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The experience of change in the APS

Change in the public service is, itself, an ever-present constant. For example, results from the APS Employee Census (employee census) show that employee perceptions of the rate of change within the APS have been high and rising over the past three years. The current emphasis on rethinking the role of government, through activities such as the National Commission of Audit, together with the tight fiscal and changing social environments point to a requirement for ongoing and transformational change across the APS.

Capability Reviews identified three main drivers of change in the Australian Taxation Office (ATO); external demand by customers for greater access to improved services, internal agency culture and challenges in realising efficiencies. Likewise, Capability Reviews pointed to a changing client base and outdated service delivery approach as the most significant drivers of change in the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

The size of the APS and its activities is determined by the way in which the government approaches the complexity of public administration and the means by which it chooses to achieve its policy objectives. The amendments to the Administrative Arrangements Order made by the Governor-General on 18 September 2013 involved wide-ranging changes to the structure and functions of a number of APS departments and agencies. Appendix 2 provides more detail on these.

The result was 36 separate machinery-of-government (MoG) changes which affected more than 13,000 employees. These figures, however, potentially underestimate the extent of the organisational disruption across the APS in the past 12 months. In the 2014 employee census, employees were asked to indicate whether their immediate work group been directly affected by any major workplace change (such as functional, geographical, and/or staffing changes). Nearly three-quarters of APS employees (74%) responding to this question indicated they had experienced a major workplace change. While more than 13,000 APS employees were directly impacted by MoG changes, the second-order effect is likely to have been more widespread.

The Department of Social Services: Machinery-of-government changes

The Department of Social Services (DSS) had functional changes and was renamed with the 2013 MoG changes. The Building DSS project involved a programme of work to smooth the implementation of these changes. DSS transferred out approximately 1,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and transferred in approximately 1,700 FTE from the former departments of Health and Ageing; Immigration and Citizenship; Education, Employment and Workplace Relations; Innovation; and Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Building DSS programme had three key tiers of work:

  • making the transition to one department
  • putting in place the infrastructure to establish the department
  • realising business efficiencies through ongoing business improvement and defining the new operating model.

Building DSS also had in place strong governance arrangements, with an executive level subcommittee chaired by a Deputy Secretary and reporting to Executive Management Group. DSS also had an officer-level programme board monitoring projects and assuring deliverables.

In accordance with good programme management practices, a programme management plan was developed which included a risk management plan, a communications strategy (including a specific Senior Executive Service communications strategy), and a project register and sequencing matrix.

The project provided a significant test of change management knowledge and resources. The department was able to quickly move to define the parameters of the change, put in place a programme of work that allowed a staged approach to manage the change, and develop a communications strategy that kept employees informed at all points along the way. This enabled a relatively smooth transition and business continuity in core functions.

Table 6.1 shows that when employees were asked to indicate from a list of types of change (including an ‘other’ category), the most commonly experienced change in the 12 months before the employee census was a decrease in staff numbers followed by structural changes, changes in supervisors and changes to work priorities. Additionally, there was a difference in the experience of change across the different classification levels with 80% of Senior Executive Service (SES) employees reporting they experienced a major change, while only 73% of APS 1–6 level employees reported the same.

Table 6.1. Types of change experienced by APS employees, 2014
Type of change %
Source: Employee census
Decrease in staffing numbers 67
Structural change (change in division or branch structure) 57
Change in supervisor 46
Change in work priorities 46
Functional change (e.g. change in responsibilities) 42
Change in SES leadership (e.g. change of branch head) 35
Change in physical workplace (e.g. moved to a new building, existing workplace renovated) 32
Machinery-of-government change 30
Increase in staffing numbers 10
Other 9

Respondents from every agency reported major change. After excluding agencies with a very small numbers of respondents, the proportion of employees in each agency experiencing some form of major change ranged from 15% to 98%. Table 6.2 shows employees from policy agencies were the most likely to report they had experienced change in the 12 months before the employee census, while employees from specialist agencies were the least likely.

Table 6.2. Change across agency clusters, 2014
Agency cluster Employees experiencing major change (%)
Source: Employee census
Policy 82
Regulatory 73
Larger operational 73
Smaller operational 72
Specialist 67

As previously noted, results from the employee census highlight the high and rising employee experience of change in the APS. Figure 6.1 shows that in 2014, APS employees reported experiencing more change than in the two preceding years (74% compared with 71% in 2013 and 66% in 2012). Despite the increased experience of change within the APS, employees reported increased satisfaction with senior leader effectiveness in managing change (45% in 2014 compared to 41% in 2013), improved perceptions of how well change is managed in their agency (35% in 2014 compared to 31% in 2013), and improved consultation about change at work (47% in 2014 compared to 44% in 2013). The improvement in employee perceptions of how well changed is managed in their agency represents a reversal from a decline in this measure in 2013.

While the trend in these results is positive, less than 50% of employees agree with these statements which reinforces the findings from the agency capability maturity assessments and Capability Reviews that there is still room for improvement in the way change is managed in the APS.

Figure 6.1. Employee perception of the experience and management of change in the APS, 2012 to 2014

Source: Employee census


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