Go to top of page

Commissioner's speech - Digital Summit 2020: Towards a more digital APS | 17 November 2020

Mr Peter Woolcott AO, Australian Public Service Commissioner

Digital Summit 2020

Thanks James, for the introduction. I am pleased to be involved in the Digital Summit again this year. I spoke at the inaugural event last year, and it’s a different experience this time around. This year is very much a digital summit – and what it does do is demonstrate our ability to take advantage of technology as we adapt to changing circumstances.

Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, on whose land I speak today, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I’d also like to extend that acknowledgement to the traditional custodians on whose land you participate today.

Can I thank the Digital Transformation Agency for making this event possible.

Virtual events help overcome geographic barriers and bring together larger and more diverse groups of people. I welcome you all, wherever you are, and hope you are enjoying the Summit.

The theme for today is ‘leadership and people’ – each obviously critical to the success of the digital transformation agenda currently under way.

It was a Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who highlighted that life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. On that cautionary note, I’ll firstly reflect on recent events, before looking to what the digital future may hold for the APS.

The last twelve months have highlighted the important role that the Australian Public Service plays in serving the Australian people. The purpose of the APS has never been clearer, nor our commitment stronger.

A long and devastating bushfire season gave way to a global pandemic with extraordinary health, social, economic and geopolitical impacts. Throughout these events, the APS delivered essential services to the people of Australia when they needed them most, and ensured the Government had access to sound and prompt advice. Our approach has underscored the importance of good governance in keeping Australia safe and prosperous.

In doing so, we’ve worked together strategically, as one enterprise, adjusting our priorities and our workload, and redirecting our workforce to meet these changing demands.

At an operational level, we’ve changed the way we work, at an unprecedented scale and pace.

Technology, and our ability to use it, have been at the centre of all that we have achieved.

Reliable, accessible and secure technology was essential for critical communications and effective crisis management within the APS and by Government, and to deliver services to the community.

And we have demonstrated that our digital systems are able to simultaneously support remote working at scale.

Flexible work is not new for the APS. Prior to COVID-19, almost all APS agencies offered work from home arrangements, with around 20 percent of employees working flexibly some of the time.

However, at the height of the pandemic, one in five agencies moved their entire workforce out of the office for a period of time. At one point, over half of the APS workforce was working from home.

Remote working at this scale would have been inconceivable just ten years ago. Our ability to move our workforce out of the office, and remain productive, hinged on the support of our digital workforce and systems.

At the same time, we have deployed digital solutions to ensure the continued delivery of government services.

Let me give you a few examples which tell the story:

The expansion of Telehealth led to 7.98 million Telehealth services delivered to 4.82 million patients between 13 March and 5 May 2020.

Services Australia processed two and a half years’ worth of JobSeeker claims in under two months – assisted by a streamlined digital JobSeeker claim process.

The social media team at the Department of Health experienced a 3000 per cent increase on business-as-usual social media activity.

Since late January, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has updated more than 2,300 travel advisories and shared more than 5,300 SmartTraveller social media posts.

The Australian War Memorial worked closely with the ABC to ensure that people around the world could still view ANZAC Day ceremonies.

Questacon continued to support young people’s engagement with science and technology through an online hub of STEM resources and activities. 

These and many other digital government initiatives over recent months have made a real difference.

Although most of us are now back in the office at least part of the time, it’s likely that a degree of physical distancing will remain in place for the foreseeable future and some fundamental questions are now being asked about the structure of the workplace.

Moreover, public expectations around digital service delivery are now higher than ever before – streamlined and efficient services, that are accessible to citizens on demand.

So digital capability across the APS will continue to be critical to our ability to serve the Government and the community – and not just in times of crisis.

The APS Digital Professional Stream will play a key role in driving the capability uplift that the APS requires.

As you know, the Digital Profession was officially launched back in April, with Randall Brugeaud, CEO of the Digital Transformation Agency, as the first Head of Profession.

The aim of the Digital Profession and supporting Strategy is to build the core digital expertise of the APS leadership and broader workforce, as well as specialist expertise in digital roles. This work is being undertaken collaboratively across the APS to ensure a cross-agency approach.

As you would know, some of the most commonly identified critical skills shortages across the APS are in data, digital and ICT. Work under the Digital Profession will play an important role in fixing this situation.

Another focus of the Digital Profession is to harness the support of people in senior leadership roles. Leaders must have, and model, the mindsets, attitudes and behaviours to support a culture of digital transformation.

Some progress has been made in this area. Around 10 percent of SES have already participated in the ‘Leading in a Digital Age’ program run by the DTA and the Australian Public Service Commission. This program continues to be rolled out to other APS leaders, with an expectation they will embed the training in their own teams.

