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4. The SES

Creation of the SES and evolution of its role and functions

The SES was established by the Government in 1984 to:

create new arrangements for senior management, with the dual purpose of ensuring a fully productive relationship with government and enabling senior managers to realise their full potential.2

Under the Public Service Reform Act 1984, the new SES was established to provide for a group of officers who:

  • may undertake higher level policy advice, managerial and professional responsibilities in departments and
  • may be deployed by Secretaries within Departments and by the then Public Service Board between departments, so as best to promote the efficiency of the APS.

Provision was also made in the legislation for:

  • a guarantee of freedom from political interference in selection, appointment and promotion in the SES
  • an opening up of SES positions to competition on merit from outside the APS
  • the capacity for fixed term SES appointments
  • SES promotions and appointments to be made by the Public Service Board, within certain guidelines and
  • arrangements for the redeployment and retirement of SES officers.

The Public Service Act 1999 (the PS Act) – the current legislative framework for the APS – consolidated the functions and roles of the SES. Section 35(2) of the PS Act specifies that the functions of the SES are to:

  • provide a group of APS employees each of whom, within his or her agency, provides professional expertise, policy advice, and/or management at a high level
  • promote co-operation with other agencies and
  • promote, by personal example and other appropriate means, the APS Values and compliance with the Code of Conduct.

The 2005 ‘One APS – One SES’ 3 statement of expectations released by the former APS Management Advisory Committee reinforced the expectations and the statutory role of the SES. It makes clear the SES should be agile and flexible,collaborative and collegiate, and committed to self-development. The statement highlights that ‘the leadership of any organisation embodies its identity and image’, and recognises that its role is ‘[critical to] ... employee commitment and attracting high calibre young staff’. The Management Advisory Committee statement also recognises that ‘the SES must itself evolve to meet the challenges of the future’.

More recently the Blueprint concluded:

A unified APS-wide leadership group is required to support Secretaries. At present less than 40 percent of nearly 3,000 SES members ‘definitely see themselves as part of an APS-wide leadership cadre’ rather than as leaders only of their agency.4

The Blueprint made a number of recommendations concerning the strengthening of the APS leadership group, including the creation of an APS leadership group comprising the Secretaries Board, SES Band 3 and selected agency heads (equivalent to SES Band 3). Members of this newly created senior leadership forum – the APS200 – are responsible for:

  • leadership roles in their organisations and more widely across the APS
  • supporting the Secretaries Board by undertaking strategic projects and initiatives as cross-portfolio teams and
  • being at the vanguard of cultural change to achieve the innovative, collaborative, open, agile, forward looking and streamlined public service envisioned in the Blueprint.

However, the Blueprint expects that all SES will drive reforms and model appropriate leadership behaviours such as innovation.

SES classifications

The contemporary three level Senior Executive classification structure – including the Senior Executive (Specialist) classification – was introduced in 1990. The Senior Executive (Specialist) was included within the new structure to recognise a demand for SES jobs requiring high level professional qualifications and experience while having limited management and policy advising responsibilities and the demonstrably different labour market in which they operated.

APS-wide work level standards for the three level SES classification structure – including the Senior Executive (Specialist) classification levels – were issued in 1990.

The last APS-wide SES work level standards were issued in 1998. Following proclamation of the PS Act responsibility for work level standards was devolved to agency heads in accordance with the Public Service Classification Rules 2000 (the Classification Rules) – a legislative instrument that establishes the classification levels of APS employees, including the SES.

Under the Classification Rules agency heads must issue work level standards for each approved classification used so as to better reflect the type of work being done in the agency. The move to agency-specific work level standards signaled a move away from APS-wide work level standards, including for the SES. However, agencies have been able to draw on the 1998 standards – they continue to be available for research purposes on the APSC’s website.

Since the 1960s the job title ‘Associate Secretary’ has been used on select occasions to describe jobs formally classified as either a departmental Secretary – previously the First Division of the four divisional structure – or a Deputy Secretary – previously the Second Division. More recently, Associate Secretary status has been conferred on SES Band 3 roles with significant responsibilities. However ‘Associate Secretary’ is not a classification level separately identified and described with a work level standard.

Capability requirements

A major underpinning feature of SES classification arrangements has been the identification of core capabilities required in members of the senior leadership group and their use as part of selection, development and performance assessment.

