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Culture and capability

Chapter findings

Culture and capability critically shape the success of whole of government activities.

Where issues dealt with by APS agencies transcend traditional boundaries, a horizontal overlay is required which:

  • ensures a focus on the bigger picture within the context of the government's overall policy agenda and priorities
  • encourages an orientation to collaboration rather than a silo mentality
  • ensures informed decision making-taking account of different perspectives and providing a strong basis for collaboration

This overlay has particular implications for secretaries and agency heads, senior executive service (SES) employees and for departments and agencies.

Portfolio secretaries have a key role in influencing behaviour and attitudes of the APS towards collaboration across organisational boundaries. Secretaries and agency heads should provide consistent leadership and model best practice collegiate behaviour. This includes promoting better practice working models, such as the Good Practice Guides developed as part of this report.

As part of the statutory responsibilities of the SES 'to promote cooperation with other agencies'1 and to promote (as well as uphold) the APS values, SES leaders are expected to give explicit and consistent support for collegiate and horizontal approaches both within their agencies and across the service as a whole, complementing their line responsibilities. They are also expected to participate in cross-portfolio training activities and relevant APS-wide development projects.

A portion of the core business of every department and agency includes working across portfolio boundaries. It is critically important, therefore, to provide practical support to those involved in whole of government initiatives. In particular, departments and agencies should support whole of government activities by:

  • developing systems and procedures to support authorisation for appropriate local decision making; capability development focusing on constructive working relationships with other APS agencies and external organisations; and accountability arrangements
  • taking steps to become more responsive to whole of government demands, including through:
    • more intensive training for those directly involved in whole of government projects
    • learning opportunities for middle and senior managers in skills relevant to whole of government activities, including project management, communications and
    • networking to broaden the exposure of APS employees to different organisational
    • access to better practice guidance and to assistance with team building and
    • the adoption of reward and recognition arrangements for whole of relationship management cultures and ways of working conflict resolution government achievements.

Whole of government perspectives should be reflected in induction into the APS and integrated into relevant service-wide and agency learning and leadership development programs.

The Australian Public Service Commission, in conjunction with the Cabinet Implementation Unit, could make available a panel of consultants to provide whole of government coaching and support in issues such as team building and conflict resolution.

A new category could be added to the Prime Minister's Award for Public Sector Excellence to recognise excellence in whole of government endeavour.

  • Culture and capability can make or break whole of government endeavours.

Better practice ingredients include:

  • explicit and consistent support from the top for a collegial approach
  • organisational responsiveness to whole of government demands
  • supportive structures
  • the right skill sets and capabilities.

These issues can be addressed through a range of service-wide, agency and initiative-specific actions.


Culture and capability critically shape the success of whole of government activities. This is a clear message from experience in Australia and overseas.

Vertical or agency-based approaches are the primary organisational force for the Australian Public Service (APS).

The type of portfolio structure now in place allows for a rational and efficient grouping of issues, clarity of focus to support a strong results orientation, and an effective basis for accountability and resource allocation. It also allows for the alignment of culture and skills development to business objectives.

Many of the issues dealt with by APS agencies, however, transcend traditional boundaries. A horizontal overlay is therefore required which:

  • ensures a focus on the bigger picture within the context of the government's overall policy agenda and priorities
  • encourages an orientation to collaboration rather than a silo mentality
  • ensures informed decision making-taking account of different perspectives and providing a strong basis for collaboration.

In addition, government priorities will change over time. Responding by structural redesign is not always practical or appropriate. As Dr Shergold has stressed, a more coordinated and networked approach is called for:

We don't solve problems simply by creating a new bureaucracy. The creation and cessation of departments, and the founding and abolition of statutory bodies and executive agencies, may serve only to redistribute functional responsibilities, creating in the process new demarcations... The easy answer is to be found in coordinating a whole of government approach. It is also the hard solution.2

The challenge is to marry horizontal and vertical forms of working

The challenge is to support what might be called a 'networking or horizontal culture' by creating a service-wide bias towards looking for wider whole of government objectives while maintaining an essentially vertical framework. Supporting such a culture requires systematic attention to underlying incentives and value structures.

