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3. Summary assessment

The Department of Communications provides policy advice on communications issues, administers legislation and delivers a small number of programmes related to Australia's communications sector. Its work is relevant to some of Australia's most rapidly evolving industries, from broadband and broadcasting through to telecommunications and digital and online companies (such as Google and Facebook).

Given the rapid pace of change in its external environment, the department is keenly aware of the need to remain up-to-date with industry developments. To support this, the department has revised its strategy, implemented a major restructure and is implementing transformational change. Its change programme is designed to increase the department's policy capability, more closely align the department with current industry structures and streamline its work practices (including embracing leading-edge ICT solutions) to improve its agility, productivity and organisational performance.

Staff and stakeholders consistently commented about the potential for the department's change programme to modernise its operations and better respond to current government and industry needs. The restructure of the department's operations took effect on 1 September 2014 and, as a consequence, it is too early in the change process to identify the extent to which intended benefits are being realised. In this context, this review has identified the department's strengths and areas for improvement to support its current change efforts and longer-term capability needs. The capability assessments that form this review are based on the plans the department has in place and how well it is tracking towards intended outcomes at this early stage.

The department's strengths

Strategy development has been a clear strength. The department took a systematic and thorough approach to revising its strategy. It commissioned a market scan of the communications sector, undertook internal consultation, and assessed individual staff capabilities. Dedicated internal teams were formed to develop the corporate plan and implement the department's change programme, with extensive communication from the Secretary and change team throughout this period. Staff were placed in roles in the new organisational structure based on their assessed capabilities, personal preference and organisational requirements.

A key element of the new strategy was the introduction of a Bureau of Communications Research and three market analysis teams into the new organisational structure. The Bureau is headed by a newly appointed chief economist and will undertake horizon scanning and provide high-quality data, statistical compilations, and market intelligence and analysis to support the provision of evidence-based policy advice. This investment, particularly at a time of downsizing, further highlights the department's commitment to its new strategic direction and aligns with its corporate plan and broader government objectives.

The department has implemented regular surveys to help track change progress and identify areas where further change interventions or support are required. Survey feedback has shown that 90 per cent of staff understood that 'a reorganisation of the department was required' and 80 per cent strongly identified as 'being committed to the success of the department.' In parallel to the restructure, the department completed a downsizing process and is on track to meet its reduced budget.

The review team consistently heard positive comments from staff and stakeholders on the department's Secretary. Internally, the Secretary is seen as open, visible and highly committed to the department's success. Externally, the Secretary is highly regarded by central agencies, the broader APS and industry stakeholders. Staff and stakeholders consistently commented positively about the Secretary's strategic approach and strong leadership of the department.

In responding to questions about why they work in the department and what motivates them, staff cited a commitment to service, the department's strategic direction and their interest in its subject matter. The review team heard that most staff are friendly and cooperative and observed a collegiate and active networking culture. Collaboration across the department has increased following the restructure, with staff needing to interact with their colleagues to seek advice about their new roles and interact on policy issues across the structure. The department would benefit from further embedding and systematising these practices to ensure that this level of internal collaboration is maintained.

The department has a track record of delivering, especially on programme and regulatory work where there is clear task direction. Stakeholders regularly commented on the department's strong technical expertise and deep understanding of current regulatory frameworks, especially for its more traditional policy areas. The review team found potential for the department to similarly build these strengths into more contemporary policy areas, such as digital productivity.

The department is well regarded and seen as collegiate by central agencies and the broader APS. Most stakeholders commented to the review team about the positive relationships they maintain with staff across the department. The review team found that while the department maintains 'good' relationships with most stakeholders, it has the potential for these to become 'excellent' relationships if the department becomes more systematic in its approach and shifts from a model of consultation to more proactive engagement and partnering.

The department has an ambitious ICT objective to 'be a government leader in effective and innovative use of leading-edge information and communication technologies'. In pursuit of this objective, the department plans to move its ICT fully into the Cloud and redesign its intranet around a social media core. It has already implemented technologies to help streamline its external consultation processes. Staff regularly commented to the review team about the department's sound ICT base and its recent mobility initiative which enables them to work from anywhere directly connected to the department's network.

Areas for capability improvement

In addition to findings on the department's strengths, the review team identified these five areas that, if addressed, will most significantly improve its capability:

  1. 'Success' needs to be more clearly be defined, measured and communicated
  2. Work needs to better align to the department's strategy and be clearly prioritised and well planned
  3. Reporting and management corrective action need to be focused on newly defined areas of success
  4. The leadership team needs to be clearly visible and its behaviours aligned with the strategy
  5. The department's talent pool and skill base needs to be enhanced as a priority if it is to deliver on its strategy.

The following sub-sections provide further explanation of these five areas.

'Success' needs to be more clearly defined, measured and communicated

The department has communicated its strategic direction to staff. It has implemented a business planning framework that includes activities and key performance indicators (KPIs) and intends to provide a line-of-sight from individual performance agreements through to the high-level corporate plan.

