It has been a year of unprecedented challenges and transformation for the Australian Public Service (APS) and for the Australian Public Service Commission. At the outset, the APS was focused on realigning itself to become more outward‑facing and ensure a clear line of sight between our everyday business and the people we serve. As the year progressed, we were tested by the major upheaval of a national bushfire crisis followed by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The APS, assisted by the Commission, was quick to support the Government’s response to these crises. We worked as a joined up enterprise, reprioritising actions and redeploying staff across the APS to ensure the delivery of services to Australians. We rapidly shifted to widespread working from home arrangements. This challenged IT systems and required leaders and their teams to interact with each other in innovative ways. All of this, we have achieved during a period of major upheaval and public unease.
As we transition back to our usual places of work, it is clear that although the fundamental role of the Service has not changed over the past twelve months, it is now operating very differently. It is against this background that I draw attention to some of the Commission’s achievements in 2019-20.
The start of the year was marked by a focus on reform, informed by the work of the Independent Review of the APS, and made tangible in the Government’s Delivering for Australians reform agenda. Both the Review and the Government’s response envisaged a significant role for the Commission.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought an increased urgency to some of our reform priorities. The complexity and urgency of the APS response, and the need for a coordinated focus, made a powerful case for the APS to operate as a single enterprise.
The speed at which the APS and the Commission had to respond to the challenges brought by COVID-19 saw years of reform potential realised in months. Our collective response underlined the merits of breaking down barriers to collaboration and mobility, and of embracing new technology and innovative approaches to advice and regulation. In line with the broader APS, the Commission implemented flexible working conditions to keep our employees safe, including social distancing measures and increased working from home arrangements, which increased demand for technological assistance.
Within this new environment, the Commission supported the APS response to COVID-19 through its lead role in the Workforce Management and COVID-19 Taskforces.
The COVID-19 Taskforce was set up within the Commission as a single source of truth on all workforce issues. The COVID-19 Taskforce provided consistent and timely guidance and advice across the service, assisting agencies and APS employees to understand their options and responsibilities in the face of the pandemic upheaval.
The Workforce Management Taskforce was established to ensure that critical functions across the APS were resourced to deliver services to Australians in need. This taskforce facilitated the re-deployment of over 2,000 people from across the Service, primarily into Services Australia to assist with delivery of the Jobseeker program.
Both taskforces worked closely with the Chief Operating Officer (COO) Committee to ensure clear and consistent communication across the APS on all COVID-19 workforce management matters. The Workforce Management Taskforce will continue to operate and evolve to ensure the APS is well placed to support the Government’s recovery agenda and to respond to future crises.
Despite the reprioritisation of work sparked by the COVID-19 response, the Commission has also continued to progress key business priorities in line with its goal to position the APS workforce for the future.
Lifting the capability of the APS workforce continues to be a key area of focus. In the face of COVID-19 restrictions, we redesigned our suite of learning and development programs for remote delivery using online platforms. The Commission has also progressed the development of an APS-wide Workforce Strategy. When completed, the strategy will identify the capabilities required to support economic recovery, keep Australians safe, and prepare for longer-term needs.
We have already begun work to build key workforce capabilities by establishing the first APS professions. The HR Professional Stream, developed in partnership with the Australian Taxation Office, was launched in October 2019. This was followed by the Digital Professional Stream, a collaborative effort with the Digital Transformation Agency, in March 2020, and the Data Professional Stream being planned. These new initiatives will allow the APS to target development and build career paths for employees in critical roles.
Graduate recruitment is another avenue for building capability across the service. This year the Commission has piloted an Australian Government Graduate Recruitment program, which aims to reduce the burden on prospective APS graduates by creating shared recruitment streams. Economics, data, digital, human resources and STEM graduates can now reach multiple agencies with one application.
Diversity and inclusion also remained a priority during 2019-20. On 3 July 2020 the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce Strategy 2020-2024 was launched, designed to strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment opportunities in the Commonwealth public sector. The Commission also developed the APS Disability Employment Strategy 2020-2025, in partnership with the Department of Social Services, to increase recruitment, retention and workplace accessibility for people with disability.
A continuing contribution of the Commission to effective APS workforce management is the support it provides agencies to ensure compliance with the Government’s bargaining policies and improve workplace relations skills. This year, one hundred per cent of agreements were compliant with Government policy.
The challenges of recent months have underscored the need for high-calibre leaders across the APS, including the importance of a strong and diverse leadership pipeline. The Commission continues to invest in APS leadership capability in a number of ways, including supporting the work of the Secretaries Talent Council (STC) and Deputy Secretaries Talent Council (DSTC). This year, the STC commenced the design of an APS-wide approach to succession management for the most senior roles, while the DSTC managed the largest ever talent assessment and development process for senior executives across the APS.
We have learned much about the value of flexibility and mobility over the past twelve months, the importance of collaboration and the value of acting as one enterprise and utilising data. We need to continue driving reform, innovating and embedding the lessons learned to ensure the APS continues to be fit for purpose.
It is a privilege to be part of a world-class public service that delivers what is required and provides critical services to Australians during such a difficult time.
Peter Woolcott AO
Australian Public Service Commissioner
15 October 2020