uk/programs/residential-programs/whitehall-residential-program/.>

[198] Winston Churchill Memorial Trust 2015, 'About the Churchill Trust', <https://www.churchilltrust.com.au/.>

[199] McNulty, Y 2009, Measuring expatriate return on investment in global firms—industry report for participating firms and their expatriates, Technical Report, Monash University, Melbourne.

[200] Davidson, A 2015, 'What Hollywood can teach us about the future of work', The New York Times, 5 May. See also Henry, Z 2015, '3 reasons you should adopt the 'Hollywood model' of doing business' May 15, <http://www.inc.com/zoe-henry/3-reasons-you-should-adopt-the-hollywood-model-of-doing-business.html>

[201] Burgess, V 2015, 'Michael Thawley takes stock after first four months in top job', Australian Financial Review, 9 May.

[202] Boynton, A & Fischer, B 2005, Virtuoso teams: the extraordinary stories of extraordinary teams, Pearson Education Limited, United Kingdom.

[203] National Library of Australia website n.d, 'About Trove', <http://trove.nla.gov.au/general/about>

[204] Easton, S 2015, 'Lloyd's law: commissioner's tough talk on productivity', The Mandarin, 11 March.

[205] Hanger, I 2014, p. 305.

[206] Hanger, I 2014, p. 311.

[207] Panchamia, N and Thomas, P 2014, 'Civil service reform in the real world: patterns of success in UK Civil Service reform', Institute for Government, United Kingdom, <http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/260314%20CSRW%20-%20final.pdf>