Features of such a culture include:

  • readiness to think and act across agency boundaries
  • effective teamwork
  • organisational flexibility
  • openness to innovation and creativity
  • the ability to capitalise on windows of opportunity, tolerate mistakes and manage risk
  • the capacity to build strategic alliances, collaboration and trust
  • adaptability to changing circumstances
  • persistence
  • encouragement of the expression of diverse views, and awareness of different cultures and appreciation of their strengths
  • a capacity to balance the tension between short-term and long-term goals
  • effective knowledge management.

There can be tensions between collaboration and organisational interests.

For individual APS employees, tensions between horizontal and vertical cultures can create ambiguity when they are involved in interagency forums. Individuals need to represent their agencies. Doing so effectively is an important part of the contest of ideas that leads to good public policy. It can also be important to achieve clarity of management responsibilities and outcomes. Protecting a department's power, clients, employees or influence can be at the expense of the best outcome from a whole of government view.

At the same time, this report emphasises that different organisational cultures brought together in whole of government work must be explicitly recognised if they are not to limit the capacity for whole of government objectives.

A whole of government orientation and capacity to work collaboratively does not imply a 'group think' approach. Indeed, the application of diverse perspectives on particular issues is an important element of providing good policy advice to government.

Skills in the creative resolution of conflicting objectives, a willingness and ability to understand the big picture, and an ethical commitment to fair and open dealings between departments are all critical to good whole of government work. Many APS employees will increasingly need these capabilities in balancing departmental and whole of government objectives.

Experience suggests the following ingredients are critical to building whole of government capacity:

  • explicit and consistent support from the top for collegial and horizontal approaches
  • organisational agility enabling responsiveness to new demands
  • structures that support a whole of government approach
  • people having the right skill sets and capabilities.

These ingredients require attention at the APS, agency and individual level. The states and territories are also advocating these key ingredients for building whole of government capacity.3

Explicit and consistent support from the top for collegial and horizontal approaches

The task of developing a whole of government response within government and between governments requires both authoritative and collegial leadership committed to team approaches to problem solving, responsive to 'outside' views and driving a performance culture that sets high store on innovative solutions unconstrained by traditional structures or approaches. The same point is consistently highlighted in overseas experience, a recent Canadian report, for example, arguing that:

Horizontal management demands a reinvented form of leadership-a leadership that supports the evolution of culture as much as a leadership that delivers projects on time and on budget. We need a leadership that marshals the power of influence and persuasion, is exercised through the channels of dialogue, is distributed throughout an organisation, shares credit, and risks transient confusion en route to shared commitment.4

Senior APS leaders should model collaborative behaviour

An obvious contribution that senior APS leaders can make is to articulate the value placed on, and to consistently model, collaborative behaviour. The importance of this role is recognised by the Public Service Act 1999 in its provision that a core function of the SES is to 'promote co-operation with other Agencies' (s. 35 (2)(b)). Practical strategies that leaders can take include:

  • developing and using networks across portfolios and beyond
  • encouraging executive teams to identify horizontal issues (perhaps by designating a senior manager to play a lead role in monitoring and challenging the department on such issues)
  • taking a government-wide view when proceeding with departmental business and reviewing programs and initiatives
  • modelling the behaviour of good collaborative colleagues
  • rewarding horizontal achievements
  • explicitly rewarding collaborative behaviour
  • ensuring that sufficient resources are deployed to support horizontal initiatives
  • actively championing or mentoring major whole of government projects.5

Embedding the APS Values in agencies will contribute to a service-wide culture of interagency trust and collaboration

Collaborative and relationship-building skills are also stressed in the Senior Executive Leadership Capability Framework (SELCF).6 The SELCF sets out a shared understanding of the critical success factors for APS leadership. It identifies the cultivation of productive working relationships as one of the five core criteria for high performance by senior executives. This group should expect to make use of APS-wide mechanisms to promote networking and an appreciation of their broader APS leadership responsibilities. In addition, by embedding the APS Values spelt out in the Public Service Act, senior leaders can contribute to a service-wide culture that supports interagency collaboration and activity.7

Agency heads as a group can put a collegial stamp on the culture across the service...

