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Commissioner's overview

Service to the Government, the Parliament and the people of Australia, is the reason the Australian Public Service (APS) exists.

As at 30 June 2019, the serving responsibilities of 147,237 APS employees were spread across 18 departments and 80 agencies and authorities located across Australia (APS Employment Database, APSED). Each day, public servants deliver services and programs, provide policy advice, regulate legislation, and manage resources that touch upon every aspect of the lives of the people of Australia.

While there is significant diversity in roles, responsibilities and functions, all APS employees are united in a single institution under the same APS Values, Code of Conduct and Employment Principles.

Accountability to the Australian community, and commitment to service that delivers the best results for the Australian people and the government of the day, are embodied in the APS Values.

The APS has a rich history shaped by many thousands of talented and committed individuals who wanted to make a difference for their country. This dedication to service lives on in today’s APS, which is full of high-calibre employees with a commitment to good government and the wellbeing of all Australians. This is borne out by the 2019 APS employee census, which indicates that APS employees are more engaged than ever in the work they undertake (Figure A).

Alongside many other public and private institutions across the world, the APS is being challenged by rapid developments on various fronts, driven by advances in technology along with societal change and geopolitical volatility. Public trust in established institutions appears to be in short supply; at the same time, citizen expectations have never been higher. The Government has also expressed its high expectations of the APS, particularly in relation to the role of the APS in delivering outcomes to the Australian community.

In this environment, the APS needs to continue to reform and adapt to ensure it is in a position to meet the expectations of the Government and the people of Australia, now and into the future.

Figure A is an infographic highlighting four APS employee perceptions from the 2019 APS employee census.

Public sector reform

The first Commonwealth Public Service Commissioner, Duncan McLachlan, suggested in 1910 that the public service and the legislation governing its operations would constantly be in a process of evolution. In more recent times, the 1974–76 Coombs Royal Commission and subsequent reviews of the APS have helped shape the modern system of public administration that has served Australia well over the last decades.

As the operating environment of the APS undergoes rapid change, however, and complex and interrelated policy challenges become the norm, it is clear that the evolution anticipated by Duncan McLachlan in 1910 requires greater impetus with transformative, not incremental change. Change is upon the APS and it is up to the APS to adapt.

This is not an indictment on the institution of the APS. Rather, it is a recognition that the definition of an effective public sector is changing in tandem with the world and society around it. Australia needs a public service that deals with issues that cut across organisational boundaries and traditional ways of working—one that is outward facing and more porous. To retain influence and credibility, APS employees need to be flexible and able to share ideas, resources and accountability. The APS needs to attract, develop and leverage the skills, knowledge, experiences and networks that individual employees bring to their work, while strengthening relationships and engagement with those outside the service to shape outcomes.

The APS is not sitting idle in the face of change. Hard work on public sector reform is already taking place to ensure that the APS can meet the challenges ahead, with strong momentum for change across the service. The Government has given a clear sense of where the APS needs to focus its efforts, and secretaries and heads of agencies are committed to realising genuine reform.

Through the APS Reform Committee, the Secretaries Board has already been overseeing short and medium-term reform projects designed to build a public sector equipped to meet current and future needs of government, citizens and business (Figure B). Secretaries have been focused on delivering for citizens, on data and innovation, and on improving the way the APS operates—its workforce culture and operating model. A number of these existing reform initiatives are mentioned throughout this report.

Figure B is an infographic showing the six work streams of the APS Reform Committee—productivity, structure and operating model, policy, data and innovation, investment and resourcing, citizen and business engagement, and workforce and culture.

The Independent Review of the APS, led by David Thodey AO, presented its final report to the Government on 20 September 2019 with an explicit focus on ensuring that the APS remains effective in the  longer term. This is the first comprehensive review of the APS in more than 30 years and it is likely to have a long-term impact and influence on the institution.

The Review panel’s final recommendations are expected to be ambitious in nature and transformational in scope. Several broad themes are already clear, including the need for more effective collaboration within and outside the APS; a greater focus on technology as an enabler of service delivery; investment in workforce capability; responsiveness to changing priorities; and improvements to leadership and governance. In one way or another, this report also touches on each of these themes.

