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Commissioner's overview

The events of the past year have changed the Australian Public Service (APS) at pace. They have driven the APS to coalesce around a singular uniting purpose: to support the people of Australia.

In 2019, the APS was readying for a future anticipated to be one with more complex policy challenges, continued technological acceleration, and increasing uncertainty. Implementation planning for the Government’s APS reform agenda, Delivering for Australians, had begun following receipt of the largest review of the APS in 40 years.

In December 2019, the Prime Minister announced a new consolidated structure for government departments to improve decision-making and deliver better services for the Australian people. The Machinery of Government changes, which took effect on 1 February 2020, reduced the number of government departments from 18 to 14 and saw more than 8,000 APS employees move agencies.

By year’s end, the future had arrived.

The 2019-20 bushfire season saw lives lost, homes destroyed and millions of hectares of land burnt across the country. The National Bushfire Recovery Agency was established on 6 January 2020 to connect bushfire-affected communities with the assistance they needed, supplementing other APS agencies delivering urgent, essential services.

On 20 January, Australia’s National Incident Room in the Department of Health—already dealing with bushfires, the White Island volcano eruption and Australia’s response to the Samoan measles outbreak—was activated for the global COVID-19 pandemic.

By the end of March, the country was grappling with the health, economic, social and geopolitical implications of COVID-19, including increasing numbers of infections, new physical distancing requirements, job losses, border closures and disruptions to supply chains and many industries.   

These short 8 months have reinforced that the APS must continue to act as one enterprise. These crises have tested Australia and the APS like never before in working memory. By working together, with clarity of purpose, the APS has been able to effectively support Australians and the Government.

The APS will need to be adaptable and continue to respond to changing circumstances.

As a nation, we are facing myriad challenges and the APS is at the centre of assisting Government to navigate a path to long-term recovery and to keep Australia safe and prosperous. This report outlines just some of the ways in which the APS, as an institution, has responded during 2019-20.

This State of the Service Report differs to those of previous years. Past reports have been typically informed by the results of the annual APS employee census. In light of COVID-19 and its impacts on the APS workforce, the 2020 APS employee census was postponed and results were not available for analysis within the timeframe for publishing this report.

The sources used to evaluate the state of the service in 2019-20 include insights from in-depth interviews undertaken with Chief Operating Officers within the APS, the annual APS Agency Survey, internal APS agency employee surveys, human resources data, and case studies. The data available paints a picture of an APS workforce that is collaborative, committed to service and that has continued to deliver for the Australian people and the Government, throughout a rapid shift to remote work at scale.

Commitment to service

In response to the surge in demand for support and services from the Australian public, APS employees worked hard to deliver the services Australians need—when and where they were needed the most.

Every agency adjusted their priorities as a result of COVID-19. This was particularly true of those involved in frontline service delivery. Between March and May 2020, Services Australia processed more claims in a 6 week period than it would usually process in a year, and in just over 3 months, 960,000 organisations and more than 3.5 million individuals received JobKeeper payments worth over $30 billion. By early May, the ATO had approved 1.3 million applications for the early release of superannuation.

To support this surge in demand, the APS implemented a large-scale mobility program. Within weeks, agencies had mapped critical functions across the service and deployed employees internally and externally to support the crisis response.

More than 2,300 employees moved agency temporarily and more than 8,900 employees moved to priority tasks within their own portfolios or agencies. This often involved putting down familiar roles and stepping out of usual teams while demonstrating agility and a willingness to act as one APS.

Many moved to process JobSeeker claims or administer JobKeeper payments, to ensure Australians could access vital support. Others used their expertise in crisis management teams, to support the procurement of personal protective equipment or conduct policy analysis to inform crisis decision-making.

Many others worked to maintain the health and safety of our workforce, and business continuity of Government. For example, ICT teams scaled up digital infrastructure to support a rapid shift to working from home, HR teams moved to proactive service models to check the wellbeing of employees, and learning and development teams rolled out programs to up-skill managers new to managing physically-dispersed teams.  

To respond to the pandemic crisis, the APS collaborated closely with state and territory governments, including supporting the Government through National Cabinet and the National Federation Reform Council. Recognising the significant impacts of COVID-19 on all aspects of the Australian economy, the APS has worked in partnership with the private sector through the National Coordination Mechanism at the Department of Home Affairs, and the cross-sector National COVID-19 Commission (Advisory Board).

At the peak of national COVID-19 restrictions, more than half of APS employees worked from home. While many employees continued at their usual workplaces to meet operational requirements, one-in-five agencies report moving their entire workforce out of the office for a period of time.

The pandemic response has changed the nature of flexible work. Previously, flexible arrangements were most often used by women working part-time or accessing flexible hours. Throughout the pandemic, flexibility has become synonymous with the health and safety of our workforce, and business continuity of Government. Whether working remotely, over split shifts or rotating teams through the office, flexible work was widely embraced as a necessary measure to ensure employees could remain productive and focused on critical service delivery.

