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Guiding principles in service of the public

John Lloyd

Australian Public Service Commissioner

Public Sector Forum

Darling Harbour, Sydney

June 2017

Check against delivery

In introducing my presentation I want to discuss two basic notions to set the scene.


Change is a constant in public service and throughout my career since 1970's.

The APS has a commendable record of adapting to political, economic and community imperatives for change.

It commenced as an embryonic service in 1901. It has coped with WWI, Depression, WWII, Recovery, the Cold War, 1970s economic upheaval, micro economic reform, the GFC and international terrorism post September 2011.

So I am optimistic, but not complacent about the future. We continue to employ and attract high calibre people.


Leadership is an extensively analysed concept, perhaps more so than any other.

When I talk about leadership in the APS I adopt a wide perspective. For me leadership means:

  • Be aware of change
  • Anticipate the impact of change
  • Pick sensible innovative solutions
  • Remain true to your values
  • Surround yourself with good staff and empower them to take risks and responsibility.

So many of our staff are leaders. It is not the CEO and top cabal of an agency. It extends well beyond that. It is often the officer working in a regional or remote office. The community has come to expect, as is their right, that staff like these are professional, can be relied on to be of assistance and to act with integrity.

Now in the time left, I will set down my thoughts about:

  • The current forces for change in the APS
  • Future of work
  • Workplace Flexibility
  • Integrity
  • Workplace culture
  • Social media
  • Employee performance

Current change forces.

I anticipate you will hear a lot about the contemporary forces for change affecting public service.

Digital capability, big data, community engagement, social media, transparency, global ambiguity, accountability and integrity to name a few. These are impacting at a time of when a lot is said about declining trust in government.

In the APS we are responding to these developments. We have a Digital Transformation Agency to coordinate the transformation of services that ultimately match community experience with private sector providers. Also, we are investing quarantined funds in modernising the APS.

Trends that I have observed across many of these initiatives are the need to breakdown subject specialisation boundaries and condense management hierarchies. I think this is very healthy for what we deliver and how we go about our work. We at the APS fully embrace these pressures and seek to implement them more effectively. Example – GradHack.

Future of work. 

Much is being written about this. Some of the material is thought provoking and some is alarmist.

Work is dynamic. Industries and work processes are constantly changing and will continue to do so.

We may be in the midst of some profound changes in work. Work is affected by digital transformation. But there are significant forces beyond that caused by forces such as consumer preferences, energy, medical advances, lifestyle and demographics.

I am sceptical about the often quoted figure of 40% of jobs disappearing in 30 years and some of the dramatic conclusions drawn for this. Some of the commentary assumes that all the employment impacts will be delivered through labour substitution. But history, including recent experience, indicates there will be both labour substitution and labour supplementation effects. Obviously, new types of employment will emerge.

The challenge for us as leaders is to assess, as best we can, the impact of the changes. We have to be capable of introducing new ways of engaging with the public and adapting our agencies for these purposes. I expect that there will be fewer career public servants in the future.

At the APS we see a need to gather sound employment data and make better use of workforce metrics in planning workplace strategies. We reassess the questions and issues we probe in our surveys of employees and agencies. We are also working to equip human resource professionals to make better and more strategic use of the data they have at their disposal.

I also call on agency leaders to raise the focus they give workforce strategies. Effective strategies are crucial to the success of their operations. It has to be an integral part of their corporate planning that receives regular attention from an agency's leadership group.

 Workplace flexibility.

One sure feature of future work is that there will be a premium on workplace flexibility to access many of the opportunities the future offers. Inflexible workplaces will suffer.

We are now accustomed to many flexibility initiatives. I refer to non-ongoing, part time, casual, working from home, hot desking, job shares, independent contracting and labour hire. In addition in the public sector we offer an array of leave types. Some APS agencies offer 15-20 types of leave.

New types of contingent work have recently emerged like gig and peer to peer modes of work. Job marketplaces like Airtasker are increasingly popular. Old structures and hierarchies have gone or are being modified. People are becoming more aware they will manage a portfolio career probably involving many jobs, opportunities and retraining. It is likely that most will have a longer working life with a career that will not be linear.

