Data and the whizz-bang approach for HR
Thank you so much for joining us today Dr Gruen. Let’s start by casting our minds back to last year when the data stream was launched. What was that like, and what role did data play in supporting the APS during the challenges of 2020?
The data stream launched last September, which was an opportune time. There was no question that data played a big role in government decision-making when it came to how to respond to both the health crisis and the economic crisis. The daily press conferences with public health experts along with the PM or a State premier, for example, would see everyone in my household hanging off the data. We all wanted to know how many people were being tested, how many new cases there were, that kind of thing. Some of that was straightforward data but it was nevertheless also incredibly influential when it came to the government and the community’s response to what was going on.
At the ABS, we realised in March last year that we could help the government’s decision-making by getting them access to some of the data that was available, and by generating more data by running new quick surveys. The ATO supplied us with the data from Single Touch Payroll (STP) and that enabled us to start reporting fortnightly on jobs and wages growth in late April of last year. That meant the government could see, almost in real-time, the effects the pandemic and the shutdowns were having on different parts of the workforce. That meant the government had high-quality information with which to craft their response. There was no question that data came to the fore during this time and the government was very hungry, as was the community, for up to date information on what was happening.
Turning to the data stream: what are some of the key achievements to date, and what are you hoping to achieve in future?
There’s a range of work going on but let me just focus on a few initiatives. One is that we are now recruiting graduates into all the professional streams, and we have seen an enormous amount of interest in the data professional graduate stream. We are recruiting on behalf of 24 APS agencies for next year and expect to recruit between 200 and 300 data graduates.
We’re also working to lift the data capability of SES leaders across the service who don’t work intensively with data as part of their jobs. We’re doing this through a masterclass being delivered by the ANU, Why data matters, which is due to roll out to over 40 SES across nine agencies shortly. Given how big a role data is playing in public policy right now, I think it is important that leaders who don’t work intensively with data improve their data literacy.
Finally, we’re also offering what we call ‘immersion’ experiences where we offer someone who works with data in a ‘data-intense’ part of the service the opportunity to swap for a few months into another agency that also works with data, but perhaps uses it in a different way. We’ve done a few of these already and received very enthusiastic feedback from participants.
Can you tell us a little about your vision for the professional streams and how they better position the APS for the challenges of the future?
There is logic to the three streams chosen as the first three professional streams. Human resources are the critical resources in the APS, and so doing HR as professionally as we can seems like an obvious, common-sense choice.
Digital and data are growth areas. The government (and the community) knows that digital is the way of the future. It makes interactions so much easier for the community and gives members of the public more ways to interact with government quickly and seamlessly.
The explosion of new sources of data is largely a consequence of the digital revolution. We have a lot more data now thanks to more digital platforms – some are public-sector platforms (like STP), while others are private-sector platforms, like people interacting with their banks via a digital platform. All these platforms are generating enormous amounts of data and that data is very rich in terms of its public policy implications, and for enabling improvements in the customer experience of service delivery.
HR Professionals are often told to use data to ‘win a seat at the table’ and ‘uplift our capability’. For many of us though it is hard to know what that actually means in practice. As a senior leader who is the most respected data expert in the APS, what is your perspective on how HR professionals can use data to improve the standing of the HR profession?
There is quite a bit of growth that needs to happen in terms of the HR information that goes to senior management. That’s a worthy journey to be on because making quality HR decisions is a lot easier if the information that goes to senior management answers the questions they want to know about the workforce. Of course, HR first needs to understand what is important to senior management and needs to ask the right questions early on in order to focus their information on what matters to the business.
There is another element that may surprise you, and that is you don’t want to be overawed by fancy data constructions that purport to explain things you don’t understand. There is a bit of a whizz-bang element to data analytics which can come across as ‘just give us all this data and we’ll be able to tell you incredible things about your workforce’ and I’m suspicious of that. I think having a detailed understanding of what you are trying to measure is extremely important. Don’t be baffled by science. If you don’t understand something that is presented to you as a black box, be suspicious of it.
HR Professionals are no longer just ‘people’ people. We are becoming increasingly aware that we need to leverage data to make decisions and win the trust of clients and demonstrate the value of HR. How can people, especially people that don’t have a natural affinity with numbers, build their understanding of data and use it in their work – do you have any tips?
First of all, don’t imagine you are alone. There are a lot of people who are concerned about not being sufficiently comfortable with numbers but bring other skills and strengths to their work. Uplift your general understanding of what data can and can’t do, but don’t get put off by things that appear to be overly complicated. Often the best data is simple and very clear in what it is telling you.
It’s an exciting time to be in the APS and many of us are feeling more engaged and purposeful than ever. Do you have any final words for people in the professional streams, or interested in joining them?
We are in the building phase right now for the three professions. We are working through what they can add to the public service and how the APS can provide professional pathways for people who have this expertise. This phase will not last forever though and eventually this work will become business as usual. In the meantime, it’s my advice to get involved where you can and as much as you can. We all have a chance to shape the public service of the future, and that’s an opportunity you won’t want to miss.