Appropriately enough, this program – along with other learning programs offered by the APSC – has moved to a virtual delivery format.

As well as promoting cross-agency collaboration, the Digital Profession aims to build on the concept of digital professionals being part of a broader service-wide digital workforce. To this end, a career pathways framework has been developed, including skill definitions for one hundred and fifty digital roles.

The framework will assist digital professionals to skill themselves for new roles. From an enterprise perspective, it will provide the basis for capability uplift and mobility, both within the APS and between sectors. This will assist the APS to attract and retain talent in this highly competitive field.

Our recent experience of responding to the pandemic, and the bushfire crisis before it, has sharply reinforced the value of mobility.

We have demonstrated that success in crisis response requires us to work together to mobilise and deploy resources when and where they are most needed.

It is also clear that we need to embed this enterprise approach to APS workforce management into our business as usual, rather than leaving it in the realm of crisis response. The Digital Profession aims to do this for employees in digital roles, and I strongly encourage you to take advantage of any mobility opportunities that do come your way.

Work is also under way to facilitate entry-level programs for early career digital professionals, particularly graduates.

For years, APS graduate recruitment has been cumbersome for both graduates and employers. No doubt some of you went through the process of submitting similar graduate applications to multiple agencies.

This year we’ve piloted a new approach, and with the launch of the Australian Government Graduate Recruitment scheme there are now shared recruitment streams across multiple agencies for graduates in a number of fields, including digital and data.

The pilot received over 6,000 applications, including 1700 across the digital and data streams.

And the Secretaries Board is keen to aggressively consolidate this scheme and establish the APS as a graduate employer of choice, to build the skills and capabilities that we require for the future.

Accelerating digital transformation is also a priority for the Secretaries Board, as part of our reform agenda. This includes an enterprise-approach to investing in and developing ICT and digital systems.

The Board envisages easy to use, reliable services tailored to the needs of citizens and businesses, supported by effective digital tools that enable the APS to work flexibly and productively together.

The challenges of recent months have seen reform in action, with good progress on a number of fronts, but there is much more to be done.

In particular, we need to start approaching all things digital from a ‘one APS’ perspective. I’m sure everyone participating in this event has experienced firsthand the frustration caused by incompatible and inconsistent systems, platforms and security requirements.

For example, our recent experiences of remote working have highlighted the absence of a common videoconferencing platform for the APS. Even something as simple as sharing large video files can be fraught with difficulty – as we discovered a few weeks ago for the launch of the Data Professional Stream.

These are not simple problems to solve. But my view is that the era of bespoke, agency-level digital systems and platforms has come to an end. We must take greater advantage of the economies of scale presented by an APS-wide approach to digital investment.

In light of this, the Secretaries Board will support sensible prioritisation of new investments, where possible building and reusing common digital platforms. This will be informed by a clear picture of current assets and future needs, through a targeted review of our digital and ICT needs, capabilities and risks.

The Board will also establish a new Secretaries Digital Committee, to strengthen governance and accelerate progress towards a digitally transformed APS.

The Digital Profession is also working closely with the newly launched Data Profession, led by Dr David Gruen, the Australian Statistician. In fact, the two professions are inextricably linked, not least in their common goal of supporting the APS to deliver better services for Australians.

Along with digital, data has been front and centre in assisting the Government in its response to COVID-19. Up-to-date information, statistics, trend analysis and modelling on COVID-19 have been an essential component in guiding Government decision-making.

This transparent use of data – including daily reporting on COVID-19 cases, and testing and hospitalisation rates – has contributed to greater trust in government during the pandemic.

Returning to today’s theme of ‘leadership and people’, I’d like to talk to the APS employees participating in this event.

Each one of you has played a part in delivering essential services to Australians over the last 12 months. Whether you have designed new processes, maintained critical infrastructure, managed a team remotely, mobilised to process JobSeeker claims, or simply enabled other colleagues to do their job effectively, you have contributed greatly to the work of the service.

Similarly, each one of you will play a part in shaping the digital future of the APS, because as we know the future is digital. Our openness to adopt digital skills, our ability to learn from experience and adapt to change and innovate, will help maintain the standards of good governance that are expected of us.

Your knowledge, skills and experience are the foundation of the digital capability that we must now cultivate and grow.

In many ways, COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of change that was already taking place around us. The APS has risen to the challenges of the past year, but we will feel the full impact of the crises we have faced for many years to come.

As we look to the future, the digital infrastructure and capability of the APS will be critical to our ability to serve the Government and the community.

And I thank you for your doing.

Last reviewed: 
20 November 2020