It is not yet known which recommendations the Government will accept. However, what is known is that the public service and its leadership are already working towards the change that the current and future operating context requires.

The current state of the APS

The Australian public requires and expects that the APS will support the Government in securing the wellbeing, safety and living standards of the people of Australia.

Fulfilling this expectation demands a high-performing APS, with a culture of excellence and a focus on developing and deploying the right capability in all fields of responsibility.

International comparisons continue to paint a solid picture of Australia’s public sector. The most recent (2019) International Civil Service Effectiveness Index (InCiSE) ranks Australia fifth overall, with above average scores for all indicators.1,2  Australia continues to perform particularly well on crisis and risk management compared to other jurisdictions. Policy making, regulation, integrity and inclusiveness are other areas of relative strength. The most recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Government at a Glance 2019 data similarly confirms the robustness of Australia’s public sector.3

There are many lenses through which the APS can be examined. Each State of the Service Report has sought to provide an accurate, relevant and timely perspective on various aspects of the APS workforce. This 2018–19 State of the Service Report looks at the current state of the APS under two broad themes: culture and capability.

Leadership is a driver of both culture and capability, so leadership and the role of leaders are explored throughout this report. In addition, as the pace of technological and societal change accelerates, any assessment of public sector effectiveness requires more than ever an eye to the future. This report also seeks to highlight both opportunities and challenges ahead for the APS.

Culture

Organisational culture plays a key role in the ability of the APS to deliver on its legislative obligations to the Government and the people of Australia.

The culture of the APS is shaped by many factors. The principle of stewardship is critical, as it underpins the full spectrum of work that the APS undertakes. In serving the Government, the Parliament and the public, the APS is the steward of numerous legislative, policy, service delivery and management functions. This stewardship role creates current and future responsibilities to the people of Australia, with a need for the APS to provide continuity of purpose and focus on outcomes across changing political climates.

The Public Service Act 1999 (Cwlth) is another foundational element, laying out with clarity and precision the parameters of employment in the APS, including the APS Values, Code of Conduct and Employment Principles that govern all APS employees.

The PS Act is supported by the Australian Public Service Commissioner’s Directions 2016, which also play a part in shaping the culture of the APS, by providing agencies with more detailed guidance on particular matters. For example, I have recently updated the directions relating  to APS performance management, with a view to fostering an APS culture where employees at all levels take responsibility for performing effectively. This goes beyond managing underperformance, and seeks to actively foster a culture of high performance across the service.

Culture, however, is far more than guiding principles and documents. The culture of the APS is more fully expressed by the daily attitudes and behaviours of the 147,237 Australians that make up the APS workforce.

Integrity and ethics have always been necessary constituents of the public service ethos. However, in an era of declining public trust and increasingly complex and interconnected issues, operating ethically and with integrity is taking on even greater significance. It is encouraging that findings on these matters from the 2019 APS employee census are broadly on a par or slightly improved from last year, but there is still progress to be made.

Trust from the community also stems from the ability of the APS to implement government priorities in a timely and effective manner. Citizen engagement is key to this—both in program design and evaluation.

Public sector transparency is gaining in importance to the Australian community. Australia is one of more than 75 countries committed to realising the values of the Open Government Partnership, and the OECD’s Government at a Glance 2019 data reveals significant improvements in open government data availability and accessibility.4 It is important to maintain this trajectory, as a driver of public trust.

Similarly, a culture of collaboration, across the APS and externally, is becoming more important. A traditional approach to addressing multifaceted policy and service delivery issues usually prioritises information sharing and consultation, rather than collaboration. However, genuine collaboration—with agencies, citizens, business and other levels of government—is  potentially  transformative. This report highlights some encouraging examples of this approach, but here again, there is more to be done.

Attitudes and approaches to risk—and, by extension, to innovation—also speak volumes about the way the APS approaches its work. Complex public sector challenges require a willingness to experiment with new approaches. This year’s whole-of-APS innovation index continues to improve, but there remain a number of culturally ingrained attitudes to risk that stifle innovative practices. The APS needs to engage more positively with risk to build capacity to innovate.

