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APS leadership

Increasingly, the productivity of APS agencies will depend on how effectively and efficiently leaders can, on one hand, realign agency strategy and reallocate resources to deliver on government priorities, while on the other, manage these changes so that the capacity, capability and motivation of the APS workforce is not compromised.

National site leadership in the Australian Taxation Office

The shift in the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) from a regional to a national business operating model has been well supported by the site leadership initiative since 2004. There is no sense in the ATO of a national office and regional office divide so often prevalent in other large, geographically dispersed organisations. This is a testament to the success of the site leadership initiative. Currently sites are at different levels of maturity and the ATO is supporting each one to shift their focus from improving social cohesion to improving business outcomes to further drive productivity benefits.

To achieve this, the ATO has:

  • clarified the leadership behaviours expected of employees at site level
  • simplified and aligned site plans with the organisation's People Strategy 2012–15, with Senior Executive Service (SES) Band 2 Site Champions taking accountability for the plans
  • developed appropriate models for SES involvement according to the needs and demographics of each site.

Examples of the kind of initiatives sites are implementing to improve business outcomes include:

  • mobility and rotation programs, enabling exposure to different work types and expanding capability
  • mentoring or coaching programs that promote interaction across different business areas and enable knowledge sharing
  • opportunities for networking and peer learning
  • technical discussion groups to build expertise
  • corporate discussion forums enabling SES to lead discussions with employees on the strategic direction of the organisation
  • targeted initiatives to enhance employee engagement.

Leadership capacity and capability

There has been a decline in the number of Senior Executive Service (SES) employees over the last year. At 30 June 2013, the APS had 2,736 ongoing SES employees, compared with 2,769 at 30 June 2012.5 These figures are from the Australian Public Service Employment Database (APSED) and include ongoing and non-ongoing SES employees, including those occupying SES-equivalent positions and those on long-term leave. Figure 2.1 shows from the inception in 1984 until 2003 the size of the SES remained relatively stable with minor variations that reflected budgetary or organisational changes. However, the SES grew steadily between 2003 and 2012. The recent decline in SES numbers in APSED is the first since June 2001.

In June 2010, the government imposed a cap on SES numbers to control the growth of operational SES. The SES cap includes all ongoing and non-ongoing employees in SES roles for three months or more and excludes employees who are inoperative (that is, on long-term leave). The SES cap is monitored monthly. As at June 2013, the number of operational SES roles was 2,770, down from 2,850 in 2010.

In both measures of SES numbers it is clear that the growth in employment at these classifications has stopped and that overall SES numbers are reducing.

Figure 2.1 Ongoing SES employees, 1984 to 2013

Source: APSED


APS 6 and Executive Level (EL) employees are a critical element of the APS leadership pool. APS employees at these levels fill a mix of technical and leadership positions in which they are

responsible for delivering activities contributing directly to APS productivity. At these levels the art of direct leadership is learned in many agencies. EL 2 employees also constitute the pool of talent from which future SES employees are most likely to be drawn.

Figure 2.2 shows the three classifications have experienced considerable growth since 2003. The relative growth in the EL classifications has been the largest, with growth in the EL 1 classification the most significant.

Figure 2.2 Ongoing APS 6, EL 1 and EL 2 employees, 1994 to 2013

Source: APSED


The relationship between and movement within these three workforce classifications represents a significant workforce planning issue for the maintenance of a healthy APS leadership talent pool. While the APS workforce is refreshed by external recruitment, internal employee movements that capitalise on existing core public service knowledge, skills and abilities remain critical to the overall performance of the APS. Consequently, as the APS enters a period of downsizing, agencies will need to balance an overall reduction in absolute numbers against preserving the right mix of skills and opportunities for career advancement for talented leaders. As discussed in the next section, managing this workforce risk is seen by agencies as a priority for the next five years.

Work-level standards are one way agencies can consistently classify and manage the work value of positions. New work-level standards for the SES have been fully implemented. These are mandatory and all APS agencies must ensure the work value of each SES role is consistent with the work-level standards. Agencies must complete their analysis of all SES positions no later than December 2014. New work-level standards for APS 1–6 and EL 1–2 have been developed and are due to be released to agencies in 2013–14.

Similarly, APS-wide activities relating to performance management, the efficiency of the APS-wide learning and development system and approaches to talent management will all contribute to improving the management and performance of these important segments of the APS workforce.

Appendix 1 provides additional information on the demographics of the APS classification structures.

Risks and priorities

In the 2013 State of the Service agency survey (agency survey), agencies were asked to identify how demands on their agency heads and executive teams would change over the next 12 months. Forty-six per cent of agencies anticipated that demands in relation to setting strategic directions and priorities would increase greatly in the next year. This was the highest rated area of anticipated increased demand facing agencies in 2013. In 2012, only 35% of agencies identified this as an area of increased demand. Other activities agencies expected to increase greatly over the next 12 months included reallocating resources (41% of agencies) and managing significant change (40% of agencies).

Figure 2.3 shows the top six areas of workforce risk identified by agencies over the next five years (with comparative data for 2011–12). Addressing capability gaps remains a concern for more than 50% of agencies, although this is slightly lower than the number of agencies that cited this risk last year. Compared to last year, however, resource constraints, retaining skilled employees and limited career development opportunities for employees were identified by more agencies, perhaps reflecting the advent of downsizing. Although identified by fewer agencies than last year, middle-management leadership skills remained a significant issue in 2012–13.

Figure 2.3 Top six areas of workforce risk over the next five years, 2011–12 and 2012–13 comparison

Source: Agency survey


5 Base, or substantive, classification is used in this analysis so anyone on temporary assignment at SES level, whose substantive classification is below SES, is not included.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018