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4. More detailed assessment of departmental capability

This section provides an assessment framed by the leadership–strategy–delivery structure of the capability review model.

Figure 8—Rating descriptions
Rating Description

Strong

  • Outstanding capability for future delivery in line with the model of capability.
  • Clear approach to monitoring and sustaining future capability with supporting evidence and metrics.
  • Evidence of learning and benchmarking against peers and other comparators.

Well placed

  • Capability gaps are identified and defined.
  • Is already making improvements in capability for current and future delivery, and is well placed to do so.
  • Is expected to improve further in the short term through practical actions that are planned or already underway.

Development area

  • Has weaknesses in capability for current and future delivery and/or has not identified all weaknesses and has no clear mechanism for doing so.
  • More action is required to close current capability gaps and deliver improvement over the medium term.

Serious concerns

  • Significant weaknesses in capability for current and future delivery that require urgent action.
  • Not well placed to address weaknesses in the short or medium term and needs additional action and support to secure effective delivery.

The review team’s assessment of AGD capability is outlined below.

Leadership
Capability Rating
Set direction

Development area

Motivate people

Strong

Develop people

Well placed

Strategy
Capability Rating
Outcome-focused strategy

Well placed

Evidence-based choices

Development area

Collaborate and build common purpose

Development area

Delivery
Capability Rating
Innovative delivery

Well placed

Plan, resource and prioritise

Well placed

Shared commitment and

sound delivery models

Well placed

Manage performance

Development area

4.1 Leadership summary

Set direction

  • AGD’s senior leadership team is well regarded internally and externally.
  • There is a lack of clarity regarding the department’s role, responsibilities and authorising environment.
  • There is an internal tension regarding the legal and non-legal skill sets the department needs and values.
  • Communication of new or sensitive matters is not always provided and communication methods have resulted in gaps in communication and information vacuums. Strengthening internal communication may help the department to be more responsive to changes in high-level direction.

Motivate people

  • AGD has a well-educated and professional workforce. Staff are intrinsically motivated with a strong interest in their subject matter.
  • The Secretary values and encourages a culture of constructive challenge of policy thinking. While this is valued by some staff, it can impact upon clarity of direction and the confidence of others.
  • Development opportunities are available through secondments and participations in taskforces. There is a reported lack of transparency around the selection of staff for these assignments, which can be demotivating.
  • There is appetite to further leverage expertise within the department in thought leadership, governance and enterprise-wide decision making.
  • AGD has a culture that celebrates success and recognises achievement of individuals and teams.

Develop people

  • The People Strategy Branch has made good progress towards strengthening AGD’s strategic human resources capability with particular focus on strengthening performance management and developing resources metrics.
  • The department’s responsibilities have changed over time. Future workforce planning needs to align with the functions and the priorities of the Government and place value across all areas of the department’s responsibilities.
  • There has been a strong focus over the last two years on increasing the leadership capabilities of staff.
  • The department’s recent focus on SES mobility has helped develop staff and break down silos. An over-emphasis on SES movement can impact negatively on continuity for both staff and stakeholders and work against the development of deep subject matter expertise.

Comments and ratings against the components of the ‘leadership’ dimension follow.

Set direction

Guidance questions

  1. Is there a clear, compelling and coherent vision for the future of the organisation? Is this communicated to the whole organisation on a regular basis?
  2. Does the leadership work effectively in a culture of teamwork, including working across internal boundaries, seeking out internal expertise, skills and experience?
  3. Does the leadership take tough decisions, see these through and show commitment to continuous improvement of delivery outcomes?
  4. Does the leadership lead and manage change effectively, addressing and overcoming resistance when it occurs?

Rating

Development area

AGD’s most senior leaders are highly regarded internally and externally—the Secretary for policy nous and deputy secretaries (including a succession of past deputies) for their relevant roles. Staff frequently mentioned to the review team that the senior leadership team is visible, accessible and have made tough decisions where necessary—particularly regarding management of the department’s financial position.

However, regardless of the strength of its most senior leaders, the department’s clarity of vision is compromised by its lack of clarity of roles and understanding of external expectations.

Clarity of roles

AGD has multiple areas of responsibility, which include support for the First Law Officer, law and justice, emergency management, national security and the arts. The review team found differing perspectives internally and externally of the department’s role, with much confusion about its core functions and mandate. This lack of clarity works against the department’s ability to set a clear, compelling and coherent direction for itself and the portfolio more broadly. AGD needs to further its engagement with its authorising environment, including government and central agencies, to clarify its roles and mandate—especially for its roles in support of the First Law Officer and on national security.

There is a strong external view that AGD does well in its support for the Attorney-General as the First Law Officer of the Commonwealth in areas where it has a clear mandate to provide legal advice—for example, in international and constitutional law where AGD is a tied legal adviser under the Legal Services Directions. To further its support for the First Law Officer, the department should work to expand its mandate to include other areas of significant legal advice such as private international law, privacy law and freedom of information. The department should also prioritise progression of the Attorney-General’s civil law reform agenda in areas such as copyright (piracy) and bankruptcy law.

Australia’s national security functions are distributed across the portfolio and the APS more broadly. While the department plays a role in supporting the Attorney-General in the responsibility for national security, the internal view of AGD’s role does not reconcile with views held across the APS. There is greater clarity in the area of emergency management, where the department has the lead in providing support to government on Australia’s responses to emergencies, disasters and security incidents. In addition, following machinery-of-government changes, which resulted in the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service being moved out of the portfolio, it is timely that the department and APS more broadly work to clarify national security leadership, roles, responsibilities and accountabilities.

Once the department clarifies its roles, it should update its strategies and external communication channels (such as its website) and proactively engage across the APS to support internal and external alignment.

The debate on legal expertise

AGD has changed quite significantly over time, from providing a balance of legal and policy advice, to its current focus on policy advice with only a small number of areas providing high-level legal advice. Internally, this has created ongoing debate over the skill sets and capabilities required and valued by the department and its leadership—commonly referred to internally as the ‘legal versus non-legal debate’. Even though the changes to the portfolio occurred some time ago, this cultural tension is evident enough to have been observed by some external stakeholders, with comments that it is counter-productive to the department’s self-identity and internal cohesion.

While efforts have been made to develop a constructive internal narrative that values legal and non-legal expertise, this internal tension still exists. AGD needs to undertake further work to recognise, communicate and reflect the value of legal expertise within an Attorney-General’s department and the broader expertise required for modern organisational management and robust policy development.