Agency heads, as a collective leadership team, also have a critical role in setting expectations and the cultural tone for the service as a whole. Mechanisms such as portfolio secretaries' meetings and MAC should provide working models of a collegial approach and be a practical and visible expression of the value placed on it. Such mechanisms can also provide a focal point for canvassing issues which would benefit from a cross-agency approach, reviewing experiences of interaction and highlighting good examples.

The newly established Cabinet Implementation Unit in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet will also have an important role in ensuring that whole of government considerations are properly brought to the fore in the implementation of the government's policy agenda.8

Organisational agility

Organisational agility means being able to respond quickly and effectively to new demands. Complex problems demand considerable flexibility in the deployment of people and funding and in adjusting functional priorities.

Elements in building such agility include reward and recognition systems and connecting people across agencies.

Reward and recognition

Performance management systems can work against whole of government goals if they only focus on agency priorities...

Formal performance management systems that draw exclusively on agency-specific targets and outcomes can run the risk of reinforcing a silo mentality. Performance agreements and assessment criteria that emphasise collaborative behaviour will support a more networked culture and way of working. As the MAC Report, Performance Management in the Australian Public Sector, points out, the manner in which employees perform their job counts as much as what they do.9

In practice, most agencies supplement results-oriented performance criteria with some behavioural criteria.10 However, senior APS employees have identified the strong vertical focus in agencies' reward and recognition systems as a barrier to effective whole of government collaboration.11 In addition, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of some performance pay systems in contributing to a workplace culture in which individuals work together effectively.12

The performance pay arrangements for departmental secretaries emphasise meeting government objectives for their agency in a whole of government context. Similarly, in the UK, secretaries' performance is rated against priorities and targets that cut across departments.

Agencies should ensure that their systems reward the capacity to work across agencies and collaborative behaviour. Views of people from relevant agencies or other stakeholders could inform the appraisal of the most senior employees. Broader recognition strategies should also be used to reinforce collaborative approaches (e.g. publication of good examples of whole of government work).

Good whole of government work should be recognised

Whole of government success should also be given wider recognition-for example, by incorporating a new category into awards such as the Prime Minister's Awards for Public Sector Excellence.

Connecting people better

Organisational agility will be enhanced where employees have been exposed to different perspectives and organisational cultures where they can see the bigger picture and are alive to different ways of looking at problems and working. Such agility can be fostered through service-wide and agencybased approaches.

Cross-agency learning and leadership development exchanges hosted by the Commission can facilitate collegial behaviour...

The APS Commission hosts a number of cross-agency networks and forums, and learning and leadership development activities. SES orientation training in particular offers an important foundation for the SES leadership cadre in an appreciation of their broader APS leadership responsibilities. In addition, such training provides an important opportunity for cross-fertilisation, information sharing and the development of strong networks. Participation of employees, particularly at the executive and SES levels, should be actively encouraged by agencies.

Agencies with common interests could jointly develop training or networking activities for employees. Placement and mobility options can also be important and should form part of capability and succession management strategies.

Looking at the senior ranks, SES mobility is fairly good overall, particularly compared with overseas experience (e.g. more than 60 per cent have worked in more than one portfolio). Succession management at the Band 3 level incorporates

breadth of experience as part of the considerations. Networking opportunities can complement these experiences for senior people and more widely for employees, many of whom will not have moved through a number of APS portfolios.

Interagency mobility and temporary placements can be used to expose individuals to a range of cultures

Agencies should consider whether, in the context of their business objectives, they have a sufficient pool of employees with an exposure to a range of agency environments and cultures. There might be value in making such exposure available as part of preparation for whole of government work, including temporary interchanges between agencies and/or participation in cross-agency projects. Relevant here is the recent initiative of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in seeking high-potential executive-level employees for secondment to work on assignment for short periods. There is also a role for mobility outside the APS to give employees experience working with stakeholders involved in whole of government activities.