Finally, diversity and inclusion continue to be important lenses to critically examine organisational culture. This report highlights the progress the APS is making towards reflecting the diversity of the community it serves. However, question marks remain regarding diversity of thought, and more is needed to ensure the diversity we have achieved translates to a culture that is genuinely inclusive of all employees.

Capability

Ensuring that the APS has the capabilities required to serve the Government and the people of Australia, now and into the future, is a multi-faceted challenge.

The operating environment for the APS is increasingly digital, bringing potentially seismic changes to the nature of work. It is therefore not surprising that digital skills and data analysis have been highlighted by APS agencies as priority areas for capability development. However, professional public service capabilities, such as policy expertise, and program and project management, also need to be maintained and developed.

A key consideration is the need to drive organisational performance across the APS. To achieve this, the APS needs to understand its workforce—both at agency level and at system level—in order to attract, retain and quickly deploy the capabilities needed now and into the future. In addition, the working environment for APS employees needs to be conducive to high performance.

The 2019 APS employee census and agency survey indicate that the APS is making progress on many fronts. APS employees are more engaged and feel more connected to the goals and objectives of their agencies. They are more satisfied with their job stability and security, and feel they have greater opportunities to use their skills than in previous years.

On the other hand, rates of mobility—an important enabler of organisational performance—remain low. Less than four per cent of the APS moves to a different agency each year, and within that figure, most movements take place in Canberra, especially between agencies with a policy focus (Figure C).

Employee mobility is a useful and effective means of fostering diversity of thinking and the contestability of ideas, as well as contributing to employee capability development. Well-designed mobility processes and structures will enable the APS to rapidly deploy staff where they are most needed. The APS does this well in a crisis, but as ‘business as usual’ responsibilities involve increasingly complex policy and service delivery issues, this approach will need to be more widely accepted and enabled across the workforce.

It is encouraging that some APS agencies are already working towards this goal through a pilot secondment initiative that is looking at how to move people within and across the APS, state and territory public services, and the private sector.

In adapting to rapid change, leadership capability will continue to be hugely important. The calibre of senior leaders across the APS is strong, and the 2019 APS employee census indicates that employee perceptions relating to their senior leaders continue to improve. However, there is room for progress. As well as investing in capability development for the current leadership cohort, the APS needs to ensure there is a pipeline of emerging leaders with the required capability to fill key roles into the future. Understanding what APS leadership capability should look like, and how best it can be developed, is already a priority for the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC).

Leadership capability is just one aspect of the broader capability requirements of the APS workforce and it is essential that APS employees at all classification levels have  the knowledge and skills to effectively fulfil their responsibilities. The 2019 APS employee census indicates that employee perceptions relating to availability, relevance and support for capability development are broadly positive; in addition, the majority of employees report spending time out of working hours building their own capability.

All these issues come together in the whole-of-APS workforce strategy that is under development. The strategy aims to identify priority intervention areas in response to current and future workforce challenges.

Drawing on a strong evidence base, the strategy will ensure the APS is able to deliver for Australia and Australians now and into the future.

Looking to the future

Much has been said and written about the future of work, but in many respects, the future of work is now. Change—be it technological, societal, demographic or geopolitical—is upon us. The APS must adapt to realise the vision set out in the PS Act—‘an apolitical public service that is efficient and effective in serving the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public’.

The 1976 Coombs Royal Commission laid the foundation for the success that the APS has demonstrated over the last four decades.

Figure C is an infographic presenting APS Employment Database data on the mobility of APS employees between APS agencies in 2018–19.

However, as the operating environment for the APS has continued to evolve, more recent reviews, including Ahead of the Game in 2010, have emphasised the need for ongoing change.

One key outcome from Ahead of the Game was the establishment of the Secretaries Board to ‘drive reform in areas including strategic policy, citizen-centred service delivery and collaboration across the APS’.5 This recommendation, realised through amendments to the PS Act in 2012, has significantly enhanced the strategic leadership of the APS.

In his recent address to the APS, the Prime Minister, the Hon Scott Morrison MP, articulated six ‘guideposts’: a set of guiding principles for the role of the APS as it supports the Government to address the multiple interconnected challenges Australia is facing.6  Each guidepost aligns in some way to the responsibilities for  the public service set out in its governing legislation.

