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APS performance culture

Organisational capability arises from the way in which an agency's culture, structures, systems and processes combine to deliver productive outcomes. When practising leadership in the APS, the key is to create and sustain agencies with a productive culture, within the framework of the APS Values. The APS Values implemented on 1 July 2013 are a mix of performance and ethically-based values. They recognise the multiplicity of duties of public servants as well as accountability to the Australian Government and the broader public interest.

The APS has a long history of emphasising high standards of professionalism and ethical behaviour as a central component of public service culture. Public servants exercise authority on behalf of the Australian Government and in doing so, manage significant financial resources. The actions of those working in the APS have a direct impact on the lives of the Australian public and the confidence they have in government. Government and the public, quite rightly, demand high standards of behaviour and ethical conduct from the people entrusted with this responsibility. It is partly in recognition of this that Section 35 of the Public Service Act 1999 requires SES employees to promote the APS Values and Employment Principles and comply with the Code of Conduct—by personal example and other means.

The State of the Service Report 2012–13 included discussion on leadership and ethical behaviour, highlighting that APS employees consistently support the view that their senior leaders, immediate supervisors and colleagues act in accordance with the APS Values. Results from the 2014 employee census show the trend continuing, with the large majority of employees agreeing their peers (91%), supervisors (90%) and senior leaders (74%) often or always act in accordance with the APS Values.

These results notwithstanding, it is clear that inappropriate agency cultures have contributed to performance shortcomings in the recent past in the APS (as evidenced by reviews such as those conducted by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity and the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program [HIP]).13 The HIP Royal Commission, which reported in August 2014, found that many of the shortcomings in the programme were the result of failures by senior APS managers, including failure to provide candid advice to Ministers, a lack of subject-matter expertise and failure to provide the necessary leadership.

Despite the attention given to managing culture in the APS, there have been few attempts to describe or measure it; rather, the practice has been for agencies to adopt and adapt models developed predominantly for the private sector. The APS has unique cultural characteristics and private sector models are often not a good fit as a descriptive or explanatory tool. For example, in the 2013 employee census, the Commission tested a commonly used organisational culture model and found that the measurement framework was not a good indicator of culture in a public service context. This year, the Commission developed a model for understanding and assessing performance culture in the APS that adapted a well-known framework but relied on a measurement approach that is consistent with the APS environment.

Understanding APS performance culture

Culture, often referred to colloquially as ‘the way we do things around here’, is among the most difficult organisational attributes to measure and change. The idea of organisational culture carries within it underlying assumptions that are often so deeply embedded as to be unconscious, hidden and taken for granted.14 Consequently, any measurement of organisational culture tends to reflect the extent to which employees share a common perception of the policies, practices, procedures and behaviours through which culture is revealed.

In the APS, the APS Values provide a set of unifying themes that, regardless of organisational differences, bind the service in the way work is approached and delivered. Indeed Parliament saw them as providing the philosophical underpinning of the APS, articulating its culture and operating ethos.15

The Competing Values Framework offers a perspective on organisational performance culture that reflects the competing and sometimes contradictory pressures on employees to ensure organisational objectives are achieved.16 While the APS Values are not explicit in this model of performance culture, they are implicit in all four main components and provide a reference point for choices between the possible responses to competing pressures.

The organisational Performance Culture Model (Figure 5.5) draws on the foundations of the Competing Values Framework. The elements of the model reflect the APS workplace and the underlying measurement in the model has been tested and validated through data collected in the 2014 employee census. Appendix 4 fully explains the model and methodology used to adapt it for use in the APS context.

The model uses two main dimensions to capture competing demands within an agency. The first describes the tension between meeting external delivery expectations and internal management; the second describes the tension between maintaining stability and adapting to changing circumstances. Within this structure, the model describes four areas of focus for organisational performance—task, innovation, process and people.

In relation to understanding the factors that improve organisational effectiveness, the model allows the APS to explore the relationships between agency culture, leadership and other outcome measures related to organisational performance. In this way it is useful in making sense of organisational culture in the APS, as a whole and in its individual agencies. It is also useful for understanding, diagnosing and framing strategies to improve agency performance and productivity.

