David Thodey on HR and getting the APS fit for purpose
David Thodey AO is well known in public service circles for the independent review of the APS he embarked on in 2018 at the request of then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The review was charged with producing an ambitious range of recommendations to help ensure the APS is fit for purpose for the coming decades, and to guide and accelerate future reform activities. It came out with 40 recommendations and among those was the need to build the capability of the APS, identifying HR as one area needing investment and growth if the APS was to be ready for the challenges of the future.
This recommendation became the starting point for the APS HR Professional Stream, which is now two years old. We were fortunate to sit down with David to get his views on the progress of the HR Professional stream to date, and his thoughts on what the biggest challenges we will face will be.
Thank you so much for your time today David. The review you did of the APS has been extremely influential. What was the process of going about that like, and were the findings you arrived at what you expected?
Thank you, it was a privilege to work on this review. Our task was summarised by a desire to create an APS that is fit for purpose for the next decades to respond to the changing world. It was complex, challenging work that involved many stakeholders with different views. As you would expect we started the process with several hypotheses around people, process, function, and culture. We tried to be very data driven in challenging the hypotheses, as often groups can believe a common wisdom that is not appropriate. Also, we had to understand the historical and legislative context in which the APS works today, and that has a long history.
Because we were future-looking it pulled us out of the issues of today. It forced us to look at where the world was going and then come back to say, ‘How does a complex group of capable institutions best respond to this changing world?’ It comes back to what is the role, purpose and values of that organisation. That gave us a bigger view of what change was required to enable this incredibly diverse and complex organisation to respond to a future we aren’t sure of. You definitely still need structure and frameworks about how the organisation works. But at the end of the day you need to create an organisation that is able to adapt and change and respond. If you can get that right, then you can face any challenge going forward.
Many of the hypotheses proved correct - but what I did not appreciate was the complexity and challenge of implementing change with such a wide group of stakeholders, and how the Westminster System drives outcomes.
This work led me to have the highest respect for the people of the APS and appreciate the work they do every day.
Australia has changed a lot since 2019 when your review was released. If you embarked on the same review now, do you think you would arrive at the same or different conclusions?
The short answer is yes, although on reflection I may have found different ways to socialise and engage with some stakeholders to build a better understanding and support of the recommendations. We had a vast range of stakeholders – unions, the community, public servants, state governments and politicians etc. – so building a shared understanding and support for the recommendations was inevitably going to be difficult.
The report was very focused on how the APS could improve their impact, both policy and the delivery of outcomes in more efficient, effective and impactful way – while driving stronger alignment across the APS.
We focused on how to drive better alignment, leverage capabilities internally and externally, drive the adoption of digital, improve capability, implement new organisational design models and drive effective governance, as well as focus on leadership.
The APS is fundamentally dependent on the capability, quality and values of the people within the Service, so in many ways this came back to an enablement of people.
This is why I am so pleased to hear about your HR Professional Stream and everything you have been doing in that regard.
The first APS workforce strategy was released earlier this year, and we have just released one for the HR Profession which outlines the next phase of HR professionalisation. How can we help agencies to adopt the strategies without being too forceful or prescriptive?
As we looked at organisations around the world in both public service and industry, we were struck by the investment of these organisations in the development of deep domain skills and the articulation of defined professions for different career paths.
This has been implemented differently in organisations and sometimes it has been overly emphasised. As our world becomes more complex and issues more complicated, we need professionals who are able to critically analyse, and provide balanced insights and clarity to these complex issues. So, defining professions where people can specialise and build deep domain skills (and a career) is essential to a modern and agile organisation. I was delighted that the HR Profession was the first profession rolled out, as HR is so critical in providing leadership in enabling the talent in the APS.
When it comes to implementation, I will always lean towards inspiring people to change and adopt new ways of doing things, rather than forcing them to do things. Any good change management process clearly defines the reason for change, what the change should deliver, and what it will mean for people. It will then invest in clearly communicating that vision and engaging in the discussion. However, at times groups of people do need some encouragement and direction!
Also, it’s important to be flexible and not overly rules-based, so you allow for some nuances that are appropriate for different organisations. On the surface the APS, for many reasons, has a compliant culture. People will do what they are told to do, they will comply, but it won’t take root and it can sometimes be a veneer of acceptance, covering deep concerns. You have to let it become personal so people really buy into the reason you are changing. If you do that you will deliver great results. I think this is typical of any large organisation. So, it is very important to have honest, open and transparent conversations. As you say, the implementation of the HR Profession is about creating a community, improving the capability, agility and expertise of people – so this is about investing in people’s careers. And you have to be really clear in your communication and keep working on it. The APS needs to continue to clearly communicate and articulate this vision.
