A taste of government

Last updated: 21 Mar 2014

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Mr Stephen Sedgwick AO, FIPAA
Australian Public Service Commissioner

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Introduction and welcome

Thank you Liz for your kind introduction. I am very pleased to be here today.

As always, I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

My thanks also to Minister Abetz and Dr Watt for taking the time to be here this morning to share their insights.

Finally, as the Australian Public Service Commissioner I would like to warmly welcome you – the graduates – to the Australian Public Service.

There is every chance that you will find yourselves doing some extraordinary work in the next 12 months – not to mention for the remainder of your public service careers.

You might, for example, find yourself designing and delivering policies that shape Australia’s future, or providing services directly to the community; or you might help prepare for high-level international negotiations and meetings; or respond to an international crisis or work to guarantee our security; or you might help your agency operate at peak effectiveness by working in a corporate area.

Whatever roles you work in, remember the work you do makes an important contribution to the future of the nation and the reputation of the APS.

And as someone who is very proud of my public service career, I can honestly say that you will have moments where you will pinch yourself and think “I can’t believe I get to work on this!”

What we do – whether we are tax collectors, regulators, policy makers, service deliverers direct to the public or those who support them – what we do has a profound impact on the lives of ordinary Australians.

Public service is a privilege available to relatively few.

And we mean it when we say: “one job, a thousand opportunities”.

My own career is an example of the amazing diversity of jobs on offer across the APS (and in truth I have barely scratched the surface of the full range of opportunities on offer).

Stewardship and leadership

You have joined an institution with a proud history serving Australian citizens and the government of the day since Federation.

We speak about the APS as an enduring institution – one with a history that spans more than a century; and one that is set to provide a strong underpinning of our democratic government for several centuries to come.

Each and every member of the APS has a role to play as stewards of our enduring APS.

What do I mean by “stewardship”?

Put most simply, we all have an obligation to leave the APS and our agencies in better shape than when we joined them.

This is not rocket science.

For example good stewards manage public resources with care and prudence, and help to build the capability of their work group and agency by freely sharing their expertise and insights.

I would like to briefly reinforce Dr Watt’s comments about leadership.

In the APS, leadership isn’t about seniority.

We believe that leadership is something we practice – it is something we do.

At its most basic level this means that every APS employee at every level is expected to display appropriate behaviours – and using techniques appropriate to your workplace, call inappropriate behaviour.

As Dr Watt mentioned: “the standard you walk past, is the standard you set”.

Leading can take courage, leading takes hard work, and leading takes resilience.

But it is also very rewarding to build collaborative and constructive workplaces that make a difference.

So be respectful, be sensitive, and be a leader.

Remaining a contemporary institution

We may be an enduring institution, but this does not mean that we can take our relevance or effectiveness for granted.

It is important to our enduring effectiveness that our institution remains contemporary.


Firstly, we are adaptable, resilient and agile

– in short, able to quickly respond to changing circumstances.

In very real ways, the APS is at the forefront of supporting government to identify and respond to new and emerging challenges.

We might, for example, need to change course to implement the policies of a new government, or we might be preparing policy responses to rapidly emerging new policy challenges.

Or we might be putting in place emergency support following a devastating natural disaster.

Ultimately, our environment is constantly changing, so supporting government and the Australian people effectively requires the APS to be adaptable, resilient and agile.

Secondly, since our environment is constantly changing we maintain a focus on the future while dealing with the demands of the present.

This means we need to be thinking ahead so government can make deliberate choices about positioning the nation for the future, rather than being forced to make decisions on the run because we missed our chance to be proactive and think options through.

Dr Watt gave you a good summary of some of the challenges the APS will be confronted by in the years ahead – many of these challenges are without easy answers or obvious solutions.

So we need to consult widely, marshal deep analytical skills and be creative.

Thirdly, we stay contemporary by embracing and managing change, whether to our structures, systems or processes.

Coping with constant change can be difficult for some people.

But institutions that do not evolve at least as fast as the needs of the community they seek to serve will be condemned to irrelevance.

That is why the senior leaders of the APS have invested significant resources to build the capacity of the APS to plan for and manage change.

And why we have continued to recruit significant numbers of graduates even in straightened times.

And I invite you, as new public servants to become agents for change.

Indeed, critically analyse the work taking place around you and respectfully ask questions like:

  • “What are we trying to achieve by doing this activity?”;
  • “Why do we do this in this particular way?”; and
  • “Are there better ways to achieve our desired outcome?”

And finally, we remain contemporary because we systematically build our institutional capability.

You will all know that government revenue is currently relatively low, and government is facing tough choices about what it does for citizens versus what citizens will need to do for themselves.

Low revenue also means tough choices for the APS about how we invest in our organisations.

But I strongly believe that one area where the APS should continue investing is in the capability of our people.

In fact, the bulk of productivity improvements that will make our organisations more effective relate to people and how skilled, motivated, well managed and led they are.

For example, the APSC has consistently identified performance management as an area for improvement across the service.