Of primary importance for the Government is an unwavering focus on serving the people of Australia, wherever they are located across the length and breadth of the country. A public service that is focused on the citizen is embedded in the APS Values and we must continue to concentrate our efforts on delivering outcomes for the Australian people.

The Prime Minister has given some examples that illustrate his perspective on how the APS might be more efficient and effective in serving the Australian public. These include: more seamless and efficient service delivery; openness to a greater diversity of views; clearer focus on outcomes, accompanied by clear priorities, targets and performance metrics; greater willingness to innovate and adapt; and, above all, a clear line of sight for every APS employee to understand how their work impacts on the community.

These, and other priorities articulated by the Prime Minister—such as the importance of respectful and constructive relationships between ministers and their departments—resonate strongly with the expected recommendations of the Independent Review of the APS. So, as the Government considers its formal response to the Review, there is no doubt that the APS has the imprimatur to continue, and expand, the reform agenda that is already in place.

The Chair of the Independent Review, David Thodey AO, has spoken about the scope, the direction and the urgency of change that is required. The Secretaries Board is committed to leading reform.

Coupled with a highly engaged APS workforce, there are strong foundations for the successful realisation of the required transformation.

Leadership at all levels is a critical component of the change journey the APS is undertaking. Traditional leadership capabilities that focus on identifying and delivering outcomes will remain essential. At the same time, other capabilities—particularly relating to stakeholder engagement and emotional intelligence—are becoming increasingly important. The full range of leadership capability will be a key aspect of the change agenda.

As the APS changes and evolves, the attitudes and behaviours of APS employees must continue to demonstrate the highest standards of integrity. Integrity underpins how APS employees engage with the public, with each other and with the Government. Integrity must continue to be front and centre in the mind of every APS employee.

The integrity of the APS is a key driver of public trust. And trust matters. It is a foundation of the serving relationship between the APS, the Government and the community. It is the bedrock of the legitimacy and sustainability of political systems. It is essential for social cohesion and well-being. As we look to the future—to different ways of working, new technologies, porous workforce boundaries, greater reliance on data—public trust in the APS will take on even greater significance.

The relationship between integrity and trust means that, in many respects, our future ability to serve the Government and the public hinges on our reputation for integrity. A recent Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) publication, commissioned by the Independent Review of the APS, raised the theme of ‘institutional integrity’, defining it as: ‘a collective virtue of the institution itself 'where the public can see the whole APS as an institution that is ‘consistent, coherent, legitimate, praiseworthy, virtuous and trustworthy’.7

This is what the APS must aspire to—a change in mindset from compliance to a pro-integrity culture that promotes and exemplifies shared integrity-related values and practices. Every facet of APS engagement with the Government, the Parliament and the people of Australia must be grounded in integrity and public service professionalism.

An uncompromising emphasis on serving the Government and the people of Australia with integrity has always set the APS apart. These foundations of the public service vocation will remain unchanged. Many Australians wish to make a difference to their communities; however, many are unaware of the opportunities that APS employment provides. Communicating the APS brand more clearly in an evolving labour marketplace will be a priority over the coming months.

I look forward to reporting on progress towards this goal—and other challenges facing the APS—in next year’s State of the Service Report.

Peter Woolcott AO
Australian Public Service Commissioner


  1. Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. (2019). International Civil Service Effectiveness Index 2019. Retrieved 8 October 2019 from www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/about/partnerships/international-civil-service-effectiveness-index-2019
  2. Although this is a drop from third position overall in 2017, a change in methodology means a direct comparison between years is not possible.
  3. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2019). Government at a Glance 2019.
  4. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2019). Government at a Glance 2019.
  5. Advisory Group on Reform of Australian Government Administration. (2010). Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration, x.
  6. Morrison, S. (2019). Speech, Institute of Public Administration. Retrieved 3 October 2019 from www.pm.gov.au/media/speech-institute-public-administration
  7. Kirby, N. and Webbe, S. Australia and New Zealand School of Government. (2019). Being a trusted and respected partner: the APS integrity framework.