Resolving cultural differences

Cultural differences within joined-up teams need to be worked through

A number of the case studies (Appendix 2) identified problems in a whole of government exercise due to the mix of agency cultures, notably the National Illicit Drugs Strategy, the Australian Greenhouse Office, and the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games case studies.

Team building does not happen automatically

Initiators of whole of government exercises need to be alert to the impact of cultural differences. Project leaders should consider seeking assistance with team building, either as part of a joint training process or through the assistance of specialist support. Case studies suggest that effective teams were those that spent time on constructive relationships and team building.

Interagency working relationships need time to develop, particularly where those involved are not brought together physically. Skills can, however, be built that make people more willing to trust each other. For example, the case study of the COAG Indigenous Trials at Wadeye reported that cultural differences became an asset when agencies built on differences to help each other. Australian government field employees involved in the Wadeye project hold barbeques once a month as a networking mechanism to exchange information.

The Sustainable Regions case study participants pointed to the potential usefulness of a seminar series in a 'hypotheticals' format and of looking at whole of government ways of working together, including international experience.

Supportive structures

Whole of government structures largely depend on supportive intra-agency arrangements.

Flexibility in deploying resources

There should be arrangements to provide flexible approaches to staffing and deployment, and mobility into and out of project teams

Flexibility in resource deployment will be important for responsiveness to emerging needs and priorities. Being clear about the relationship between work on whole of government initiatives and in core areas of agencies will be vital, including arrangements for employee involvement and movement.

From an implementation point of view it will also be critical, once the right people are in the right jobs, to give them the necessary flexibility and authority to deliver integration, particularly for whole of government service delivery:

People on the ground should have the necessary authority and flexibility to act

My own experience…was that a Commonwealth policy to directly promote regional development required clout on the ground, to gain the confidence of key local leaders and to influence government agencies at any and all of the three levels of government. Similarly, my experience in Aboriginal health was that the coordinated care trials required strong local leadership that had the confidence and support of the Commonwealth and State Departments, as well as those of the local communities.13

Roles and responsibilities in whole of government activity need to be clear. This can be assisted by agencies having procedures and accountability arrangements in place, covering such issues as record keeping, briefing of ministers and reporting back to the agency. In response to a survey of 89 APS agencies for the State of the Service Report 2002-03, ten agencies (11%) reported having or developing policies to guide employees' participation in whole of government work such as on interdepartmental committees or taskforces. These policies covered such aspects as: ensuring only employees with the relevant skills, knowledge and authority participate in whole of government forums; having procedures for record keeping and for reporting; ensuring appropriate authority for views expressed on the agency's behalf; and having procedures for ongoing briefing of involved ministers.

Through such approaches, vertical accountability can be married with any authority specifically delegated to agency employees engaged in whole of government interactions.

Getting the right capabilities

Agencies should develop whole of government capabilities...

Capabilities are critical to effective whole of government work-both in terms of leadership and the range of technical and implementation skills called for to address complex policy and service delivery issues. Again this is a consistent message from experience here and overseas.

Using the Senior Executive Leadership Capability Framework, qualities that will be particularly looked for include the capacity to:

  • inspire a sense of purpose and direction to align disparate views, harness people toward a common goal, articulate what a whole of government approach looks like, and reinforce the need for thinking through example and by rewarding behaviours that are consistent with these aims
  • focus strategically to see the big picture and be able to translate that vision into actions and responsibilities, engage in holistic thinking and think beyond the boundaries, conceptualise broad outcomes, and understand areas of commonality
  • facilitate cooperation and partnerships, build commitment to a shared agenda, manage and share information, manage change, engage stakeholders, and resolve conflict.