Internal communication

AGD’s 2013 APS Census results identified internal communication as an area for improvement. The department has started to address this feedback by introducing regular written communications to staff, including the Secretary’s weekly email and the Chief Operating Officer news bulletin.

While improvements in internal communications have been well received, the review team found that communication on new or sensitive matters, including the rationale for some changes and decisions made is not always clearly communicated and in some instances not at all. The absence of transparent or timely advice on matters such as staff movements or emerging priorities has led to a lack of understanding of the department’s direction.

AGD distributes many key messages, such as outcomes from governance meetings, through cascading verbal communications. Staff reported to the review team that the effectiveness of messages, consistency of cascades and engagement of staff varies across the department. The large amount of information distributed through email messages has also disengaged many staff. Rather than more communication, more targeted and effective communication is needed.

Change management

AGD has demonstrated its ability to effectively manage internally driven change. For example, the review team received positive feedback from staff and external stakeholders regarding the recent integration of the arts functions into the Attorney-General’s portfolio. A continued focus on improving the effectiveness of internal communication will further strengthen the department’s change management capability and enable it to be more united and agile in response to changes in high-level direction.

Motivate people

Guidance questions

  1. Does the leadership create and sustain a unifying culture and set of values and behaviours which promote energy, enthusiasm and pride in the organisation and its vision?
  2. Are the leadership visible, outward-looking role models communicating effectively and inspiring the respect, trust, loyalty and confidence of staff and stakeholders?
  3. Does the leadership display integrity, confidence and self-awareness in its engagement with staff and stakeholders, actively encouraging, listening to and acting on feedback?
  4. Does the leadership display a desire for achieving ambitious results for customers, focusing on impact and outcomes, celebrating achievement and challenging the organisation to improve?

Rating

Strong

Staff and external stakeholders consistently commented to the review team that AGD’s greatest strength is its highly committed, talented, intellectual and professional workforce. Staff are generally intrinsically motivated and highly engaged with their subject matter and for many this inspires a great sense of purpose. The State of the Service Report 2012–13 shows high levels of staff engagement. The results report that 81 per cent of AGD staff enjoy the work in their current job, which is above the APS average of 77 per cent. The review team found that staff are enthusiastic and proud of the department’s work and achievements.

Senior leaders are also proactive in motivating staff. There is strong commitment to ongoing education of staff, and the department regularly engages guest speakers to talk on contemporary or emerging issues. The department holds an annual graduate debate event which facilitates interaction between senior executive and members of the current year’s graduate cohort, with very high levels of attendance.

AGD’s workforce has a fairly even gender split at all levels. This is positive and the review team encourages the department to further embrace the broader spectrum of staff diversity in the workplace, while noting that this is also a key challenge for the wider APS.

Stimulating big thinking and challenging organisation improvement

The senior leadership team values and encourages a culture of constructive challenge for policy thinking with the express purpose of developing greater depth and breadth of analysis. While this is highly valued by some, the review team heard that this can cause some staff to lose confidence in their ability to develop policy advice that will be accepted at senior levels. Similarly, the review team heard that internal direction setting can often change with the rationale not always made clear by senior leaders. To ensure that staff remain highly motivated, constructive challenge needs to be accompanied by greater clarity of direction in what is a dynamic policy environment.

The senior leadership team is conscious of the need to actively manage this creative tension. The review team heard from staff that they would value greater opportunity, through diverse fora, to contribute to policy and thought leadership.

Transparent resourcing

AGD has a full and varied work program with obligations spanning a broad range of government responsibilities. It is regularly challenged by new workload pressures as a result of its ongoing responsibilities and those which arise, often unexpectedly, from a changing policy and operating environment.

The department successfully uses taskforces to deliver on key, and often times critical, priorities. The taskforce model enables AGD to be agile, harness required expertise across work area boundaries and successfully deliver in tight timeframes. The opportunity to participate on a taskforce is recognised as a positive professional developmental opportunity by staff.

The review heard some staff concerns about a lack of transparency of staff selection for taskforces, which can be de-motivating. There is a common view held by staff that individuals are earmarked for taskforce roles and that selection processes are at times misrepresented. It is widely recognised internally that there may be a case for identifying the right person for the right job, though AGD would benefit from working to ensure that selection processes are perceived as fair and that, when advertised, opportunities are genuine and merit-based.

Utilising the broader cohort

The breadth of AGD’s responsibilities requires staff expertise across a wide range of functions from legal policy, through to emergency management, national security and, more recently, the arts. The review team found that the perspectives and expertise available from its staff, including some of its senior executive, is underutilised. Internal expertise could be better harnessed through more devolved delegations, greater involvement in enterprise decision making and greater use of EL and SES cohorts in thought leadership for policy development and continuous organisational improvement.

A culture that recognises success

The review team witnessed a culture in AGD that celebrates success and recognises the achievement of individuals and the collective. The SES is active in acknowledging staff achievements through various forums. This role modelling encourages an environment where staff also actively recognise the achievements of others. This culture reinforces the already strong motivation of AGD staff and their desire to achieve ambitious results.

Develop people

Guidance questions

  1. Are there people with the right skills and leadership across the organisation to deliver your vision and strategy? Does the organisation demonstrate commitment to diversity and equality?
  2. Is individuals’ performance managed transparently and consistently, rewarding good performance and tackling poor performance? Are individuals’ performance objectives aligned with the strategic priorities of the organisation?
  3. Does the organisation identify and nurture leadership and management talent in individuals and teams to get the best from everyone? How do you plan effectively for succession in key positions?
  4. How do you plan to fill key capability gaps in the organisation and in the delivery system?

Rating

Well placed

Historically, AGD has recruited many staff with legal qualifications who have been a natural fit for the department. This has enabled the department to maintain deep legal expertise in key areas such as Office of International Law, Office of Corporate Counsel and Office of Constitutional Law. The department needs to continue to recruit a selection of staff with the expertise to work in these roles. As the AGD’s remit of responsibilities has broadened beyond its traditional legal base, likewise its workforce planning needs to expand to encompass a broader range of expertise.

People strategy

AGD’s People Strategy Branch was established to focus on strategic HR management, with operational HR matters managed by the Service Centre.

