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Mr Peter Woolcott AO

Australian Public Service Commissioner

13 February 2020

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, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.

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

It is a chance to use your talents and intellect to make Australia a better place.

And above all it a great opportunity to make a real difference to peoples’ lives. 

Role of the APS

The nature of the work we perform across the APS varies enormously, but in essence it is about keeping Australia safe and prosperous, and to serve the government of the day.

While the APS is 150,000 strong, structured into 14 Departments and some 100 agencies and authorities it is, in fact, one organisation with values and behaviours that unite it.

We are all bound by the same set of values and the Code of Conduct - these underpin our work and all our dealings with Government and the Australian people.  

The list of the Public Service Medal recipients in the recent Australia Day awards highlights the huge diversity of work performed by public servants:

  • From Karen Binnekamp, working to ensure Australians can access affordable options in medical treatment, reducing the upfront cost of Car-T cell therapy, the first cancer treatment of its kind in Australia, through to Penny Damianakis, who led the provision of Centrelink services to vulnerable customers and refugee communities.
  • There is Michael Druce, who led critical improvements to the large production of radioisotopes for medical imaging. His work has directly resulted in Australia becoming one of the top four global distributors in the world.
  • And there is also Helen McDevitt, who has been key to the policy, design and implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and critical to achieving agreement between the Commonwealth and the states and territories.

These are just a few of the role models you can all look to emulate throughout your careers.

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. 

There are representatives from 14 APS agencies in the room here today. I encourage you to get to know each other and understand the role that your agency and each of these agencies play in delivering the government’s agenda.  

Challenges and opportunities 

You are joining the APS at a time of significant reform. The public service in ten years’ time is going to look different to the public service of today.

I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1981.  At that time, of course, there were no mobile phones, no computers, no email and not even a fax machine. Any message we wanted to send between Canberra and one of our diplomatic Missions had to be keyed onto crytographic tape - and we were charged by the word.

It is another world now and I think the times are quickening. Bill Gates said that we always overestimate the technological change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change in the next ten years.

So 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.

There is plenty of room for debate around what impact integrated data at scale and automation will have on jobs, skills and wages.

Some analysis suggests that while technology could replace or alter many lower and middle skilled occupations, jobs where higher order cognitive skills, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills are required will increase.

It is these very human skills of good judgement, creativity, building authentic relationships and genuinely engaging with people which have always been critical to an effective public service  - and they will remain critical into the future. 

Let me recommend to you some not so light reading – and that is the final report of the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service (also known as the Thodey Review) and the Government’s response, which were released late last year.

The recommendations of the Thodey Review essentially focus on the need for a more joined up, people facing, data enabled, capable and trusted public service able to deliver effectively in a radically different operating environment. 

The reform work that will flow out of the Government’s response to Thodey is aimed at ensuring Australia has a public service that is future fit in a challenging world.

You will also learn quickly that policy issues no longer come in neat packages, and we have to get better at understanding how they relate to each other and fit within a broader context.

An outward facing public service

Technology, our global interconnectedness, and changes in the way we receive our news and how we engage with one another – is altering the way we work and how we relate to the community. 

The Prime Minister last year, when he spoke to the service, called on the APS to be more outward‑facing, and for public servants to ensure there is a clear line of sight between their everyday work and the Australian public.

The fact is 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 also need to get much better in building and managing stakeholder relationships with the private sector, state and local governments, and NGOs—to understand their perspective and try to manage differences.

Another change is that the APS is working in a much more contested environment for influence. This is the way of the world. 

Good ideas and sound delivery approaches are not the monopoly of the public service. While we still have the authority that comes from the institution that is the APS, there is no room for nostalgia nor complacency. 

Our advice has to be well argued and persuasive and open to challenge by political advisors, think tanks, lobby groups and NGOs. Similarly, the services we deliver ourselves need to be tested against credible alternatives. 

Continuous Learning

Let me turn now to capability. You may have left university and started your public service career – but learning is life-long.

In one sense your real education is just starting.

The quality of the APS is derived from the capability and integrity of its people.

We are very focussed on both.

You will learn much from your colleagues in the workplace, but we will want to inculcate in you a life-long learning culture.

This can take many forms from developing deep expertise by taking up further study with one of the Graduate Program’s articulation partners, or an evolving range of short term core skills training, right through to the using of app-based micro learning. 

You will hear more about these opportunities from the APSC’s Graduate Development Team.

I would also 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, working in Ministerial Offices and even spending time in the private sector or not for profits.

We need to harness and leverage the different skills, knowledge, experiences and networks that individual employees bring to their work. 

More immediately, 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. 

Even in this graduate year, you will work on many diverse issues and problems and you can make an important contribution to the work of your agencies and to the Australian community.


In closing, I was asked to provide you with some basic tips on how to conduct yourself and have a successful career.

You could, in fact, spend the next few months reading the endless guidance on how to be successful - and which will probably guarantee that you won’t be.

In my view, remain authentic and be yourself.  It has got you this far. There is no manual on what traits will make you successful in government.

I encourage you to be bold and put your ideas forward. If you make mistakes, own them and learn from them. What sets good leaders apart is their ability to learn from setbacks.

Be open, be curious and be collegial. Don’t be afraid to think creatively, sometimes we can withhold our ideas for fear of failure.

Always proceed with integrity, honesty and a good conscience. If you are unsure, reach out to your colleagues and supervisors and always ask for help and guidance where needed.

Ensure that you are well read, not simply in your area of expertise and interest but beyond. Understand the whole of government scene and understand the political context – but do not become part of it.

Fundamental to what we are as a service is that we are impartial.  Politics is democracy at work and is a tough business.  Our politicians are out there every day arguing their case before the people. Respect them for that, work hard for the Government of the day but don’t cross lines.  

Lastly, I encourage you to embrace the challenges that come your way and embrace change. Be adaptable and open to different ways of working and thinking.

I wish you every success for your future career. The APS is lucky to have you on board.


Last reviewed: 
13 February 2020