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Mr Peter Woolcott AO, Australian Public Service Commissioner

Digital Summit 2019, Opening Keynote

09:40-10:00, 3 October 2019


Thank you, Randall and Yvonne for the introduction. Good morning and it’s great to be here. I know you had expected to hear from the Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert, who unfortunately can’t be with us today. Anyway you now have me in his stead! I will try and do him justice.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.

I would also like to welcome fellow senior colleagues from across the Australian Government, our States and Territories, and local government; leaders of Australian businesses, large and small; distinguished academics; and our international counterparts from across the Pacific nations who have joined us here.

The diversity of people around us today, shows just how much promise, potential and need there is for digital capability in Australia and our region.

I am pleased to be involved in this inaugural Australian Government Digital Summit. My agency, the Australian Public Service Commission, has been working closely with the Digital Transformation Agency for nearly three years to build digital capability in government. The Summit is an initiative under our joint Building Digital Capability program, and I hope you enjoy it, learn something, and meet someone new.

International Challenge

Of course, the need for digital capability isn’t unique to the Australian Government. It’s a gap that’s felt by other governments, and by all sectors of our economy. It’s a challenge to nations around the world. With the fast pace of digital transformation, it’s hard to stay ahead of the game.

There are essentially three challenges I’d like to outline:

  1. Firstly, there are just not enough skilled people in the world to meet demand for the skills we need today.
  2. Secondly, the job landscape is changing. At the same time as meeting current, known needs, we need to prepare for the jobs of the future.
  3. Finally, when we talk about “digital”, we are talking about a concept that is broader than technology alone. It involves new ways of working, with the line between digital and non-digital roles becoming more opaque.

In Europe, it’s estimated there will be over three quarters of a million unfilled jobs in the ICT sector by 2020[1]. PriceWaterhouseCooper also estimates there will be around 2.7 million data science and analytics jobs required to meet demand in 2020.

The story is similar in Australia, with an expected skills shortage of around 100,000 people over the next four years[2]. Australia’s pipeline of technology workers, however, is gradually improving. Enrolments in IT degrees by domestic university students having increased by over 50 per cent in the past decade[3]. Despite this, demand continues to outstrip supply.

This brings me to my second point. Without adequate supply of skilled professionals, organisations are struggling to fill the roles we know we need now. With the pace of societal change, driven by technology, we are also seeing more and more new roles emerge.

It’s estimated that young people today will go through five career changes in their lifetime[4]. If you use that same logic, each one of us in the room could expect to change not just jobs, but careers, around once a decade for the rest of our working lives. The future of work affects all of us here today, as much as it affects those just entering the workforce.

Jobs such as Jira administrators (pronounced Jee-ra), Azure engineers and digital currency specialists are increasing in demand at a similar rate to cyber security engineers.

The emergence of jobs like these – managing cloud platforms, rethinking financial relationships with customers, and tools to manage agile teams and projects – tells us that people are working with new technologies, and they are working in new, digital ways.

Now to my third point. As I have said, the concept of digital skills and roles is not just about technology.  

The Joint Information Systems Committee, an academic institution in the UK, define digital capabilities as “those which equip someone to live, learn and work in a digital society.” This is a broad definition, with room for interpretation.

Perhaps this is why we’ve seen digital roles creep into policy design, into program management and into regulation.

In the Australian Government we have started to embed ‘user researchers’ into policy teams to better understand people’s experiences and emotions when dealing with government.

This research is extremely powerful, revealing, for example, a vast difference in someone’s experience when they were diagnosed with cancer, versus when diagnosed with dementia.

This has gone on to inform better policy advice to government based on the lived experiences of real people. These and other digital specialists often know how technology can help, but their primary focus is always on the needs of the person using the service.

Digital capability in the APS

The ability to work digitally is a core competency for any modern public servant.  This brings me to the APS and the challenges ahead. There is a lot of opportunity, but we must work together across governments, industry and academia.

In 2016, 92 per cent of agencies told us they wanted to improve their digital capabilities. This was the genesis of the joint DTA and Australian Public Service Commission Building Digital Capability program that I mentioned earlier.

The program has delivered:

  1. Training on adaptive, digital leadership to almost 10 per cent of the Commonwealth senior executive, and that helps them steward change in the digital age. This is proving so popular we are now inviting state and territory governments to participate.
  2. Seventeen digital learning standards – detailing the capabilities required to deliver digital transformation and how to acquire those capabilities, helping people to adopt digital ways of working in their day-to-day work.
  3. A practice circles program for APS5’s and 6’s that enables mentoring, networking, digital skills sharing and problem solving. We are currently in the pilot stage, trialling the concept in real-work scenarios.
  • And we have commenced work on career pathways – I’ll talk more on this later.

I am pleased with the work we’ve done and where we are heading. I genuinely believe we have a strong foundation to expand digital skills in the APS, and that we are world-leading in our approach to building digital capabilities.