The first set of five SES core selection criteria were adopted in 1987 and over time have evolved into today’s Senior Executive Leadership Capability Framework (SELCF). The five key elements of the Framework represent the SES core selection criteria for all SES positions, including Senior Executive (Specialist) positions:

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

In 2004, the APSC released an Integrated Leadership System (ILS) which expands on the SELCF to give a broader framework for executive and senior executive development. Unlike the SELCF, the ILS distinguishes the capability requirements at each level of the SES. The ILS provides capability descriptions and desired behaviours as tools for agencies and individuals to use in their leadership development and has been used at both the service-wide level and in a number of agencies to inform the planning and implementation of leadership growth strategies.

The ILS is not a set of work level standards. It focuses on the skills and behaviours required at each of the three SES levels.

Assessing performance

Since 1984 mechanisms for measuring and assessing SES performance have evolved and, with the introduction of performance based pay for the SES in 1990, performance assessment has become a more entrenched feature across the APS.

The shift in focus from productivity improvements at the APS-wide level to the agency level from 1997 onwards resulted in considerable variations in both the scale and detailed nature of SES performance reward and appraisal arrangements within and between agencies.

Setting SES remuneration

Until the early 1990s, all APS employees were covered by APS-wide industrial agreements and awards.

In the early 1990s the then Government’s enterprise and workplace bargaining policies were applied to the APS, and for the first time and within limits, departments and agencies were able to negotiate changes to pay and some conditions to meet agency specific circumstances. This was the beginning of the move away from centralised collective bargaining and uniform pay rates for each classification which had applied since the creation of the APS.

The last APS-wide industrial agreement expired in October 1996 – Continuous Improvement in the APS Enterprise Agreement.

Since 1998 government policy – as it applies to workplace relations arrangements in Australian Government employment including the APS – has been set out in successive bargaining frameworks5. Agency heads are responsible for setting actual pay rates consistent with the bargaining framework and the Government’s workplace relations policy. A key tenet has been that improvements in pay and conditions must be linked to improvements in productivity.

The supporting guidance to the current bargaining framework6 advises that the terms and conditions for SES employees and their equivalents should be reflected in either:

  • determinations
  • individual common law arrangements or
  • where a majority of SES officers in an agency choose, an enterprise agreement.

As at 31 December 2009:

  • 2,287 SES employees were covered by individual arrangements – 820 Australian Workplace Agreements, 236 common law contracts, and 1,231 section 24(1) determinations
  • 84 by collective 24(1) determinations
  • 3 on a collective agreement and
  • 5 on ‘Other’.7

Controlling SES growth

Historically APS resource control frameworks including those governing SES employees have focused on establishment (ie the number of positions), staffing, and budgets.

The present-day cap on SES numbers has been administered by the APSC since April 2010. It sets an absolute limit on the number of SES employees that an agency may employ at any one time.

Chapter 9 considers whether ongoing controls to regulate SES growth are necessary.

The Public Service Commissioner’s powers and the SES

Under the PS Act the Commissioner’s role in selection focuses on ensuring appropriate, merit-based processes are followed – with a representative of the Commissioner to be part of all SES selection panels. The Public Service Commissioner can only decline to approve Secretaries’ recommendations where there is a process inadequacy.

The Commissioner was also given the role of agreeing to financial benefits to be offered as an incentive to retire (s. 37 of the PS Act) and in certifying that termination of SES employees was appropriate.

Under section 36 of the PS Act the Public Service Commissioner must issue directions in writing about employment matters relating to the SES employees, including engagement, promotion, redeployment, mobility, and termination. The Public Service Commissioner’s Directions 1999 are disallowable non-legislative instruments for the purposes of section 46B of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901.

Attachment C provides a more detailed history on the history and evolution of the SES.

2 Dawkins J, Second Reading speech, Public Service Reform Act 1984

3 Management Advisory Committee, One APS-One SES Statement, October 2005

4 Advisory Group on Reform of Australian Government Administration, Ahead of the Game – Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration, March 2010 (2010:22)

5 The Policy Parameters for Agreement Making in the APS until 2007; and the Australian Government Employment Bargaining Frameworkfrom 2007 to 2010; and the APS Bargaining Framework 2011

6 Australian Public Service Bargaining Framework Supporting Guidance January 2011

7 2009 APS Remuneration Survey – in which 58 agencies participated covering approximately 84 per cent of SES employees – 2,379 SES employees reported in the Survey, out of a total of 2,845 SES reported in 2008 09 State of the Service Report

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018