A range of technical and implementation skills is also vital for whole of government work to succeed, including in:

  • relationship management
  • project, program and contract management
  • negotiation and mediation
  • entrepreneurialism
  • change and conflict management
  • communication and marketing
  • records management

These capabilities were recently confirmed in discussions held with more than 250 individuals as part of a recent APS Commission project to look at senior executive leadership capability pathways.

Managing information well is also important. Relevant skills range from document management through to strategic information management. If data sharing is occurring across agencies, data collection, filing and recovery need to be intuitive and easily discoverable.

Formal interdepartmental committee structures

Formal committee structures make up a particular subset of whole of government activity. In recent research conducted for the APS Commission, a focus group drawn from a range of agencies was asked to identify the critical capabilities and behaviours for a specific environment. Table [3.1] provides a capability map specifically derived from this process for formal interdepartmental committee structures undertaking whole of government work.

Getting the capabilities in place

Making sure these capabilities are in place needs to be a theme in workforce planning across the APS, including through recruitment and induction, and learning and development activities.

Recruitment and induction

Agencies and the APS Commission should ensure that there is a focus on whole of government and networking skills in recruitment and induction

Recruitment and induction should encourage an orientation towards collegiality. This might include relevant selection criteria (such as good interpersonal skills at APS levels and the relevant leadership capabilities at senior levels), as well as recruitment processes such as assessment centres which test these skills.

Whole of government opportunities have the potential to be a positive attraction factor for graduate recruitment and should be part of graduate programs. Research indicates, for example, that graduate recruits (in the APS) responded positively to the ability to move between departments.

Learning and development

Whole of government skills should be integrated into APS and agency development programs and opportunities

There is scope to foster development of relevant capabilities through:

integrating skills and capability training in existing service-wide programs

initiating programs to assist individuals to prepare for direct involvement in specific whole of government activities and projects

making available workplace support for current participants in specific whole of government projects.

Whole of government skills and capabilities should be integrated into relevant service and agency learning and leadership development programs.

TABLE 1: Interdepartmental committees: key capabilities and behaviour
Focuses strategically
Shows judgement, intelligence and commonsense
Ensures closure and delivers on intended results
Facilitates cooperation and partnerships
  • Focuses on the longer-term priorities
  • Lifts the focus beyond the IDC task to consider the broadest range of issues
  • Takes steps to involve people beyond portfolio boundaries
  • Understands areas of commonality and links them to the bigger picture
  • Engages in holistic thinking, and looks beyond the boundaries of own responsibilities
  • Understands the possibilities, given budgetary and resource constraints
  • Scopes problems effectively, and identifies and analyses key issues and presents a solution
  • Engages in lateral problem solving, and avoids being bound by precedent or established structures
  • Thinks through a variety of solutions and understands the risks involved
  • Identifies clear accountabilities and ensures they are communicated
  • Focuses on implementation, and identifies practical actions to be taken
  • Understands the desired outcomes, and focuses on the key deliverables
  • Drives the project to achieve the desired outcome
  • Evaluates the progress of projects and measures success when complete
  • Engages with others on an ongoing basis
  • Builds a common agenda and common alliances
  • Seeks input from others, and provides the opportunity for others to contribute
  • Identifies and involves all stakeholders (both inside and outside the interdepartmental committee)
  • Ensures all points of view are expressed
  • Recognises the potential for conflict and resolves it when required
Engages with risk and shows personal courage

Commits to action

Listens, understands and adapts to audience

Negotiates persuasively

  • Challenges misperceptions and misunderstandings
  • Adopts a frank and honest stance by communicating own agenda
  • Demonstrates a preparedness to defend own position, even when it is not popular
  • Creates a sense of urgency to achieve the desired outcome
  • Gets involved and accepts responsibility with enthusiasm
  • Galvanises others to act
  • Listens to others, and confirms understanding by reflecting back the key message
  • Uses the language and terminology of the group
  • Recognises the key issues being negotiated, and identifies the desired outcome
  • Understands own negotiating position, and anticipates the position of other parties
  • Avoids over-compromise, and seeks the best outcome in negotiations

Agency heads may see value in having in place capability development plans to support whole of government activities. Capability development plans provide a systematic overview of the capabilities required by an organisation and the means by which that requirement is to be met.