Detailed HR metrics are provided to line areas monthly to assist the SES to manage their workforces. The head of People Strategy Branch meets quarterly with each SES officer (together with Corporate Division, and Strategy and Delivery Division) to provide strategic and operational HR support. Tailored quarterly HR reporting metrics are used to support these discussions.

There has been a focus on performance management and the recent implementation of a new performance reporting framework, with greater emphasis on the joint responsibility of supervisor and staff member for staff performance and development. It was reported that staff are actively engaged in this process which is viewed positively by managers.

Some areas of AGD have facilitated secondments with portfolio agencies, with some internal recruitment activities also advertised to the broader portfolio. There is scope to further increase secondments and staff rotations with portfolio agencies, across the APS and with relevant areas of academia. The review team heard that placement of rotated staff back into the department could better capitalise on the knowledge and skills acquired.

A focus on leadership

Historically, it is said that AGD staff have often been promoted based on their technical ability. The department has identified that promotions to middle management (EL1 and EL2) have occurred quite quickly and that staff are often not as experienced in managing people matters when moving into EL2 and SES roles. For this reason AGD has taken steps to address this gap with a stronger focus on developing the leadership skills of SES and EL2 cohorts. The leadership programs12 were established to support this aim. In addition, the Chief Operating Officer meets every SES officer annually to discuss the department’s leadership expectations and confirm personalised learning and development. This focus has been well received internally.

AGD now has plans to extend its focus on leadership development to the EL1 level, which would be a positive step to further strengthen leadership capability internally.

The future workforce

Legal expertise will always play an important role within AGD, though it also needs to be supported and enhanced by broader expertise. This includes attracting people with key skills who can contribute to robust policy development such as data analysis, economics, research, financial management, evaluation and project management.

The department should further refine its workforce planning based on greater clarity of its roles, with regard to the attributes of its existing workforce. It also needs to identify the specialist subject matter expertise that it can access across the portfolio and the APS and what it needs to develop internally.

Senior Executive Service mobility

The senior leadership team has focused on developing an SES cohort that is agile and well rounded. Selected SES are regularly moved to different areas of AGD to provide them with broader experience.

This focus in recent years on mobility has created an internal perception that generalist and broad experience is valued over deep technical expertise. A number of technical experts at EL2 and SES level have been advised by senior colleagues that they need to move around more to obtain a promotion, irrespective of their area of expertise. It has been reported that this focus is heavily weighted to developing the individual broadly rather than preserving the expertise of the work area or helping to develop deep subject matter expertise. Stakeholders reported frustration with the amount of SES Band 1 churn, as well as the implications it has for the depth of the department’s understanding of their operating environment.

While mobility has many positives, frequent mobility can have a negative impact. AGD needs to balance mobility to support staff development with strategic staff stability in the interests of portfolio engagement. Consideration of staff skills training and interest should help inform placements. Knowledge management is a key component of any strategy aimed to address the concerns of stakeholders and staff.

4.2  Strategy summary

Outcome-focused strategy

  • Staff identify with the department’s strategic plan and strategic priorities.
  • The department has recognised the need to revise its strategy, following the September 2013 Federal Election, and developed a provisional business plan. Further work is needed in this area.
  • The department would benefit from reviewing its measures to shift from a focus on outputs to outcomes and effectiveness.
  • AGD would benefit from a greater focus on horizon scanning and the development of long-term strategy.

Evidence-based choices

  • AGD needs greater focus on collecting and using evidence when developing policy and legislation.
  • The department has good pockets of data collection and use that could be shared to assist in building a stronger evidence-based approach and more systemic evaluation practices across AGD.
  • Meaningful program evaluation is variable across AGD, with most areas not undertaking any evaluation.
  • External stakeholders would like the department to engage with them earlier, where possible, to support the development of sound policy advice.

Collaborate and build common purpose

  • AGD would benefit from shifting from its current model of consultation to a model of engagement and then further to a partnership model.
  • AGD staff have a more positive view of stakeholder relationships than that held by most stakeholders.
  • Stakeholders would like the department to become a stronger whole-of-government collaborator in certain specialist areas and areas where it is not the lead agency for a topic.
  • Stakeholders desire more consistent relationships with the same departmental staff. A focus on internal mobility hampers this, as does a lack of strong knowledge management to assist when staff do change.
  • AGD should continue its efforts to strengthen portfolio leadership and coordination to facilitate the building of stronger operational and policy linkages across the portfolio.

Comments and ratings against the components of the ‘strategy’ dimension follow.

Outcome-focused strategy

Guidance questions

  1. Does the organisation have a clear, coherent and achievable strategy with a single, overarching set of challenging outcomes, aims, objectives and measures of success?
  2. Is the strategy clear about what success looks like and focused on improving the overall quality of life for customers and benefiting the nation?
  3. Is the strategy kept up to date, seizing opportunities when circumstances change?
  4. Does the organisation work with political leadership to develop strategy and ensure appropriate trade-offs between priority outcomes?

Rating

Well placed

AGD has clear and coherent strategies which will need ongoing refinement to better reflect the needs and priorities of the government. The department would benefit from further leveraging external knowledge and expertise to inform its forward work program.

Clarity and alignment of organisational strategy

Staff identify with the strategic plan, its mission and strategic priorities. The strategic plan cascades through to divisional plans, with clear alignment of priorities and activities. Branch and section plans are not mandatory, so staff line of sight exists through their divisional plans.

Following the 2013 Federal Election, the department revised its strategy through the development of a provisional business plan to update its strategic intent, incorporate the addition of arts functions and better reflect corporate activities. The review team found that AGD needs to further this work to ensure ministerial priorities are more fully reflected in its strategies and ensure staff have sufficiently clear direction for their work following the change of government. The department is already working on updating its strategic plan, however in the absence of a new one endorsed by portfolio ministers, there is a tendency for staff to rely more on their individual divisions to set direction and determine the measures of success for their work.

AGD demonstrates the requisite levels of political acumen, though it needs to continue to build a persuasive strategic narrative that demonstrates an awareness of the political and strategic context when seeking ministerial direction. Some areas have been more successful in engaging with its ministers’ priorities. It is critical that the department continues to build upon these successes.

Measuring success

AGD’s outcomes are listed in its portfolio budget statements and reported on in annual reports. Although enabling actions are identified in planning documents, the department could do more to incorporate objective outcome and effectiveness focused measures consistently across divisional and branch plans.