This is the first iteration of the model. The Commission will continue to refine the underlying measurement framework and expand the range of explanatory analysis over the coming year.

Figure 5.5. A model for understanding APS performance culture

Source: The Commission

Performance culture and leadership practice

Using the performance culture model, Figure 5.6 shows an APS performance culture profile averaged across all agencies for 2014. It shows that the APS overall places high emphasis on process and task. The people and innovation areas show slightly lower scores, but are broadly comparable. It also shows that, across agencies, the greatest variation in emphasis is on innovation while the emphasis on process is the most consistent. It should be noted, this model of APS performance culture provides neither a ‘good’ nor a ‘bad’ profile of organisational performance culture. It simply provides a view of employee perceptions of the extent to which each area is emphasised across the APS.

Figure 5.6. APS performance culture, 2014

Source: Employee census

Caution is needed in drawing definitive conclusions from the results presented in Figure 5.6. The APS comprises 113 individual agencies that vary considerably in terms of function. Descriptions at the agency level are likely to be more valid.

For example, Figure 5.7 shows results for all agencies against one area of the performance culture model—innovation. Agencies were ranked lowest to highest in terms of the emphasis employees believe the agency places on innovation. Results show a high degree of variability across the APS but also considerable variability in employee perceptions within individual agencies.

Figure 5.7. APS performance culture—Innovation for all agencies, 2014

Source: Employee census

Leadership practice and performance culture

The quality of leadership practice and management expertise in an organisation has a substantial positive (or negative) effect on workforce performance. Sophisticated leadership can substantially enhance employee engagement, influencing the extent to which employees contribute to team and organisation productivity through the effort applied to completing tasks and contributing to building positive relationships within the team. Moreover, leadership that supports innovation has been positively related to productive team behaviours and negatively related to absenteeism.17

Figure 5.8 shows the positive relationship between immediate supervisors providing regular feedback and all four focus areas of performance culture for 2014. Employees who agreed their immediate supervisor provided regular feedback on performance had a more positive view of their agency's culture than those who disagreed. Importantly, the largest effect was on the areas of people and innovation.

Figure 5.8. The relationship between performance culture and feedback from immediate supervisors, 2014

Source: Employee census

A similar effect can be seen in the extent to which senior leaders invest time in developing employees. Figure 5.9 shows a strong positive effect overall with the largest effect demonstrated in the extent to which the agency is seen to prioritise the focus areas of people and innovation, in particular, innovation.

Figure 5.9. The relationship between performance culture and development from senior leaders, 2014

Source: Employee census

These two leadership behaviours demonstrate the very strong relationship between leadership practice and the areas of organisational performance culture measured using the model described in this chapter. Significantly, people and innovation relate to the broader dimension of adaptability. The strong positive relationship between leadership and the cultural dimension of organisational adaptability seems to confirm the direction and investment in leadership across the APS through the leadership and core skills strategy.

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13 Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity 2013, Operation Heritage—a joint investigation of alleged corrupt conduct among officers of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service at Sydney International Airport (Interim Report), Investigation Report 02/2013, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra; Hanger, I 2014, Report of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra; Scales, B 2014, Independent Audit NBN Public Policy Processes, Audit report presented to the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP. Documents presented out of sitting (Senate) and tabled 4 August 2014.

14 Schein, EH 2004, Organizational culture and leadership, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

15 Explanatory memorandum accompanying the Public Service Bill 1999, House of Representatives, 30 March 1999, para. 3.4, p. 19.

16 Quinn, RE 1988, Beyond Rational Management: Mastering the Paradoxes and Competing Demands of High Performance, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco; Cameron, KS & Quinn, RE 2006, Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework, Revised Edition, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

17 Richardson, HA & Vandenberg, RJ 2005, ‘Integrating managerial perceptions and transformational leadership into a work-unit level model of employee involvement’, Journal of Organizational Behavior, vol. 26, no. 5, pp. 561–589.