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A capable and high-performing public service is essential to deliver government products, services and initiatives efficiently and effectively. Agency capability extends beyond the capabilities of the APS workforce, combining employees' skills with the processes, systems, culture and structures to deliver business outcomes.

In his address to the APS in April 2016, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, 'The key to success for a 21st century APS is to embrace innovation and technology—to think big and bold and to be committed to learning and leadership at every level'.


The importance of developing APS leadership and management capabilities has been well documented, including in previous State of the Service reports. Senior leaders establish the strategic direction of their agencies and the broader APS. Leaders at many levels are central to effective change management and prove to be critical in mobilising the workforce to achieve its best.

Immediate supervisors

Employee perceptions of the effectiveness of their immediate supervisors remained high in 2016. Satisfaction with immediate supervisors is one of the key strengths of the APS. The APS employee census measures satisfaction with immediate supervisor performance against 10 capabilities. Results for 2016 are shown in Figure 4 and are available on the State of the Service website. Results show a high degree of stability.

Figure 4: Satisfaction with immediate supervisor performance, 2016

Source: 2016 APS employee census

Senior leaders

The SES plays a significant role in the APS. SES officers provide leadership at an agency and whole-of-APS level. They ensure delivery of outcomes and shape organisational culture. Senior executives operate in complex and sometimes uncertain environments. How they deal with these situations and bring employees with them is important.

In the 2016 APS employee census, almost 49 per cent of respondents agree that the SES in their agencies are of high quality. In contrast, 29 per cent agreed that the SES in their agencies give their time to identify and develop talented people. It is important to note that, in both instances, over a third of respondents provided a neutral response to the relevant questions, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

An interesting finding is that 34 per cent of SES respondents indicated that they had worked more than 100 hours in the fortnight leading up to the census. Furthermore, 57 per cent of responding SES reported that they had completed work at home or in another location outside of normal work hours on most days or every day. Notwithstanding these work hours and effort, 70 per cent of SES respondents were satisfied with the work–life balance in their current jobs.

Optimising talent

Talent management focuses on individuals with the potential to successfully undertake critical roles now and in the future. Talent management is attracting increased attention throughout the APS. Four elements form the focus of APS talent management strategies:

  • talent attraction and identification—sourcing external talent or identifying internal talent
  • talent development—making a targeted investment in the development of talented employees
  • talent engagement—maintaining the engagement of talented employees with the APS
  • talent deployment—actively drawing on identified talent to fill critical workforce roles.

The APS talent management guide 4, released in August 2015, was designed to support agency talent management capability. The guide's approach is to encourage talent management across agencies and linking it to workforce planning.

Agency survey data indicates that agencies have a number of measures in place to develop talented employees. Twenty per cent of agencies have developed agency-wide talent management programs designed to target high-potential employees, with specific measures targeting APS, EL and SES employees. Fifty per cent of agencies use relationship-based development opportunities to develop talent. These opportunities include mentoring, coaching and peer support schemes.

Agencies report that talent management is an area in which they will continue to develop their capabilities and offerings.

Learning and development

The APS determines essential development priorities through its learning and development strategy.5

In 2015–16 development priorities focused on:

  • leadership and talent development
  • management expertise, including financial management, policy development, business planning
  • core skills, including people management, procurement, contract management.

In the 2016 APS employee census, 63 per cent of respondents reported that they had access to effective learning and development. Eighty-three per cent had spent at least some time in formal training and education over the 12 months prior to the census. Fifty-five per cent respondents spent a total of three or more days in formal training over this time.


Innovation contributes to a high performing public sector by increasing productivity and delivering better services to the government and citizens of Australia. A commitment to innovation at all levels assists the APS to improve its policies, processes and procedures.

Seventy-one per cent of all APS agencies report they are focusing on developing an innovation strategy for their agency. Further, 82 per cent of agencies report that they are engaging with internal and external groups to drive innovation.

Agencies report that the following strategies are beneficial in fostering innovation:

  • implementing strategic, digital and/or innovation plans to foster an innovative culture within the agency
  • focusing on digital transformation and technology to create and improve processes
  • encouraging innovative ideas from all employees
  • providing opportunities for staff to attend innovation forums, labs and sessions
  • rewarding staff for innovative ideas
  • establishing committees or councils to provide a coordinated approach to innovation.

Innovation is an area in which agencies report that they are continuing to develop their capabilities. Thirty per cent of agencies report having a developed strategy.

In March 2016, the Institute of Public Administration ACT Division, in partnership with the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, launched the inaugural Public Sector Innovation Awards. The awards recognise, celebrate and share innovation in the APS. The four award winners were:

  • the Department of Defence, for the design and production of a low-cost counter–improvised explosive device (IED) that jams radio signals which can set off IEDs
  • Geoscience Australia, for the development of a computer-based system that maps Australia's potential for new mineral sources
  • the Department of Finance, for govCMS, a shared service for all government agencies intended to reduce the technology and compliance burden on government agencies and improve the government's digital and online capability
  • the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), for the ACNC Charity Portal, a 'digital by default' service that allows charities to manage their own details on the ACNC register and submit required annual statements.

Managing change

The APS must remain dynamic and flexible. The ability to respond to and manage change is an important quality for APS agencies and the workforce to master. Workplace change can be difficult to effectively implement and it is an area in which the APS is continuing to increase its capability.

Change is commonplace across the APS and takes a variety of forms. Eighty-nine per cent of respondents to the 2016 APS employee census report experiencing some form of workplace change in the past 12 months. Fifteen per cent of respondents identified change in the structure of their agencies as the single biggest workplace change their workgroups had experienced. Another 15 per cent cited decreased staffing numbers as the most significant change.

Only 47 per cent of those who had experienced some form of workplace change, however, were satisfied with how the change was communicated to them. This suggests that the APS has an opportunity to improve how it manages and communicates change processes.

Last reviewed: 
31 May 2018