There is a tendency for the department to narrowly interpret success as the delivery of a final output or product, such as legislation. The review team identified that measures of success encompassing the full spectrum of post-implementation monitoring, as well as reviewing policy intervention effectiveness, are relatively rare. The department is reviewing its measures and measurement frameworks to support the development of measures focused on outcomes and effectiveness.

Horizon scanning

Senior leaders have created opportunities to promote horizon scanning internally, including through the creation of a small centralised strategic planning area. The launch of the Garran Strategy Series, which draws in the input of the broader portfolio and other experts and collectively develops long-term strategic approaches to specific issues, is an excellent initiative.

When talking to the review team, staff consistently recognised the benefit of horizon scanning and the development of long-term strategies, though found it challenging to prioritise in an environment of immediate and reactive priorities. Senior leaders need to ensure this work is seen as an equally important priority to help position AGD into the future. To understand the challenges ahead, the review team found that the department needs to further build on its capability to undertake horizon scanning, data analysis and modelling to help inform its policy advice and, through discussions with its ministers, its forward work programme. It is important that the department undertakes this work in close collaboration with external stakeholders, across the portfolio, the broader APS and beyond.

Evidence-based choices

Guidance questions

  1. Are policies and programs customer focused and developed with customer involvement and insight from the earliest stages? Does the organisation understand and respond to customers’ needs and opinions?
  2. Does the organisation ensure that vision and strategy are informed by sound use of timely evidence and analysis?
  3. Does the organisation identify future trends, plan for them and choose among the range of options available?
  4. Does the organisation evaluate and measure outcomes and ensure that lessons learned are fed back through the strategy process?

Rating

Development area

External stakeholders often commented that AGD is often too concerned with being ‘technically pure’ and that staff often get caught up in the detail, to the detriment of delivering pragmatic solution-based advice. In addition to being technically sound, the department needs to ensure its contributions are practical, implementable and incorporate end-to-end implementation aspects.

There is an increasing expectation across the APS that policy reflects the needs of the ultimate end-user and is built upon a solid evidence base that incorporates data and economic and financial analysis. This is an area where there is a real opportunity for the department to build a more comprehensive and robust framework to support the development of policy advice.

Culture of evidence-based choices

The review team identified a variable commitment by AGD staff to seeking and using evidence when developing policy and legislation. The department has a wealth of data potentially available to it, particularly given the functions and activities undertaken by agencies within its portfolio. External stakeholders suggested that AGD should make greater use of the data they already provide to it. While there are some examples of policy reforms that have drawn extensively on stakeholder information and data collection, the department has no central data repository or structured enterprise-wide approach to collecting and disseminating data and evidence across AGD, the portfolio and the broader APS. The absence of these knowledge management approaches limits AGD’s ability to inform policy advice, particularly when time constraints apply.

Some areas within the department have started to put in place building blocks, such as uniform counting rules, to support the collection and use of data. Examples include the Civil Justice Evidence Base project, which considers data held by the courts and legal aid sector, and a recently completed pilot project to develop a national evidence base regarding identity crime. There are also examples of where AGD has existing data collection and analysis processes in place that are helping to inform policy, such as in the emergency management and countering violent extremism areas. The department should leverage its existing expertise in these areas and draw on external expertise to develop consistent enterprise-wide approaches to data collection, use and knowledge management. The review team found that the department also needs to foster an organisational culture that values and emphasises evidence-based approaches.

AGD currently contributes a comparatively small quantum of datasets in support of the APS’s open data approach through data.gov.au. There is an opportunity for the department to better collect and disseminate data for the benefit of the APS and the broader community.

Timely, pragmatic advice

Staff and stakeholders have suggested that AGD can sometimes provide a ‘gold standard’ product at the cost of meeting deadlines. While polished and technically sound, products are not always well targeted and some staff are reluctant to tailor their approach, even when it is not practical due to time pressures or fit-for-purpose. For example, providing a less polished document for comment that allows stakeholders more time to meaningfully consider and contribute to it could sometimes be a more valuable exercise.

The review team found that while dedication to providing high-quality work is admirable, a cultural change is required to ensure a more pragmatic approach. The department needs to be careful not to over-engineer its work and ensure it balances the purpose for which it was intended with its operational impact.

Evaluation and lessons learnt

Historically, evaluations of policy and legislation effectiveness have only been undertaken by some AGD areas. The review team acknowledges the department’s work to develop a forward schedule of planned evaluations and supports this work, and further efforts to increase the consistency of evaluation activities. Some examples of where AGD is undertaking evaluation include work on international aid, family law and emergency management. Some areas have also commissioned external experts to conduct independent evaluations on its behalf. The department would benefit from developing more systematic evaluation capability and fostering a culture of evaluation to support its role in long-term stewardship to serve successive governments.

External engagement in policy development

A number of stakeholders reflected to the review team that the department consults, rather than engages with them. Often this consultation is ‘tokenistic’, too late in the policy development cycle, or within such short timeframes that they are unable to contribute constructively. Stakeholders recognised that short timeframes were often imposed externally but, where feasible, they would welcome earlier engagement to support the development of policy advice.

Collaborate and build common purpose

Guidance questions

  1. Does the organisation work with others in government and beyond to develop strategy and policy collectively to address cross-cutting issues?
  2. Does the organisation involve partners and stakeholders from the earliest stages of policy development and learn from their experience?
  3. Does the organisation ensure the agency’s strategies and policies are consistent with those of other agencies?
  4. Does the organisation develop and generate common ownership of the strategy with political leadership, delivery partners and citizens?

Rating

Development area

AGD’s engagement with stakeholders varies and a more sophisticated, consistent and strengthened approach to respectful and inclusive stakeholder management is needed if the department is to move from a model of stakeholder consultation to engagement and then further to a model of partnership.

External stakeholders often commented to the review team that the department can be technically and inwardly-focused and would benefit from reflecting a greater external orientation in its forward program. In support of this view, the review team found that expertise across the portfolio, APS and private sector could be better leveraged to inform the department’s strategy and policy advice.

Stronger external engagement

The review found that AGD staff have more positive perceptions regarding the health of the department’s stakeholder relationships, including the quality of stakeholder engagement, than do the external stakeholders themselves. External stakeholders experience with the department varied depending on the area they were in contact with and the nature of the issue. External feedback was often more positive regarding AGD’s engagement on reactive issues and less positive where long-term sustained engagement is required.

