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Mr Peter Woolcott AO, Australian Public Service Commissioner

Australian Public Sector Innovation Show: Strategy and Innovation Stream | 10 June 2020

Thank you all for taking the time to watch this. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk to you.

To begin I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal People, from whose land I am presenting today, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

I would like to extend that acknowledgment to the traditional custodians of the land where each of you are participating from today.

2020 has tested us all – as a people, as a Government and as a public service.  It started with bushfires and we are now dealing with a global pandemic.

This is not only a health crisis – it is an economic crisis, and is likely to have significant geo-political and social ramifications.

Given the globalised nature of our society and our interlocking systems the consequences have been rapid and not always predictable.

However, even before the pandemic the world was changing rapidly.

We were all working off a playbook which recognised that IT, digital and data were going to be the key to how we delivered services and how we sought and measured outcomes.  

This current crisis has dramatically accelerated these trends.

The scale of the Government response to COVID-19 is unprecedented.  And it has required us to be highly innovative.

The APS was quick to pivot to support the Government. There was a strong sense of a joined up enterprise – one which led to a large scale re-prioritisation of tasks and the re-deployment of staff to critical needs.

The APS has had to perform this role during a period of upheaval and public unease. And the Service is now operating very differently to how it did just months ago.

We were able to rapidly shift to widespread working from home arrangements - challenging IT systems and support, disrupting normal rules and directions, and requiring leaders and their teams to interact with each other in different and novel ways.

Moreover thousands of staff have been redeployed to critical roles or have shifted their priorities in order to focus on the COVID-19 response.

We have done this well. We have met the expectations of the Government and the Australian people.

In fact, we used the crisis to break out of some bureaucratic cages and focus on delivering, in a joined up way, high quality advice to the government and better services to the Australian people.

As we start the transition back to our usual places of work, and we move into the COVID-19 management and recovery phase, it will be crucial that we don’t slip back into the old patterns of working.

We have learnt much – the value of flexibility and mobility. The importance of collaboration. And the value of thinking as one enterprise and utilising data.

So now is the time to drive reform, drive innovation and lock in the lessons we have learnt to ensure that in the future the public service continues to be fit for purpose.

So let me turn to some of the innovations that have helped us, in the public sector, handle the current crisis.

I want to focus on three things which have been critical – first our people, second our systems and lastly how we use data.

Our People

Even before COVID-19 and the fires we understood the value of collaboration and mobility between agencies.

Secondments and temporary transfers across agencies to tackle priority issues were nothing new for the APS, but historically only small numbers of public servants actually moved in this way every year.

Considerable work was already being done around increased mobility as part of the APS reform agenda. 

COVID-19 brought this into much sharper relief. And by requiring us to respond so quickly to the unfolding crisis, the pandemic actually created an environment where traditional barriers to mobility were either removed or simply ignored.

This enabled us to rapidly move staff to critical areas.

Workforce mobility was underpinned by a Direction from the Prime Minister under the Public Service Act to ensure that APS employees working in non-critical functions would be redeployed to deliver the most critical government services.

As a consequence, a cross-agency taskforce in the APSC has coordinated the largest mobility exercise ever undertaken by the APS.

Just under six thousand staff were nominated to be part of the surge workforce to deliver critical services for Australians.

This included around 1,800 people who redeployed to Services Australia to help with the sudden increase in demand.

This surge workforce, in conjunction with internal redeployment and the use of existing service providers, has assisted Services Australia to process more than one million JobSeeker claims since mid-March.

In fact, they processed more JobSeeker claims in 6 weeks than they would normally process in a year. During the same period, Services Australia staff also answered nearly 2.5 million calls from members of the public on social security and welfare matters.

The challenge now is to entrench the ability to flexibly move staff where and when they are needed across the APS.

Alongside these redeployments, COVID-19 has also required us to adopt a flexible approach to where we work.

In line with government and health advice on social distancing, a great many public servants have been working remotely.

The exact numbers vary but on an average day over half the APS has been working from home.

Some agencies have had nearly all of their staff working remotely. Others, such as Services Australia, have needed to maintain a significant presence in the workplace to continue to deliver essential services to the public.

As governments ease restrictions across the community, the APS is turning its attention to planning a COVID-safe transition of staff back to their usual workplaces.

However, with a better understanding of the vulnerabilities and capabilities for remote working, we are keen to ensure that we retain flexibility where it is working well.

Another reform priority relates to workforce planning and capability across the system.

To create an APS that is able to respond to any future challenge we need to foster innovation in our workforce.

This includes ensuring we have the right people with the right skills and that we can attract talented individuals.

A key priority of the APS reform agenda is the development of the APS Workforce Strategy.

This is well underway.  It focuses on a clear understanding of current capabilities and expected workforce needs as well as practical plans to develop, deploy and recruit needed staff.

It is being designed as a practical strategy to help agencies deliver the Government’s COVID-19 recovery agenda, but informed by longer term trends around automation, artificial intelligence, digitalisation and new ways of working.

One part of this work is the development of the APS Professions Model which will assist in meeting skills needs identified in the Workforce Strategy.

As Head of Professions, I launched the HR Professional Stream in October last year and the Digital Professional Stream on 30 April this year.

The data profession will follow and we have asked David Gruen, the Head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, to take forward this work.

The Professions Model allows us to target development and build career paths for some of our core professions.

