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An Asia-capable APS

An Asia-capable APS will be critical to Australia's success in the Asian century. As last year's Australia in the Asian Century White Paper (White Paper) noted, as the lines between domestic and international policy become less distinct, Asia capability will be needed across the APS, beyond traditional external-facing institutions such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The APS will need to understand the drivers of change in the Asia region. This will mean understanding how Australia's domestic policy objectives intersect and are shaped by global and regional factors6, collaborating on issues of mutual policy interest, and learning from and contributing to innovation in the region.

The importance of building individual and organisational Asia capability has been demonstrated in research conducted by Asialink7 with the Australian Industry Group and Business Council of Australia. This work found a strong link between internal organisational Asia capability and subsequent business performance in Asia.8 In comparison with international competitors, the same research found that Australian organisations are strong at developing trusted relationships in Asia but are challenged to adapt to different cultural norms. The research also found that Australian organisations lack deep Asia experience at senior manager and senior executive levels.

Like the business sector, the APS will need a high level of internal capability to successfully contribute to Australia's success in Asia. APS agencies engaged in routine business activities in Asia in 2011–12 were asked how well they were prepared for their engagement with Asia. While 42% of agencies felt they were well prepared, 56% were only moderately prepared.

Using results drawn from the 2012–13 State of the Service agency survey (agency survey), Figure 8.1 shows the level of investment agencies estimate will be required for them to be prepared to engage with Asia over the next five years. While 22% of agencies reported no change and/or additional investment was required to engage (up from 6% in 2011–12), 16% anticipated ‘considerable change or investment’ would be needed (this finding is similar to 2011–12).

Consistent with the increase in the proportion of agencies that reported no further investment would be required to engage with Asia in the next five years, the proportion of agencies reporting moderate change and/or investment would be required fell between 2011–12 (75%) and 2012–13 (62%). These trends are likely linked to the focus on Asian engagement that occurred following the release of the White Paper and potentially demonstrate an increase in the preparedness of agencies to engage with Asia over the next few years. It may also be that some agencies have re-assessed the extent of the required change and concluded that the required capability was already available.

Figure 8.1 Anticipated level of change and/or investment required to prepare for the Asian century, 2011–12 and 2012–13

Source: Agency survey

What is Asia capability?

As domestic and international issues become increasingly connected, more APS employees, including those working in domestically orientated agencies, may be required to work more closely with counterparts in Asia and, consequently, will need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of Asia and Asian cultures. For example, Australian business has learned that engaging successfully in Asia relies more heavily on people-to-people relationships than is the case in Australia and that a broad understanding of Asian perspectives is vital.9

While there is no clear, agreed and practical definition of Asia capability, there is broad consensus that Asia capability means being able to develop an understanding of Asian cultures and environments and being able to act on or apply that understanding to achieve business outcomes.

This view was reinforced by submissions to the Australian Government Asian Century Taskforce, which suggested Asia capability requires a broad range of skills including an understanding of the social, political, cultural and economic aspects of Asian nations.10 Submissions also cautioned against overemphasis on language skills at the expense of broader capabilities such as cultural understanding. This broad view of Asia capability was reinforced by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet11:

Language skills are important; the more speakers of Asian languages we have the better … But in this context I am speaking of literacy as understanding. Understanding the cultures, the histories, the politics of Asian nations, understanding the way Asian companies do business understanding the social mores of those countries and much more. This understanding, and respect of other cultures, will allow Australians to operate more effectively both at home and in Asia.

The APS has a broad view of Asia capability and considers that it needs to be developed at multiple levels—individual capability, agency capability and cross-APS capability.


6 Australian Government, Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2012), p. 162.

7 A non-academic research centre supported by the Myer Foundation and the University of Melbourne.

8 Australian Industry Group, Business Council of Australia and Asialink Survey, February 2012.

9 Asia Pacific Screen Awards, Submission: Australia in the Asian Century Taskforce; The Boston Consulting Group, Imagining Australia in the Asian Century: How Australian Businesses are Capturing the Asian Opportunity, Sydney, (2012), http://www.bostonconsulting.com.au/documents/file115487.pdf.

10 Australian Government, Australia in the Asian Century Submissions Summary: Improving Australians' Asia-relevant Capabilities, Commonwealth of Australia, (2012).

11 I Watt, Australia and Asia in the Asian Century: Opportunities and Challenges, (2012), http://www.dpmc.gov.au/media/speech_2012-07-10.cfm.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018