A number of portfolio agencies commented to the review team that departmental staff need to better understand their agencies’ operating environments to support useful engagement. Stakeholders suggested that where practicable to do so, earlier and timelier consultation would enable AGD to better use their often specialist and operational expertise to improve the overall quality of policy outcomes.

Stakeholders consistently highlighted that their relationships with the department suffered from, and the transfer and depth of knowledge was affected by, frequent staff movements at SES levels. Stakeholders are keen for greater continuity of relationships, matching the level of seniority in meetings, and a focus on stronger knowledge transfer arrangements when staff do move.

The department works in close cooperation with the states and territories in numerous areas of policy and program work, including for those service delivery areas where the Commonwealth relies upon states and territories to deliver services (for example, natural disaster relief funding). The National Commission of Audit report13 reinforces the need for a concerted effort by the government to reduce duplication within the Federation and devolve more activities to the states and territories. To work successfully in this context, the department must continue its efforts to maintain strong, respectful and collegiate relationships with its state and territory counterparts.

Working across the Australian Public Service

The review team identified that in some areas the department is highly regarded for its ability to provide quality technical legal and policy advice. External comments particularly highlighted the value of detailed technical knowledge and expertise in the areas of international and constitutional law. Stakeholders have reinforced the need for AGD to develop or restore deeper specialist expertise in a broader range of areas to help it coordinate and reconcile different views across the APS and, ultimately, determine the authoritative legal and/or policy advice given to government.

The department has diverse interests, often in areas where the lead role is contested. The review team identified a number of emerging areas, particularly in support of the First Law Officer role, such as freedom of information, privacy and leadership of government legal practice, where the department could play a greater leadership role. Feedback from stakeholders suggests a related opportunity for AGD to become a stronger whole-of-government collaborator in areas where it is not currently the lead. A number of APS agencies also commented to the review team that the department should provide a stronger professional leadership role for APS lawyers. If AGD does enhance this function, it will need to work closely with other APS agencies to ensure understanding and support for this change.

Working to achieve an integrated Attorney-General’s portfolio

As set out in the Public Service Act14, the Secretary holds the role of manager to ensure delivery and collaboration to achieve outcomes across the portfolio. To do this well, AGD needs to be forward looking and maintain an awareness of the range of advice ministers will require from different sources across the portfolio.

Staff and portfolio agencies commented to the review team that, in recent years, the department has become more strategic in its interactions across the portfolio to help address emerging priorities and budget issues. The Secretary has been reported as fulfilling an important role in meeting with and distributing information to agency heads across the portfolio. AGD needs to ensure this orientation is driven through the entire department and not limited to relationships built only at the most senior levels.

Portfolio agencies also suggested that a better understanding of their functions and operating environments would enhance AGD’s ability to contribute to the strategic direction of the portfolio.

An opportunity exists for the department to enhance the portfolio leadership model, in discussion with the Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, to lift overall portfolio performance. AGD is well positioned to take on a greater leadership role in the portfolio to establish a single view on priorities, resources, administration and cross-cutting policy issues. It was suggested to the review team that one way of strengthening and formalising portfolio leadership could be through the development of a portfolio board of chief executives, led by the Secretary, and supported by a sub-committee of Chief Operating Officers. This could be used to increase collaboration across the portfolio on policy and strategy, increase departmental engagement with portfolio agencies, and increase collaboration on corporate matters which may lead to more opportunities to leverage economies of scale.

4.3 Delivery summary

Innovative delivery

  • In recognition of the need to be more innovative, AGD has developed a new innovation and creativity framework, with a number of planned initiatives, to increase innovation capability.
  • The department favours traditional approaches in many aspects of its work and would benefit from a greater focus on more contemporary and innovative methods.
  • AGD needs to build a culture that supports and encourages innovation and accepts and manages risk as an essential foundation to build on its innovation capability.

Plan, resource and prioritise

  • The review team identified a proactive approach to financial management within AGD.
  • Business planning processes have changed over recent years with the intention of better aligning business plans with prioritisation of resources. The current iteration is viewed with some optimism.
  • AGD would benefit from stronger end-to-end work planning, with consideration for and commitment to implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
  • It is unclear how well resource allocation aligns with government and APS priorities.
  • AGD has demonstrated its ability to quickly establish major taskforces and royal commissions. Feedback has noted the need for greater support and stronger flexibility during establishment phases.

Shared commitment and sound delivery models

  • AGD has taken steps to improve governance. However, its governance architecture lacks clarity regarding authority and reporting lines. Staff at SES Band 1 and below would like more opportunity to contribute through governance forums.
  • At times, the department struggles to bring together a range of opinions to develop an enterprise view.
  • The need to retain the highest security standards is essential, though the department may benefit from greater differentiation of security measures, within appropriate parameters.
  • AGD needs to develop a vision and a strategy for portfolio shared services.

Manage performance

  • The review team found AGD to be too focused on cost and output measures. The department would benefit from a greater focus on outcomes and the measurement of long-term effectiveness.
  • While good HR and financial reporting exists, there is potential for the department to better use data.
  • The review team found a disconnect between the risk management guidelines and the reality of risk management within AGD.

Comments and ratings against the components of the ‘delivery’ dimension follow.

Innovative delivery

Guidance questions

  1. Does the organisation have the structures, people capacity and enabling systems required to support appropriate innovation and manage it effectively?
  2. Does the leadership empower and incentivise the organisation and its partners to innovate and learn from each other, and the front line, to improve delivery?
  3. Is innovation explicitly linked to core business, underpinned by a coherent innovation strategy and an effective approach towards risk management?
  4. Does the organisation evaluate the success and added value of innovation, using the results to make resource prioritisation decisions and inform future innovation?

Rating

Well placed

The review team heard from staff and external stakeholders that AGD favours traditional methods in many aspects of its work, and that the department would benefit from a greater focus on more contemporary and innovative approaches. For example, the department could increase its interactions with think tanks, non-government organisations, academia and the private sector when developing policy. AGD has a consultations page on its website, which is a good initiative, however external stakeholders suggested that further outreach into the community would allow richer input to inform the development of policy advice and legislation.

In recognition of the need to be more innovative, the department has developed a new innovation and creativity framework and planned initiatives to increase its innovation capability. This is a good initial step. AGD would also benefit from sharing good practices across the department.

The review team found that the department needs to further build a culture that supports and encourages innovation and appropriately accepts risk to improve its capability in this area.