It creates a common understanding of the skills and experience needed, as well as the opportunity to gain these in a structured way.

I spoke earlier of the importance of attracting talent into the public service. The clear career pathways identified through the Professions Model will play an important part in this.

Graduate recruitment will be another crucial avenue.

For years this has involved a burdensome process for graduates and employers with graduates applying to multiple agencies.

This year we’ve experimented with a new approach, with the launch of the Australian Government Graduate Recruitment pilot.

Where most graduate programs are unique to specific agencies, this pilot looks to create recruitment streams that are shared.

It simplifies the application process for the graduates with one application reaching multiple agencies.

At the same time it reduces the double up of administrative handling in each agency.

Virtual information sessions for students and virtual assessment centres allowed the pilot to continue while adhering to social distancing rules.

As we move forward, these virtual platforms will allow the program to target a larger number of students.

There are now shared recruitment streams for graduates in economics, data, digital, human resources and STEM, as well as the Indigenous Graduate Pathway.

So far, almost 6000 applications have come in through this year’s Australian Government Graduate Recruitment pilot.

I am keen for this to expand outwards and dramatically, and while we are at it, to develop an employee value proposition for the Service which does justice to the nature of our work and all we do to keep the Australian people safe and prosperous.


Let me now turn to our digital systems and ICT architecture.

The Government and the public expect us to deliver co-ordinated, reliable and efficient services.

The COVID-19 crisis has reinforced the critical importance of effective digital platforms in meeting this expectation.

It’s clearer than ever that our digital ecosystem needs to support collaboration through a ‘one APS’ operating model. It must also meet increased demand for government services in a period of significant fiscal constraint.

The end goal should be to enable rapid delivery of an enterprise-wide approach to ICT development, investment and implementation across the APS.

This is a significant challenge. And in my view, if this is to happen, DTA’s mandate needs to be strengthened to enable it to drive the whole-of-enterprise architecture.

What the last few months have demonstrated is the capability of the DTA and other agencies.  We have seen this with their ability to work together to deliver solutions like the COVIDSafe App.

In this case, DTA mobilised a specialist digital team to the Department of Health to ensure the data from the App would be accessible by health professionals if needed.

Clear expectations and the need for technology also empowered the DTA to push through the barriers that many projects face under normal conditions.

This enabled the Government to get a product out to Australians when it was needed.

It is these same expectations and needs that are driving the DTA to continue improving the App, addressing any issues to ensure Australians have the protection they required.

Let me also briefly illustrate what the APS has been able to do with the rapid scaling up of customer facing digital services.

Take myGov, where capacity has been expanded from 90,000 to 300,000 concurrent users. On 25 March 2020 almost 3 million people logged into their myGov account, compared to the previous daily record of 1.8 million logins during the July tax time peak last year.

And since mid-March, Services Australia has created 279 new Medicare Benefits Schedule service items designed to facilitate telehealth to support the COVID-19 response.

The innovation has been impressive.  But there is a lot more to do.  We need a clear understanding of whole of enterprise ICT capabilities, risks and investment requirements, we need to ensure our governance drives such joined up outcomes and we need to build the capabilities of our people.


Let me now turn to the last topic I wanted to touch on today – leveraging data to drive outcomes for the public.

From my perspective, one of the pleasing aspects of how the Government and public service has managed the current crisis has been a return of trust in public institutions. And an important part of this has been our transparent use of data to address the grim challenges we face.

Good data, checked constantly, does drive action and when you make the problem transparent you create the environment for solving it.

Early on in the pandemic response, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet established a dedicated data analytics team (including experts seconded from across the APS) who compiled and analysed COVID-19 data from Commonwealth, state and territory sources, as well as from the private sector and overseas.

The data team’s up-to-date information, statistics, trend analysis and modelling on COVID-19 has been an essential component in guiding Government decision-making and tracking of the impact of measures taken.

This data has been – and continues to be – relied on by the Prime Minister and First Ministers, as it presents a common and robust operating picture to all parties.

This means that decision makers can spend more time actually using the data to solve problems, rather than discussing the make-up of the dataset itself.

There were a number of factors that led to the success of the data team.

They brought together collective APS information, advice and skills to provide a consolidated product to the PM and the national cabinet – rather than a series of separate reports from different pockets of expertise across Government.

They worked with an initial product and constantly iterated as the crisis evolved.

And they experimented with new approaches to provide a ‘real time’ picture, instead of simply relying on traditional Government data sources.

This dynamic use of data to measure success and track progress will continue to be critical as the COVID-19 response continues. It will help to ensure implementation of the Government’s agenda is on track - or allow us to intervene early if it not.


So let me close.

If the recent pandemic has shown us anything, it is that the role of the APS hasn’t changed. It is about ensuring good governance that underpins the well-being of Australia.

When you look across our borders into areas where governance has faltered you realise just how much that matters.

We have done ok so far, but the next twelve months will be critical to ensuring we embed the learnings we have gained.

And that we pivot our approach to ensuring we deliver into the recovery period and beyond.

There is nothing glamorous about public service reform, but it matters. This crisis has given the reform agenda real momentum.

The challenge to us all now is to make sure we maintain this momentum as we move forward.

Thank you for your time today and I hope you enjoy the other speakers and discussions.

Last reviewed: 
15 June 2020