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Commissioner's closing remarks – 2018 Address to the APS

2018 Address to the APS

IPAA and APSC Partnered Event
17 December 2018

Ok to close – I will be short. I want to reinforce some of Martin’s key messages in what was an eloquent and very substantial speech. But I know I stand here as the last thing between you and a drink.

And it has been a busy year. I understand all too well from my previous job how extensive the demands in 2018 were on the APS for policy development and implementation.  

That will not change next year, particularly with a Federal Election thrown into the mix.  
In addition, the Government will be presented in mid-year with the Thodey Review on the Future of the Public Service.  We can also expect to see an acceleration of the modernisation work being done by Secretaries through the APS Review Committee Process (or the ARC) process. 

This reform work is not some distraction from our day-to-day work. For we are kidding ourselves if we think it will be business as usual over the next decade. Change is being driven by technological advances; societal and geopolitical transition; the high expectations of the public; and the nature of work. This makes reform and modernisation fundamental if we are to effectively carry out our work.  

At one level we are looking pragmatically at our structure, our culture and our capabilities – at another level there is some deep thinking about how we re-orient and modernise how we do things to ensure we do not lose the confidence of Government and the Australian people. 

Bill Gates said we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change in the next ten years. So the cautionary tale is don’t be lulled into inaction. 

Gates was talking about technology. The question remains how best to integrate this into our work.  Data will be the engine of better outcomes and digital will be the engine of better services. And looming over this is how we utilise effectively augmented intelligence. 

The challenges, of course, go well beyond technology. They go to how we manage complex and interconnected issues, how we practice statecraft and how we weave national solutions which cut across jurisdictions and how we attract and manage talented people. 

Martin has spoken passionately today about the importance of trust.

And David Thodey talks about the concept of being a trusted partner with Government, with State jurisdictions, and with the Australian people. And to me what that means is a sense of mutual respect. 

We also have to keep reminding ourselves that it is not about us. We have to keep reminding ourselves why we joined the public service – to make a difference and to serve the Government and people of Australia. 

Let me reflect on a couple of aspects of this. Firstly, on our advice to Ministers and how we work with Government. We are in a much more contested environment and whilst we have institutional authority this only stands for so much. We need to deliver in this environment. It is crucial we do so effectively as it is the APS which brings the wider lens to an issue and ensures that Government has all the relevant data and analysis that it needs to make a decision.

We need to understand the pressures our elected representatives are under – politics is a hard game and they put themselves out there every day in the media and in the pubs and town halls – it is a battle of ideas and personalities. And my sense is politics is getting harder – the speed with which issues move, the fragmented and 24 hour nature of the media cycle and the use of social media which can often be strident and increasingly re-inforcing of set ideas – all this makes the management of issues difficult. 

The Westminster system and the concept of public service impartiality is fundamental to our democracy. But that does not mean political naivety – it means we have to be politically astute.  It does not mean working risk free and without accountability – it means building trust with the Government of the day through good and sharp advice and delivering on their decisions when they make them. 

Secondly, on our relationship with the Australian people.  Put simply, our job is to help Government effectively and efficiently meet the hopes and aspirations of the Australian people. Easy to say and not so easy to execute. 

It involves engaging better with stakeholders around policy, the regulatory environment and service delivery. It involves ensuring that we bring the people into the design of programs and it involves reflecting the diversity of Australia.  

We also need to get better at building our brand. We must get much better at speaking about the spirit of public service that drives us and the broad diversity of achievements across the service which make a difference to people’s lives.

Just to pick out two of our recent PSM recipients for example. We should be talking about Natasha Dawes, Director at DHS who led and delivered Medicare initiatives that will prevent the future ill health of children by improving their access to dental health services. And we should be talking about Jane Gallagher, a Senior Nurse at DVA, who has made an outstanding contribution to clinical support for veterans travelling to commemorations and improving the quality of nursing services available to veterans.

These are the stories we need to tell to help us build a sense of trust with the APS.  It is through service delivery and engagement with the public that people form their impressions. 

Let me conclude.

We know from the work of the Thodey Review and ARC that the public service in ten years’ time is going to look quite different to the public service today. 

So what David Thodey has done which is so valuable is start a conversation around change. 

As we know there are two streams of work going on and my strong sense is they re-inforce each other.

And it is important to distinguish reforms that require Government action and those that can be implemented by the APS without political elephant stamps. These include matters around stewardship, structure, accountability, one APS, talent and capability management.

The Thodey Review will be an enormously important piece of work, but we are not waiting around for it to land. We know the direction – it is a question of how fast and how ambitious we can be. 

I have been struck by the commitment and engagement of Secretaries and Agencies in addressing change. There is a strong and genuine sense of stewardship of the system which bodes well for the future.

I wish you all a safe and happy Christmas.

Thank you. 

Last reviewed: 
18 December 2018