Enabling technologies

There is a need in this digital age for AGD, like all public sector agencies, to engage with and embrace new technologies. There is an expectation that agencies will use dynamic methods to engage with stakeholders. This expectation is reflected in the department’s social media policy which ‘seeks to establish a culture of openness, trust and integrity amongst AGD officers who use social media’15. This, however, does not regularly translate into action within the department.

The social media policy sets out formal approvals required, training and support available, and expectations of staff who manage these types of accounts. Some areas are already using social media, such as the arts with its strong Twitter presence and Emergency Management Australia with its YouTube channel and Disaster Watch mobile application. However, this type of activity is rare in the department.

Leveraging new communication channels to engage with stakeholders could lead to more dynamic advice and input even when tight timeframes are in place. Some staff have reported difficulties in taking advantage of these technologies due to security restrictions. The review team found a need to reconcile the potential of innovative communication approaches with internal security measures that impact on the ability to deploy modern enabling technologies.

The department relies primarily on written communication. While important, words are not the only, or necessarily the best way to transmit concepts, facts and ideas. AGD could consider building its capability to communicate complex information through alternative mechanisms such as podcasts, videos, charts, tables and infographics to support clear communication and increase engagement.

Stakeholders have suggested that AGD needs to keep up with the external environment with a broad, contemporary understanding of issues and not just a Canberra-centric perspective. Contemporary approaches will assist in fostering a more open and responsive department that has a strong understanding of its broad operating environment.

An emerging culture that supports innovation

The review team found that the Secretary and other senior leaders are key drivers of innovation. There is, however, some concern over whether staff feel they can think creatively to support innovation. Staff appear hesitant to ‘have a go’ due to a low tolerance for failure and an aversion to risk in many areas. Additionally, multiple lines of clearance can result in ideas stalling at senior levels or not being suggested in the first place.

A culture that supports and encourages innovation is required to grow capability and encourage bottom-up innovative solutions. Ensuring staff have a supportive environment to suggest and trial new ideas, with clearly articulated risk tolerances and an understanding and acceptance by leaders that failure may sometimes result, is critical for building this capability.

A focus on innovation

AGD has a framework and program of events that supports a focus on innovation across the department. This new initiative (launched at ‘Off the Cuff’16 in May 2014) outlined the Secretary’s focus for the next year on innovation and creativity.

Currently, there does not appear to be formal structures to assist staff to capture information, assess learnings from successes or failures or share innovations across the department or the wider portfolio. Taskforces were initially used as an innovative way to focus on strategic issues and allowed staff to incubate ideas which could then be disseminated throughout the department. Using the taskforce model as a supporting, cross-cutting, environment to develop ideas and trial innovations should continue to be encouraged.

The review team found other positive initiatives in place to increase innovative thinking among employees and better align innovation to strategy. One example is the ‘Talking Heads’ monthly presentation series, run by graduates, which invites prominent leaders, thinkers and innovators to present to AGD to help stimulate fresh thinking. The review team also acknowledges the introduction of a departmental innovation award, which celebrates creative and innovative work approaches to further stimulate a culture of innovation.

The department is also establishing an APS-level network and delivering workshops to assist staff to pitch ideas to help encourage more ‘bottom-up’ innovation and idea sharing. Other proposed activities to increase capability include dedicating time in SES and EL forums to explore aspects of innovation and creativity and participation in the Public Sector Innovation Network through activities such as supporting broad staff participation in an Innovation Summit focused on pattern breaking.

Continuous improvement

AGD has demonstrated a commitment to continuous improvement through organisational reviews and more informal internal reviews, such as those relying on the Lean Six Sigma17 process. Another example is the establishment of the strategic workforce analysis framework, which includes monthly metrics and quarterly reporting discussions between divisions and People Strategy Branch.

The development of an international strategy allocating an SES officer as a central contact for all issues relating to a specific country, is a good initiative for improving operations within the department. The initiative includes developing a broad view of the work undertaken within specific high-priority countries and subsequently the ability to leverage relationships and knowledge for better outcomes. It also provides an opportunity for SES to develop a deep understanding of a country.

Plan, resource and prioritise

Guidance questions

  1. Do business planning processes effectively prioritise and sequence deliverables to focus on delivery of strategic outcomes? Are tough decisions made on trade-offs between priority outcomes when appropriate?
  2. Are delivery plans robust, consistent and aligned with the strategy? Taken together will they effectively deliver all of the strategic outcomes?
  3. Is effective control of the organisation’s resources maintained? Do delivery plans include key drivers of cost, with financial implications clearly considered and suitable levels of financial flexibility within the organisation?
  4. Are delivery plans and programs effectively managed and regularly reviewed?

Rating

Well placed

The review team found that AGD has taken a proactive approach to financial management, with some evidence of effective reprioritisation, and a sustained focus on improving business planning.

The addition of the arts functions has resulted in significant assets brought into the portfolio, the management of which may require the department to develop additional capital asset management expertise.

Proactive financial management

The review team found that there is a proactive approach to financial management within AGD. In recent years, the department has taken a long-term view of its financial position in anticipation of increased budgetary constraints. Measures such as increasing the span of control of managers when opportunities arise, centralising monitoring of recruitment and multiple voluntary redundancies rounds have positioned the department well in the current tight fiscal environment.

The Chief Financial Officer is highly regarded by staff and external stakeholders, though the department has recognised scope to improve the financial acumen of its broader SES cohort and introduced mandatory SES online financial training and the development of desktop financial guidance materials.

The department’s budget has usually been allocated to internal groups based on previous year budgets—minus savings and plus any new policy proposal funding—and distributed to divisions. Deputy secretaries can move funds between divisions in their group and division heads have the autonomy to move funding between branches. However, other than at the start of the financial year, staff have had limited visibility of funds or other resources being shifted between groups to respond to, and adequately support, emerging areas of highest departmental priority. AGD has instituted a new business planning process for 2014–15 focusing on ensuring that resources are appropriately distributed within the department to meet emerging and current Government priorities. While early days, the review team supports the department’s efforts to further prioritise and allocate resources at whole-of-department level.

Changing business planning

Business planning processes have changed several times over recent years, with the aim to better align business planning with prioritisation and resource allocation. The current iteration is viewed with some optimism by staff, though the review team found many staff experiencing change fatigue related to the number of times the planning process had changed in recent years. AGD needs to ensure its business planning does not become a tick-and-flick exercise and that plans are regularly reviewed to remain current throughout the planning cycle.