One of the recommendations from your report was about lifting the capability of the APS. Do you think the APS Professional Streams, for which HR was the first cab off the rank, go far enough to addressing this recommendation? What should HR professionals be doing more or less of?
The implementation of professions is only one of a number of recommendations focused on enhancing the capabilities of the APS. The APS must invest in the development of people across the service. Often, because it is public money, the APS can be very cautious about investing money in people, yet this is exactly where the biggest investment needs to be. If your capacity to deliver is based on the capability of your people, then people and good HR needs to be at the heart of that.
The HR community play a critical role in enabling a series of recommendations aimed at improving the capability of management. It’s about creating an environment where people can excel. This involves improving people management skills, implementing better performance management and coaching skills, identifying leaders early in their careers, and many other components.
I also feel very strongly that in a large organisation, line executives must lead in the management of people and HR must be the trusted advisor and independent voice. That can be a difficult role to play because you are holding people to account, calling things out and you need to be brave. You need to be sure of the foundation on which you stand because you will be challenged, and you will need to have that fine balance between enforcer and enabler. It’s all solvable though if you have that bigger picture in mind and can bring others along on the journey.
Just as with the HR profession, we need to attract the brightest and best to the public service and we need to create an environment that makes the APS the best place to work in Australia, because of the nature of the work you do and the influence you have, and also because of the intellectual stimulation and the ability to execute nation-changing initiatives. And if we can do that, we can create an APS that is fit for the future.
COVID-19 really brought the role of the APS into strong focus and got us working in a way that was very purposeful and service-orientated. How do you think we can hold onto some of the benefits brought about by working with a sense of urgency and purpose to our BAU?
What a challenging and confronting time it has been for us all. However, it was inspiring to see how the APS came together with the single objective of assisting the nation through this crisis.
COVID-19 was and is a burning platform that has united the APS to work together to a common goal and drive impact through agile and flexible ways of working. The way the APS has led through this national crisis has been outstanding and the nation is very grateful for that leadership.
However, the real test is, ‘Can we sustain this way of working as we move away from the crisis?’ You can’t always live in crisis and you can’t artificially create it. This challenge is not unique to the APS, every organisation is the same – it is difficult.
In the review we stressed that the APS needs to be aligned around a common purpose of serving the citizens of Australia, the government, and the Parliament – this is what drives alignment and gives the APS an immediate and ongoing purpose.
I know that departmental and cabinet structures can work against this common purpose, however, your customers – the citizens of Australia, government and Parliament – only see one APS. They have no understanding of the departmental structures, and we shouldn’t expect them to.
So, you have to find something that unites you together to a greater cause that allows you to have better collaboration and be more agile, to adapt and learn, to appreciate people. If you have everyone united under this common purpose, you will always arrive at the right place.
What are the biggest challenges for the APS of the future?
The APS can never stand still and must become more agile and responsive to changes.
It is very difficult to predict the changes ahead, but we can be committed to creating an organisational culture that is responsive, dynamic and flexible.
That is why building the right culture and supporting systems will enable you to adapt and change, as external and internal factors impact the work you do, but you must stay true to your purpose and values.
Digital capability is so important, and the ability to stand up good data analytics to get better insights, the ability to have common platforms that enable better communication, and draw on the digital skills of a generation, like new graduates. But big organisations are constrained by conformance. We have these incredible opportunities to be world leaders but somehow, we get caught in not believing we can change things – and yet great organisations are always re-inventing themselves. On digital enablement – the APS should be a leader in Australia and the world. Yes, you need to invest more in people, redefine processes, be more efficient, be more digitally enabled, invest more in leadership development, provide better advice, be less dependent on consultants – but if you don’t build the right values and culture, none of these things will make you fit for purpose for the future decades.
What will HR professionals of the future be doing more/less of’?
HR professionals play a critical role in enabling this new dynamic organisation. The one thing we can be sure of – we will still need capable and committed people in the future.
HR must be less about issues management and getting people to comply with a set of rules, and more about partnering and being a trusted advisor with management to create the workforce of the future – a driver of change. HR must be at the senior table and not be a passive passenger. It needs to hop into the driver’s seat and say, ‘There is a better way’.
If you create the right environment for people to be successful, you will overachieve whatever you are trying to do. Often promotion and seniority is only driven by being the brightest and most intellectual in the room and yet the management of people, the art of creating an environment of getting the best out of the people that you work with, is actually the art of great management and great leadership. The really talented leaders create this environment where people excel and achieve greater than they ever expected, and good HR is key to that.
Australia needs a strong and vibrant APS. The APS is absolutely critical for building a better nation for all Australians. The APS cannot be as impactful as every Australian requires without a strong and dynamic HR profession who helps attract, retain, and develop the very best talent we have across this country and makes sure that the APS continues to adapt and change to the challenges and opportunities ahead.