 In the APS we are changing the employment framework to make it more flexible. In many agencies the default position is "why not" if employees request flexible work arrangements. The Government's bargaining policy encourages the removal of restrictive content from enterprise agreements. This is reasonable and insightful as many agreements are prescriptive and constrain flexibility. Agreements of 150 clauses, 40 or more allowances, consultation on every management initiative and extensive review rights belong to a past less challenging era.

We are implementing flatter structures and removing hierarchies. We are increasingly required to accommodate employees with different attributes. For example, a person with highly sought after technical expertise will often not make a good manager. Formal hierarchies assume a career path through expertise to manager. This no longer applies and remuneration systems have to be sufficiently flexible to reward expert contributions that may not fit traditional salary structures. The skilled expert earning more than their manager will become more common, as will remuneration linked to performance.


In the midst of this an area that demands constant and vigilant leadership is integrity.

An organisation whose leaders that are not exemplary ethical leaders is an organisation with unacceptable exposure to misconduct or corruption.

Australian public services are not immune to such problems. They have been encountered in all public sectors. However, I believe that the record of Australian public services is sound when compared to other countries.

The reasons for this are varied. The vast majority of public servants are ethical people who work responsibly and respect adherence to codes of conduct and legislative obligations. We have transparent systems with extensive reporting and accountability mechanisms. The regulatory and law enforcement agencies pursue alleged wrongdoing with vigour in accordance with their legislative powers. Community attitudes support proper conduct and abhor corruption.

Another reason is that leaders, certainly in the APS, are more engaged with and aware of the importance of integrity. Leaders encourage a culture that unambiguously supports ethical conduct. They act promptly when evidence of allegations arise. A workplace culture that encourages staff to share concerns about conduct with leaders is important.

Workplace culture.

It is important that leaders generate a workplace culture that can readily cope with the future.

A basic requirement is effective and direct employer – employee relationships. Leaders are encouraged to engage with their employees and share understandings about the business, its challenges and opportunities. Employees should be encouraged to contribute ideas about how their jobs can be made more effective and fulfilling. I am sometimes dismayed when leaders seem willing to surrender this communication role or too much of the role to unions and their representatives.

Workplaces that embrace a diverse and inclusive environment should be the goal of all leaders. The public service cannot be too divorced from the community we serve. It follows that all employees are treated with respect regardless of personal or cultural characteristics.

It is a constant challenge to get the workplace culture right. It can be easily compromised by weak or inattentive leadership. It is so important to be adaptive and flexible.

Social media use.

We have again turned our attention to the use of social media. A discussion paper was released and the responses were good in both number and range of views. In developing our final advice about the responsible use of social media it is necessary to exercise some fine balance. People have rights and freedoms as private individuals to use social media to suit their personal circumstances. However, as a public official some of us will find that our personal freedom to use social media will be constrained. A judgement has to exercised about what impact a post or comment will have on the reputation of impartiality, agency and the Government.

We are about to release updated advice. The aim is to tailor, separate but complimentary, advice to employees and employers. The connection with the Code of Conduct will be made more explicit. The example and tone set by leaders in their use of social media is influential.

Employee performance.

A performance management system that achieves tangible results with limited formality is a crucial factor in creating to a good culture. The APS is moving to a performance management scheme that is simple with minimal procedural rules. It is focussed on regular rather than infrequent performance discussions and feedback. Employees are encouraged to play their part by reflecting on their performance and contributing ideas to future plans and development opportunities.

It is also important that poor performance is called out and addressed. If it is passed over by leaders it has a corrosive effect on the workplace culture. Staff almost always have a keen understanding of who is not preforming. Management inattention undermines respect for workplace leaders. We are working with agencies to equip managers to become more confident in addressing poor performance.


So in the midst of these trends and changes we look for inspiring and effective leaders. It is a challenge and it is exciting. I am confident the Australian Public Service will continue to be well lead.

We have recently taken a more active approach to talent development in the APS and established a Talent Council of CEOs to oversee the process of identifying and developing our top leaders. The leadership qualities we look for are people who are: visionary, innovative, collaborative, entrepreneurial and effective. The personal attributes we seek are people who show courage, resilience and integrity.

We have many in the APS who measure up to these requirements. As I said at the start I am optimistic about the future leadership of the Australian public sector.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018