However, when asked about what success looks like, a majority of staff were unsure how to gauge success for their own work area or the broader department. Across the department, business plan KPIs are of variable quality and most leaders are unsure how they will track and report the progress of their areas in terms of outcomes.

The review team found that further work is required to ensure that success is defined, measured and communicated post-restructure. This is especially important to support the department as it shifts from traditional, more defined, programme-style work, to a focus on policy that, by its nature, has greater ambiguity.

Work needs to better align to the department's strategy and be clearly prioritised and
well planned

The department's downsizing and restructure reduced staff numbers by more than 30 per cent and resulted in 49 per cent of staff in new roles. The department's leadership team recognised the practical need for staff to work differently due to the reduction in resources and temporary reduction in work-area capability. Staff were asked to take time to plan, innovate and engineer their work practices to increase productivity, efficiency and effectiveness.

Staff in areas with ongoing work noted to the review team that they have the same or increased pressures to deliver with insufficient time for planning and prioritisation. In contrast, staff in newly created roles advised that they are embracing these strategic planning activities. The department needs to ensure that planning and prioritisation are given sufficient time and attention in all work areas so benefits can be realised.

Staff commented to the review team that they were seeking direction from senior leaders regarding prioritisation, including what to stop, start, prioritise and deprioritise. Without this direction, and with reduced expertise and resources, decisions about prioritisation have been ad hoc. The department's senior leaders need to ensure prioritisation of the department's work agenda aligns with, and is sufficient to, achieve its strategy.

Reporting and management corrective action need to be focused on newly defined areas
of success

While the department has solid compliance frameworks in place, it needs to develop more robust systems to track outcomes and manage strategic risks. This is especially important given that the department's change of strategy and associated transformational change programme has increased its exposure to strategic risks.

The department's KPIs are of variable quality which limits its ability to monitor progress towards strategic outcomes. Further work is required to translate its strategy into meaningful outcomes, learning milestones and associated metrics. This is critical for the department to address if it is to reach its stated goals.

The leadership team needs to be clearly visible and its behaviours aligned with the
new strategy

Staff regularly commented to the review team about the visibility of the Secretary and the effectiveness of the Secretary and change team in communicating through the lead-up to the restructure. When asked about other leaders in the department, staff regularly commented positively about the support they have received from, and the visibility of, the Senior Leadership Group (SLG).

In contrast, staff reported that the Executive Leadership Team (ELT) lacked visibility and, with some cynicism, expressed concerns about the effectiveness and unity of this team. The APS Census results also highlight these staff perceptions, with only 44 per cent (8 per cent below the APS average) agreeing that 'the senior leadership is of a high quality'. While staff are optimistic that the reduction in management layers will help increase staff interactions with the ELT, this will require ongoing monitoring to ensure interactions are embedded.

On talking to the ELT, the review team found this team to be open to, and supportive of, the department's new direction. However, individual leaders' understanding of the changes required by the new strategic direction and of their role in supporting staff and the broader organisation through the transition was highly variable.

ELT members commented that the leadership behaviours within their Executive Committee (ExCom) meetings have improved over recent months. However, further work is required to increase their visibility and alignment of leadership behaviours. The department had previously acknowledged this issue and taken some action to begin addressing team collaboration, behaviour and performance. The department recognises that further action is required.

The department's talent pool and skill base needs to be enhanced as a priority if it is to deliver on its strategy

The department's gap in skills is due to a change in requirements based on the new strategy and the talent it lost during the restructure. Post-restructure, the department's efforts have been largely directed at operational human resources (HR) activities to address the immediate needs of staff and managers. While this prioritisation is understandable, the department must address strategic HR matters at this time since this is a crucial element to ensuring the success of its change programme. The review team found that the department needs to urgently and proactively strengthen the capability of its workforce profile to support its strategic direction. To do this, the department needs to accelerate its strategic HR work programme to assess current and future workforce requirements and more proactively identify and address workforce and leadership skills and capability gaps.

In the lead-up to the restructure, the department commissioned capability assessments of its staff and undertook initial analysis to identify skills gaps. It used these capability assessments as an input into staff placement decisions during the restructure. Three months have passed since the restructure, and staff and managers have had time to adapt to their roles and start to build individual and team capability. Further analysis is now needed to identify where staff have flourished, those who need more support, and where there is a lack of job fit.

The department has implemented internal training programmes to help address some identified skills gaps, such as the digital literacy of staff and knowledge of commercial markets. Additional up-skilling work is underway with further plans in place. While these programmes are a good start, the department's increased focus on research and policy requires an apprenticeship approach to up-skilling staff which is currently underdeveloped in learning and development plans.

The department recently revised its staff performance management process, which has been received positively by staff and managers. While it is too early to gauge success, the review team found that the department needs further planning and work to sharpen its focus on identifying and managing staff underperformance.

A number of staff chose to leave the department throughout the change process, which resulted in some loss of important capability and corporate knowledge. The department needs to ensure it identifies, retains and supports its highest performing staff to help maintain and build the strength of its workforce profile. For this reason, the review team found that the department has an urgent need to develop a talent management and retention programme to send a strong message that it values and supports its highest-performing staff.