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Mr Peter Woolcott AO

Australian Public Service Commissioner

19 February 2019


Good morning, it is a pleasure to be here.  Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to elders past and present.  

I would like to congratulate each of you on gaining a position as a graduate in the Australian Public Service. 

It is a great opportunity.  You will be challenged and you will have a chance to make a real difference to the lives of people.

You are joining the APS at a time of major and accelerated change flowing from advances in technology, societal and geopolitical volatility and the changing expectations of people.

This year, apart from the array of issues facing Government, there will be a federal election and a strong focus on the reform of the APS to ensure it is fit for purpose in the years ahead.

So I hope none of you joined for a quiet life.

The role of the APS is to serve the Australian community, whilst providing support to the government of the day.  

While the APS is 150,000 strong, structured into 18 Departments and some 105 agencies and authorities – 12 of which are represented here today – it is, in fact, one organisation with values and behaviours that unite it. 

The nature and subject of the work we perform varies enormously. But as public servants we are all bound by the same set of values and the Code of Conduct - and these values and this Code underpin your work and all your dealings with Government and the Australian people.  

Now one just needs to look at the list of recipients of the Public Service Medal in the recent Australia Day awards to see the huge diversity of work performed by public servants:

  • From Lois Ransom who has devoted her career of over thirty years to strengthening Australia's plant biosecurity system through to Leilani Bin-Juda who, as Australia's first Torres Strait Islander appointed to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Torres Strait Treaty Liaison Office, has deftly managed a range of highly sensitive issues relating to Australia's proximity to Papua New Guinea.
  • There is also Elsy Brammesan who led the regulatory response to the resolution of serious non-compliance at two residential aged care services and informed the Government's wider response to these issues, while Matthew Yannopoulos recently led the program to deliver the new Child Care Subsidy, one of the most significant changes to Australia's child care system in 40 years.

Mary Wiley-Smith, the Deputy Australian Public Service Commissioner, will be speaking to you later today about making the most of your graduate year and I’m sure she’ll expand on this. But I wanted to take this opportunity to encourage you to network and start building your professional relationships now. 

As I said there are representatives from 12 APS agencies in this room; get to know each other and understand the role that your agency and each of these agencies play in delivering the government’s agenda.  

Let me now turn to Challenges and opportunities 

The public service in ten years’ time is going to look quite different to the public service of today

There are two reform processes currently underway – modernising the public service through the work of the Secretaries APS Reform Committee, and the Independent Review of the APS led by David Thodey.

These reform processes are looking at our structure, our capabilities and our culture, and also how we modernise to ensure we retain the confidence of Government and the Australian people. 

  Let me reflect on this for a moment. 

Firstly with Government - we need to recognise that the APS is no longer the monopoly it once was.  Whilst the APS has institutional authority, this only stands for so much and we are operating in a much more contested environment whether it be around policy advice, regulatory stewardship or service delivery.

Our advice is rightly open to challenge from think tanks, lobby groups and single issue groups as well as Ministerial Offices.  And it is crucial that our advice is well argued and persuasive as it the APS which brings the wider lens to an issue and ensures that Government has all the relevant data and analysis it needs to make a decision.   

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 means building trust with the Government of the day through good and sharp advice and delivering on their decisions when they make them.  

In order to be responsive to the needs of the Government we also need to understand the pressures our elected representatives are under. The speed with which issues now move, the 24-hour nature of the media cycle and the use of social media makes the management of issues difficult. 

Secondly, we need to consider our relationship with the Australian people in everything that we do.  Their expectations of Government are expanding and we need to be more citizen-centric  and personalised in our delivery.

We know that trust is influenced by citizens’ experiences in receiving government services, the level of their engagement and our inclusivity in designing policy and how services are delivered.   

We need to get much better in building and managing stakeholder relationships with the private sector and NGOs – to understand their perspective and try to manage differences. 

We also need to work much more closly with State and local Governments.  The Australian community does not often differentiate between Government agencies and levels of government. 

 Let me turn now to capability.  Building professional capability for the future will be a constant for the APS.

This may or may not fill you with joy but just because you have left university does not mean your education has finished.

Quite the contrary as the nature of work is changing with rapid advances in computer power and data growth, advances in artificial intelligence, digitalisation and automation. A high-performing public sector will need to take advantage of these changes and stay agile if it is to influence and deliver on government outcomes. 

It will require continuous renewal and refreshing of our abilities.

The APS also needs to enable employees to move freely both within and throughout the system. However, from our workforce data, we know that only 2.5 per cent of the APS moves to a different agency each year. 

You need a balance – it is crucial to have a real depth of knowledge of issues in the APS so mobility for mobilities sake is not the answer. But that said, the APS needs to be more permeable and mobile in order to foster diversity of thinking, the contestability of ideas and assist in capability development.

So I would encourage you to consider, throughout your career, opportunities to further develop your capabilities by moving in and out of different agencies, different levels of government, and even spending time in NGOs or the private sector. The idea being that you may well  bring that experience back into the APS and be better able to serve the Australian community and the government.

We need to be flexible and able to share ideas, resources and accountability. The issues we are facing are increasingly complex and we cannot address them alone. What we need is a public service that deals effectively with issues that cut across silos and old patterns of work. We need to harness and leverage the different skills, knowledge, experiences and networks that individual employees bring to their work.  

The skills you will develop through the graduate program will place you in good stead to work collaboratively.  The Graduate program will give you opportunities to work with colleagues from across the APS, explore what it means to engage stakeholders, and explore creative solutions to issues. 

We also need to get better at sharing our stories.  We need to speak about the broad diversity of achievements across the service that make a difference to people’s lives. Even in this graduate year, you can make an important contribution to the work of your agencies and the Australian community. You may work on issues and problems as diverse as supporting client centric services for veterans, improving access to online research tools for Indigenous people, streamlining employment processes, supporting workers to return to work after injury, or developing strategic partnerships.  The work you will do as part of the Graduate Development Program will make a contribution to the strategic direction of your agency and the lives of Australians.  


I would like to wrap up by returning to my earlier observations on the role of the public service.  The fundamental purpose of Government is to keep the Australian people safe and to keep Australia prosperous. Government establishes laws and regulations. It provides services that the private sector cannot or would not provide.  It is good government and a professional APS which makes all the bad things less likely to occur and the good things more likely to happen. The public service is vast and we touch upon every aspect of the lives of Australians. This is a great responsibility and one we must carry out with integrity and professionalism.   

I welcome you to the APS and wish you all the best for your graduate year and your career ahead.  

Last reviewed: 
3 October 2019