Much of the department’s work is seen as reactive rather than planned. At times AGD struggles to balance business-as-usual activities with new and emerging priorities. Staff suggested that high-priority tasks are often identified but that de-prioritisation of activities is either not done or not communicated well.

To reduce focus on certain activities without a major announcement may be entirely appropriate in some circumstances and it is the responsibility of supervisors to manage these changes. It is increasingly important in fiscally constrained times to ensure work efforts focus on activities most closely aligned with the department’s strategic outcomes.

Staff and external stakeholders have advised that AGD rarely plans for implementation components, measures or evaluation activities. The department would benefit from stronger end-to-end work planning, and considering and committing to effective implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

Effective management of resources

It is unclear how well resource allocation aligns with government priorities. At times it appears that insufficient resources are prioritised to deliver key whole-of-government activities, especially when these do not clearly align with AGD traditional priorities. Some staff have suggested that the department does not appear to sufficiently recognise the significant opportunity these activities have to highlight AGD’s value-add across the APS.

AGD has successfully managed its staff numbers in preparation for expected reductions in funding and termination of programs. The review team commends this proactive downsizing, but suggests the department could more clearly align these decisions to its workforce planning needs.

Staff have advised that areas within AGD rarely draw on portfolio or department-wide resources for short-term projects or work surges and that resources have been infrequently moved between groups (only at mid-year reviews and for use on taskforces). Instead, divisions are forced to resource from within and staff suggest this leads to some ‘patch protection’ and subsequent de-prioritisation, which at lower levels may not always strongly align with strategic priorities. To help address this gap, AGD recently adopted a flexible resourcing strategy to support moving resources to enterprise priorities throughout the financial year.

Taskforces and royal commissions

AGD has demonstrated its ability to quickly establish major taskforces (for example, the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce) and royal commissions, leading and contributing to work across boundaries on cross branch, divisional, departmental and whole-of-government issues. It is a statement of confidence and a testament to its agility that AGD is entrusted with these high-priority activities. Often established in short timeframes, some with immense pressure from stakeholders and intense media focus, the department has done well to deliver in challenging circumstances.

Feedback to the review team noted the need for greater support and flexibility during the establishment phase of royal commissions. Additionally, support beyond the establishment phase is reported as variable with limited consideration for ongoing implementation processes and monitoring. Despite this, the strong commitment of staff involved has ensured obligations have been met.

Royal commissions and taskforces have been a high-profile priority for government in recent years. Resourcing these has been a significant challenge for AGD and has impacted on the delivery of some business-as-usual activities, largely due to a significant number of often high-performing staff seconded to work on these projects. The review team found a need for more end-to-end planning for royal commissions and taskforces to ensure appropriate resourcing and support is provided throughout the life of a project.

The review team was surprised to learn that staff interested in working on the Child Sex Abuse Royal Commission were generally not supported for temporary transfers but instead needed to resign from their ongoing positions in the APS to take up these opportunities.

AGD has created internal taskforces and working groups for priority work, such as for the preparation of its incoming Government briefs. Staff have suggested that a good compromise for balancing ongoing and short-term work is the use of virtual taskforces. These taskforces, used in some areas, allow staff resources to be shared while simultaneously developing capability in relevant business areas. The department may consider further using this model.

Shared commitment and sound delivery models

Guidance questions

  1. Does the organisation have clear and well understood delivery models which will deliver the agency’s strategic outcomes across boundaries?
  2. Does the organisation identify and agree roles, responsibilities and accountabilities for delivery within those models including with third parties? Are they well understood and supported by appropriate rewards, incentives and governance arrangements?
  3. Does the organisation engage, align and enthuse partners in other agencies and across the delivery model to work together to deliver? Is there shared commitment among them to remove obstacles to effective joint working?
  4. Does the organisation ensure the effectiveness of delivery agents?

Rating

Well placed

In recent years, AGD has taken steps to improve its governance arrangements, though further work is needed to clarify accountabilities and responsibilities.

Improving governance

The department has taken steps to improve its governance arrangements in recent years. The Executive Board, made up of the Secretary and deputy secretaries, is viewed as an effective decision making body. The Chief Financial Officer, head of People Strategy Branch and the head of Strategy and Delivery Division also attend Executive Board as observers.

The Senior Management Committee focuses on major corporate and some strategic issues, as well as monitoring operational and strategic performance. It acts as the Investment Review Board making recommendations on capital investment to the Executive. However, committee members suggested that this largely information-sharing committee focuses almost exclusively on corporate or administrative matters even though there is capacity to be more involved in strategic management and decision making for the broader benefit of AGD.

The review team was not convinced that the Senior Management Committee model, as it operates, is effective and believes it may even be contributing to a disconnected governance architecture. The review team found that authority and reporting lines of committees below the Executive Board are unclear. There is no consistent understanding of what committees can decide. A more explicit statement of authority would assist committee members to better exercise delegation and contribute to the overall management of the department.

The review team found membership of the Enterprise Information Systems Project Board to be primarily made up of members from corporate areas. This contributes to the belief of many staff that ICT decisions are not adequately informed by the requirements of business areas.

The department would benefit from reviewing the membership of its committees to ensure relevant and representative membership and efficient and effective arrangements. A cascading approach to governance may be useful for involving lower-level staff, to tap their views, develop their skills and experience, as well as to assist in communicating decisions throughout AGD.

Delegations

Authority for decision making varies across AGD and the review team heard that staff at SES Band 1 and below would like greater empowerment to make decisions and exercise authority. Delegations are exercised at a very senior level, which is not consistent with the principles of subsidiarity. Below the SES Band 2 level, staff rarely have the opportunity to present their views to the Executive. There are no regular SES Band 1 forums to connect and support this cohort or to leverage their expertise to contribute to enterprise decision making.

Senior leaders could further utilise the broader leadership team by ensuring they are actively involved in governance and organisational management. Practical steps such as providing staff with opportunities to present their work to the Executive and structuring governance to include a wider catchment of staff could assist in tapping talent and improving communication and understanding throughout AGD.

The department is conducting an ongoing process to increase the span of control of its managers at executive levels as many EL staff have limited supervisory responsibilities18 (due in some circumstances to the technical nature of their roles). Some divisions have made a deliberate attempt to redefine the work level of APS and EL1 staff, including reclassifying roles when people leave and empowering staff with more responsibility at some levels.