Training for relevant capabilities, and tailored courses for direct involvement in whole of government activities should also be made part of the APS Commission's learning and development program. The commission could also facilitate tailor-made training courses for agencies.

The establishment of the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) creates an opportunity to build a culture that is supportive of whole of government activities, including across governments. Its residential program will provide a basis for networking and collaboration among senior leaders. There is also scope to support whole of government considerations in the curriculum for the Executive Masters of Public Administration in addition to the Executive Fellows Program. ANZSOG could further explore the case studies developed for this report to provide practical examples of whole of government capabilities in the curriculum.

Agencies should ensure that relevant employees have access to skills development in the range of leadership and implementation skills required.

Collaboration between federal and state public service commissioners should be fostered to assist in developing cross-jurisdictional outlooks, networking skills and contacts.

Workplace support

There would be value in practical guides on whole of government projects

To assist those involved in whole of government activity there would be value in providing opportunities to share experience and lessons learnt and developing practical guidance for participants in such projects.

Participants in a number of case studies encouraged the provision of such assistance as a way of preventing others from having to reinvent the wheel.

There can be a role for external assistance

Where there is a need for more tailored and sophisticated workplace support, a panel of learning and development consultants could be made available through the APS Commission. The panel could offer participants in whole of government projects coaching and support such as in team building or conflict resolution. Case studies, for example, called for 'support [for] cultural change and cross-agency subject and values awareness training up front as part of team induction'. This should be explored by the APS Commission in consultation with the newly established Cabinet Implementation Unit.

Australian Public Service Act 1999, section 35 (2)(b)

2 Dr P Shergold, Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 'Two Cheers for the Bureaucracy: Public Service, Political Advice and Network Governance', an address for Australian Public Service Commission, 13 June 2003.

3 See, for example, Queensland Government, Office of Public Service Merit and Equity, Realising the Vision-Governance for the Smart State, Chapter Seven, Innovative Workforce, 2003 pp. 19-21.

4 M Hopkins, C Couture, E Moore, 'Moving from the Heroic to the Everyday: Lessons Learned from Leading Horizontal Projects', Canadian Centre for Management Development Roundtable on the Management of Horizontal Objectives, 2001, p. 5.

5 See E Lindquist, Culture, Control or Capacity: Meeting Contemporary Horizontal Challenges in Public Sector Management, School of Administration, University of Victoria, 2001.

6 The Senior Executive Leadership Capability Framework

7 For the role of organisational values in underpinning collaborative and networking behaviour in the public sector, see R Rhodes, 'The Unholy Trinity: hierarchy, contracts and networks', paper to the Australian Public Service Commission's Planning Retreat, June 2003, pp. l2 ff. See also Australian Public Service Commission, Embedding the APS Values, 2003.

8 See 'A Foundation of Ruined Hopes? Delivering Government Policy', an address by Dr Peter Shergold, Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Public Service Commission SES Breakfast Briefing, 15 October 2003 <www.pmc.gov.au>

9 Management Advisory Committee, Performance Management in the Australian Public Service: A strategic framework, 2001, pp. 48-9

10 See Australian Public Service Commission, State of the Service Report 2002-03, Chapter 9, 'Building APS Capability'

11 Interview data collected by the APS Commission for the creation of the Senior Executive Leadership Capability Pathways backs this up. This Senior Executive Leadership Capability Pathways will build on the present Senior Executive Leadership Capability Framework to describe the developmental path for leaders at the executive and senior executive levels of the APS. During the data collection phase of this project, more than 250 individuals were consulted through focus groups and individual interviews.

12 See the National Resource Management Team case study.

13 A Podger, 'Whole of government innovations and challenges', keynote address to Innovations and Impacts Seminar, Institute of Public Administration Australian National Conference, Adelaide. Nov' 2002.