This isn’t just about managing the small number of employees who perform poorly.

Rather, it is about supporting the vast majority of motivated employees to be most effective - to understand what is being asked of them and to adjust what they are doing so they direct effort to areas of high priority and maximise outcomes achieved.

So, if it is not clear to you what you have to do or what contribution doing it will make to achieving key objectives than please ask for clarification.

We will be most effective when we all know the what and why of what we do.

This is just one example where improving workforce capability will reap productivity improvements.

As graduates, you are a testament to the APS’s commitment to investing in and renewing its workforce capability.

APS Values

I would now like to turn my attention to a fundamental framework that underpins everything we do as a public service. I am speaking of the APS values.

Each of us has personal values that help define who we are, the causes we support and the decisions we make.

Just as our personal values define and shape who we are as individuals, the APS values define and shape the culture of our institution.

They remind us that there are fundamental commonalities that bind us together despite the differences in the work we do across the APS.

When trying to strike a balance between being responsive to the government of the day while remaining politically impartial, or achieving results in a way that maintains public trust, I would point you to the values for guidance.

In fact, the Values, combined with the Code of Conduct and Employment Principles, underpin each and every decision we make as public servants.

Our values form a mnemonic.

The mnemonic is ‘I CARE’ :

  • I - Impartial
  • C - Committed to service
  • A - Accountable
  • R - Respectful
  • E - Ethical

Let’s run through what each value means in practice.

The values reaffirm our duty as professional public servants to be apolitical and provide Government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based upon the best available evidence – which the Public Service Act summarises as to be IMPARTIAL.

The values remind us we must be professional, objective, innovative and efficient, and work collaboratively to achieve the best results for the Australian community and the Government – which the Act summarises as being COMMITTED TO SERVICE.

We are open and accountable to the Australian community under the law and within the framework of Ministerial responsibility - which the Act summarises as being ACCOUNTABLE.

The APS respects all people, including their rights and heritage – the Act summarises this as being RESPECTFUL.

And we are expected to demonstrate leadership, be trustworthy and act with integrity in all that we do – which is summarised as being ETHICAL.

Public trust and online engagement

As I mentioned earlier, for the APS to be effective, it is vital that we maintain the trust of the government and the public.

We will not be able to have frank and honest discussions about policy and delivery with Ministers if they fear that the discussion will end up in a book, on a blog or on the front page of the newspapers.

Likewise, the Australian people will not trust us to manage the nation’s resources or access their personal information if they do not believe that public servants have the highest level of integrity and trustworthiness.

  • That we will be fair in our treatment of them, respect their confidences and treat them with courtesy and respect.

I hate to be typical of my generation and assume that our graduates are all avid users of social media, but it is becoming very clear that public servants who use social media need to be mindful about maintaining public trust in their integrity and impartiality.

Online engagement has the potential to blur the distinction between your work and private life.

As the APS Commissioner, I’m frequently asked about the rights of APS employees to make public comment using a medium that encourages robust debate, and which also leaves an enduring, easily replicated record with no guarantee of anonymity.

By all means have fun online. You have the same rights as every other citizens to participate in debate.

But I caution you: the language of social media can be brutal and it is not always respectful.

Please remember to express yourself in ways that preserve public confidence in your ability to act apolitically in your work, to serve the government of the day irrespective of its philosophy or policy positions, and to deal with members of the public professionally and fairly.

If in doubt, please seek guidance. There is plenty of information from the Australian Public Service Commission and your own agencies to support you with this.

Conclusion and preparing for your APS career

As others have helpfully pointed out this morning I first joined the public service over 40 years ago.

If I had tried to predict then how my career would pan out and how the Service would change over the course of my career I would have been totally wrong.

I always worry about offering words of wisdom, but if I were to offer a few practical tips about preparing for your APS careers that experience leads me strongly to suggest to you to remain open to possibility and take opportunities to do new and different things as they emerge.

You never know where new and interesting opportunities will lead.

That would be my first ‘tip’.

Secondly, take the time to follow public policy debate, even if it doesn’t directly relate to your agency.

Understanding the broad sweep of policy issues facing the nation will allow you to draw connections and inspiration.

Thirdly, use this year to build your networks and learn about the work across your agency and across the APS.

Most work increasingly involves collaboration with other agencies, but that gets difficult if you aren’t aware of what other agencies do and how they can contribute.

Finally, look ahead; try to identify what is looming in the future that we need to get ready for.

Ask lots of questions and learn all you can.

And no matter how high you climb, keep learning from your work and from the people around you – and don’t ‘bet your career’ in the way that you express yourself, but don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo and contribute your ideas.

You are amongst the brightest of your generation – we want to hear about your ideas and what you think.

As Dr Watt said – you are our future; please don’t be afraid to play your part to the fullest.

On that note, I wish you well as you begin your career with the APS.

I look forward to seeing you at the next graduate event, the Great APS Debate.

Congratulations, and once again, welcome to the Australian Public Service.

And remember: ICARE.

Thank you.