But there is much more to be done. You may have heard the Prime Minister’s address to the APS recently.

He spoke of his respect for the APS, and his expectations that we deliver services that are streamlined and efficient.

He set the bar high for us and touched on the importance of digital transformation in achieving this, and it is clear that digital transformation has to be underpinned by a digitally capable public service.

This includes public servants, but also our partners in industry, academia, and across all tiers of government.

Working digitally, to achieve the Prime Minister’s goals, means better engaging with everyday Australians to understand their needs, to design services, policies, programs and regulation that better support them, and to continually improve based on their feedback and outcomes.

This goes to the heart of digital capability, and means we need to change how we operate.

In fact, some of our operating structures can act as barriers – perceived or actual – to being as responsive and agile as the private sector organisations we often epitomise. There is a need for greater digital workforce mobility – this was a focus of Sandra McPhee’s report in 2016, and you’ll hear from Sandra later today.

In Australia’s small digital talent pool, we cannot afford to compete for digital skills. We need to work together to help skilled people thrive, and to grow our national talent pool. That is why I am so pleased to see such a broad mix of people today, willing to teach and be taught.

You’ll no doubt be aware the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service has just been delivered to the Prime Minister. While the Review has not yet been published, the interim report, Priorities for Change, highlighted the need for digital and data capability in government and suggested wide scale changes to align with those modern ways of working that I mentioned earlier.

We will need to use the final report as a springboard to help ensure the APS is ready for the future.  We are fortunate to have David Thodey with us today, Chair of the CSIRO and Chair of the Panel for the Independent Review, talking with Sandra McPhee about some of the strategic drivers of transformation and how Australia and the APS might respond.

David did an extraordinary job as Chair of the Review and it is now up to us to see it through.

Now, addressing the skills gap means we need to cast our net wider to find and develop skilled people.

It is critical that our digital workforce, as with the rest of the public service, is as diverse as the people it is here to serve. An increase in diversity, including diversity of thought, will help us design better programs, policies and services for the Australian community.

Broadening our view of ‘talent’ also helps us fill critical skills gaps. Take, for example, the Dandelion Program that started in Services Australia, formerly known as the Department of Human Services. The program is a powerful example of collaboration between government, industry and international peers to help people on the autism spectrum find work in IT roles.

It has helped dozens of university graduates to understand the social aspects of the job and to clarify the “unexplained rules of the workplace”.

These people are recruited to fill a number of IT roles, before becoming ongoing full-time staff. Everybody benefits – it helps people to find jobs where they can thrive, and it helps government fill critical skills gaps.

Actions and next steps

It also pays to look at what our counterparts in other jurisdictions are doing to address these skills shortages. Some of the leading governments – Estonia, the UK, Canada and Singapore for example – have established more formal training institutions to build digital skills. Others have established professional models that recognise the craft of the digital professional, and provide structures to support growth, attraction and retention.

My agency and the Digital Transformation Agency have been considering lately what a digital professional model in government could look like to build on our work to date.

I’m particularly pleased about our early work on career pathways.

These unique tools go to the core of individual skills development and strategic workforce management.

They have the opportunity to help us fill critical skills gaps, to help individuals map their progression in digital careers, and to support transition to jobs of the future.

You might have seen some information about these pathways in the Mandarin lately, and our work to date is on display in the Exhibition Hall today.

We think this approach is unique in the world, and we are committed to exploring it further. I am pleased to advise today that the Digital Transformation Agency, working in partnership with the Commission, will soon commence consultation on this professional model and how it could work in practice.

I genuinely believe a professional model will help attract digital professionals to government, provide more fulfilling career opportunities and assist government to deliver better outcomes for the people we are here to serve.

Please keep an eye on the DTA website for information on how you can get involved.


Let me conclude by reflecting on words by Brian Walker, from IDEO (the well known global design company committed to creating global positive impact).

Brian says: “Change can be hard and uncomfortable. But when it’s done with intention, it can be a beautiful force”.

Inevitably, change carries some pain with it, as we let go of the old and introduce the new. But if our intention is that we improve the experience of the people of Australia during their interactions with us, then it will indeed be a beautiful thing.

The challenge of change carries with it much opportunity, some of which we are still to discover, and that is something to celebrate.

Having a digitally savvy workforce will determine success as we strive to deliver better services and outcomes for all Australians.

This can only be done in partnership. Partnership with other governments, with industry, with academia and with our international peers.

Events like this Summit are critical next steps. I hope you leave today feeling invigorated, inspired to make a change, and with a stronger network around you to make it happen.

Thank you.


[1] European Commission, 2017

[2] Australian Computing Society and Deloitte, 2018

[3] Deloitte Digital Pulse, 2019

[4] Foundation for Young Australians, 2017

Last reviewed: 
17 December 2019