Supporting recovery

In 2019, the Government responded to the recommendations of the Independent Review of the APS, commissioned to ensure the APS is fit‑for-purpose for the coming decades. Delivering for Australians set in motion APS reforms to enhance services and deliver clear priorities, better connect the APS to all Australians, and foster an adaptive workforce which acts with integrity.

The arrival of COVID-19 prompted significant shifts in the APS operating model. Changes that might otherwise have taken years were implemented in a matter of weeks. The Secretaries Board, the principal service-wide governance group of the APS, met 27 times from February to July 2020 to coordinate the role of the APS in the Government’s response to COVID-19.

The Chief Operating Officers (COO) Committee, established in February 2020 to assist progressing APS reform, quickly refocused to support the crisis response. Supporting the Secretaries Board, it became a critical leadership group focused on an integrated approach to APS operations and workforce management. This new body has been integral to working with the Commission to embed the collaborative behaviours required for navigating complex challenges and uncertain environments.

Strong leadership is a key element of organisational success. This has been heightened in the last 12 months as APS employees faced new personal and professional pressures. The APS is focused on uplifting SES capability to ensure our leaders are prepared for future challenges. We are also developing an APS leadership pipeline to identify and support our future leaders.

The digital capacity of the APS ensured that many could rapidly transition to working from home, and tools were in place to maintain connections to each other and work productively. For Australians, digital solutions have allowed members of the public to easily access more government services without having to leave their homes. For example, the expansion of Telehealth led to 7.98 million Telehealth services delivered to 4.82 million patients between 13 March and 5 May 2020.

Data also continues to be an enabler of success, allowing us to better understand the needs of Australians and to appropriately respond as a service. Collaborative and innovative use of data has been front and centre in the bushfire and COVID-19 crises. Data from the Bureau of Meteorology was critically important for Australia’s bushfire response. Health, social and economic data has played an integral role in addressing COVID-19. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s (PM&C) data analytics team brought together and analysed COVID-19 data from Commonwealth, state and territory sources, as well as from the private sector and overseas. This has been essential in guiding Government decision-making and tracking the effects of measures taken.

In the past 12 months, the APS launched 3 professional streams: Human Resources, Digital, and Data. The professions aim to lift in-house skills and expertise, provide mobility, and foster rewarding public service careers. Informed by international best practice in the UK, NZ and Singapore, we have focused initially on these 3 areas as they are critical capabilities for delivering services and measuring outcomes.

The Secretaries Board has reshaped the focus of the APS reform agenda to build on and embed the best of the APS during the pandemic, with a focus on 3 priorities:

  • continuing to support Australia’s response to and recovery from the pandemic
  • accelerating APS digital transformation
  • investing in the skills we need now and in the future.

These initiatives will keep supporting Australia’s response to, and recovery from, the COVID-19 crisis, while building long-term APS capability.

Your APS

The core role of the APS—an apolitical public service that is efficient and effective in serving the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public[1]—has not changed. We remain committed to providing high-quality advice to the Government and implementing its policies through projects, programs, regulation and services.

To do this, we must attract, develop and retain the best, and through inclusive practices harness the benefits that diverse thinking and backgrounds bring.

Our diversity and inclusion strategies and actions remain integral to continuing to lift APS employment of Indigenous Australians, people with disability and older Australians, and ensure our differences make a positive impact on the work of the APS.

In July 2020, the Government launched the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce Strategy 2020-24. Applicable across the entire Commonwealth public sector, the strategy sets ambitious targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employee representation. To meet these targets Commonwealth agencies will work in partnership with each other and with communities.

The forthcoming APS Disability Employment Strategy 2020-25 sets an employment target for people with disability in the APS of 7% by 2025. An accessible and inclusive workplace culture and environment for people with disability remains essential to meet this target. The APS will continue to focus on gender equality in its workforce through the refreshed Gender Equality Strategy. The Commission is also leading work to support mature aged workers.

Through these strategies the APS aims to reflect the diversity of the community it serves, and leverages the benefits different perspectives bring.

Learning through change

Our operating environment has changed over the past year. The effects of the bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the consequent economic disruption will be felt for many years to come. In order to manage these challenges over the long-term, the APS aims to come out of the crisis stronger than it went in.

To do this, we must critically evaluate our performance over this past year. The APS traditionally operates well in a crisis, but we need to lock in reforms and ensure that our operating models are sustainable.  

We must retain a sense of shared purpose and continue to work as one APS, a mobile, flexible and adaptive organisation. We need to invest in our crisis architecture and ensure our digital infrastructure and capabilities are fit-for-purpose. We need to reflect on what worked well and what we can adapt, to successfully lead our teams through future challenges.

The APS has risen to the challenges of 2019-20. We are well‑positioned to remain a world-class public service. I am confident that we will look clearly at the lessons of the past, and continue to act with integrity into the future. This will ensure that the APS continues to deliver high‑quality results for all Australians.

[1] s3(a) Public Service Act 1999