Barriers to effective collaboration

Some staff and stakeholders suggest there is not a single ‘AGD voice’ on some issues. AGD is seen at times to struggle to bring together a range of views from across the department and the broader APS to provide a coherent view on key issues. This underpins the ability of the department to provide constructive and informed advice to government.

The department uses taskforces and working groups to address significant priorities and work on cross-cutting APS and internal issues. This is a sound model of delivery for the department. Greater visibility of the work of these groups could help develop a shared understanding of issues across AGD.

The review team found a lack of enterprise-wide approaches, including knowledge transfer processes, sharing innovations and stakeholder engagement, to name a few. While AGD collaborates well on specific high-priority tasks, collaboration on routine activities appears limited and often relies on personal relationships developed by individuals over time. While there are some positive examples of sharing information and better practice, such as the casework collaboration forum, more could be done to develop this capability to strengthen and increase the consistency of routine business practices across AGD.

The department has a high level of security due to the range of sensitive issues for which it has responsibility, including national security and the Protective Security Policy Framework. The need to retain the highest security standards is essential though this could be further differentiated within appropriate parameters, as the security overlay is reported to be creating some unnecessary barriers to communication, innovation, knowledge, recruitment and resource sharing.

Shared and enabling services

Established in October 2013, the Service Centre consolidated operational corporate functions within AGD to maximise efficiencies and create a structure to allow it to enter into shared service arrangements. The final stages of the current implementation plan are due to occur when business managers transition from divisions into the Service Centre by the end of the 2014–15 financial year. The Service Centre is incorporating some back-end functions from across the portfolio.

Internal and external feedback to the review team from users of the Service Centre was generally positive. To further build on this work, AGD needs to develop a vision and strategy to provide shared services across the portfolio, including a compelling value proposition. Currently, there is a strong view based on past experience, that the department cannot provide financially sustainable, efficient shared services to agencies. There may be opportunities to provide broader service offerings as well as leverage from, or co-design, services with other APS agencies and the private sector with consideration of who might be the best provider of these services.

The review team found that while AGD has generally good ICT infrastructure and systems, it needs to improve communication and collaboration with business areas. Although it occurred several years ago, the introduction of SharePoint is an example of a project failing to deliver on expectations. Staff devoted time and effort into re-organising information to meet the requirements of the new system only to have the roll-out cancelled with inadequate communication of details. This experience damaged trust between the ICT area and business areas. Work is needed to rebuild this trust.

Manage performance

Guidance questions

  1. Is the organisation delivering against performance targets to ensure achievement of outcomes set out in the strategy and business plans?
  2. Does the organisation drive performance and strive for excellence across the organisation and delivery system in pursuit of strategic outcomes?
  3. Does the organisation have high-quality, timely and well-understood performance information, supported by analytical capability, which allows you to track and manage performance and risk across the delivery system? Does the organisation take action when not meeting (or not on target to meet) all of its key delivery objectives?

Rating

Development area

The process of measuring policy and program effectiveness is essential to building a deep understanding of issues to both enhance AGD’s expert status and support its organisational stewardship. The review team found that the department would benefit from a greater focus on evaluation.

Measured performance

Many of AGD’s key performance indicators focus on outputs rather than outcomes. Staff indicated to the review team that sophisticated use of data sets and financial information to inform policy or evaluate trends is rare.

Many areas of the department are highly reactive with a focus on getting policy approved or legislation passed, rather than on assessing outcomes. The review team found that AGD is too focused on cost and outputs and needs to balance this with a focus on long-term effectiveness and benefits realisation. The department would benefit from placing greater value on program management, evaluation and data analysis skills to support policy development.

While good HR and financial reporting exists, there is potential for AGD to better use data from internal and external sources to monitor and manage the department and its portfolio outcomes. Stakeholders often indicated to the review team that they had provided the department with data with no view to if it was used in even a limited manner, let alone to assess and drive performance.

The department’s Strategy and Delivery Division is undertaking work to incorporate divisional and departmental key performance indicators into business plans. The review team supports this work and notes that for AGD to improve its capability in this area, cultural change is required to embed a focus on performance management into all areas of the department’s work.

Program evaluation

Within AGD, there are positive examples of evaluation activity. Emergency Management Australia undertakes end of season reviews. The Crisis Coordination Centre undertakes a three-tiered evaluation across whole-of-government and at divisional and branch levels after each major crisis. Some areas have also accessed external expertise to undertake program evaluation. Across most of the rest of the department, however, evaluation is rare.

AGD should further consider how it can leverage its internal expertise to develop more consistent enterprise-wide evaluation approaches and embed a culture of evaluation. Staff indicated to the review team that low importance is placed on evaluation. The review team believes that AGD has a responsibility to ensure it understands the impacts of its policies to be able to provide compelling evidence-based advice to government over time.

Risk management

The review team found a disconnect between AGD’s risk management guidelines and the reality of how the department manages risk. While guidelines are clear, many employees suggested that AGD has a culture of risk aversion reinforced by its legal orientation and evidenced by a reluctance to embrace new technologies such as social media, as well as a failure to openly engage with stakeholders and the elevation of decision making.

When interpreting legislation, the review team heard that staff can sometimes be seen to provide advice on the basis of what the legislation will not allow as opposed to offering advice on how outcomes can be achieved. AGD should consider how it can best adjust its appetite for risk to grow a culture of risk mitigation, rather than risk avoidance, to support efficient and effective outcomes.

 

12 A number of leadership initiatives were progressively rolled out from August 2012 including the Portraits in Leadership event and Intensive Leadership Program for EL2 and SES B1, culminating in the development of a set of leadership expectations.

13 National Commission of Audit http://www.ncoa.gov.au/report/index.html

14 Public Service Act 1999, Section 57 (b)

15 Attorney-General’s Department Social Media Policy

16 The Secretary’s Off the Cuff sessions provide staff (particularly below SES level) direct access to the Secretary. The Secretary provides a brief update then an opportunity to ask questions.

17 Lean Six Sigma: Combining Six Sigma with Lean Speed by Michael George and Peter Vincent 2002.

18 The median APS policy agency ratio for the number of lower-level employees per EL2 is 6.2, AGD’s span of control ratio is lower at 5.6 (State of Service Report 2012-13).