Building career pathways
As the APS grapples with increasingly complex and interrelated issues, it needs professionals who bring a diversity of skill, thought and experience. A more diverse APS that values different experiences and encourages varied career paths will help the APS bring balanced insights to complex issues.
The implementation of APS professional streams is only one of several initiatives focused on building career pathways in the APS to help with this. As an individual in the APS, it can be challenging to navigate a career path in one of the largest employers in Australia. The APS is implementing a number of actions to help people establish career pathways and to increase their skills and capability, from entry level to leadership positions. Central to this is how capability and job performance are developed, nurtured and managed.
Growing the entry-level pipeline
For years, APS graduate recruitment has been cumbersome for both graduates and employers, with agencies running their own recruitment processes in a decentralised approach. In 2020–21, a coordinated approach to graduate recruitment was launched under the Australian Government Graduate Program (AGGP).75 The AGGP brings together individual APS agency graduate recruitment processes under a single umbrella and offers graduates the option to apply for one or several streams including general, data, digital and HR.
A successful pilot in 2020 involved a partnership between 5 APS agencies. More than 6,000 applications were received, including 1,700 across the digital and data streams. The second phase in 2021 involved 34 agencies coming together for an inaugural APS virtual careers fair, giving graduates the opportunity to speak to multiple agencies in the one place.
A redesigned Graduate Portal was launched in March 2021 and has attracted more than a quarter of a million views and 173,193 unique visitors. In 2021 there were 8,463 applications received across the AGGP streams, a 37% increase in application numbers from the previous year.
The 2021 graduates were also offered the opportunity to do service delivery rotations, with more than 150 additional service delivery rotation opportunities available. These rotations support an operating model and aim to instil a culture of mobility from the outset.
Building on the success of a centralised AGGP, a cross-agency discovery project focused on other APS Entry Level Programs (ELPs) to examine current barriers and explore best practice across the public and private sectors. Work has now started to build consistency and centralise and/or consolidate these entry-level programs where it makes sense to do so.
Career Starter Program: Kick-starting APS careers
The Career Starter Program, originally established by the Department of Finance in 2002, has expanded to become a whole-of-government program, with 9 agencies participating in 2021. The program was awarded the 2018 Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) Susan Ryan Age Diversity Award.
The program supports participants who have recently finished their Year 12 certificate or equivalent to build skills on the job, learn through structured training and work as part of a team.
Participants complete a Certificate IV in Government, which supports them to transition into the APS, problem-solve and think critically. Career Starter participants can contribute to project, administrative and research work.
Participants are placed in various Government agencies, starting as a permanent APS Level 1 and advancing to APS Level 2 when they complete the program.
The program offers recent school leavers a great opportunity to kick-start their APS careers. It also offers the APS a pipeline for new talent. Close to three-quarters (74%) of participants remained with the APS four years after completing the program. This represents a rate of retention comparable to APS graduate programs.
Veteran skills in the modern APS
The APS benefits from recruiting individuals who have built a career external to the service, such as in the Australian Defence Force. Leadership, logistical and organisational skills honed in the military translate to many roles in the APS. Veterans also bring strong ethics, behavioural expectations and a background working in secure environments, as well as a desire to continue to serve our country.
Several publicly and privately run veteran employment and transition programs support ex-service personnel to bring their skills to the APS job market, including the recently established Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) APS Veteran Employment Pathway program.76 In 2021, DVA is trialling the program with the Department of Defence, with the aim of supporting veterans to gain ongoing APS employment. The program assists veterans’ transition to the APS through a comprehensive induction and development program, with targeted support to move from a military background into the culture and skills required for the APS. For a smooth transition into APS culture, participants take part in formal learning and development, a mentor and buddy program, peer network building and family inclusion activities. The trial program consists of 10 months of targeted learning and development through 2021–22. On completion, participants will be able to continue as ongoing staff members under standard APS employment conditions.
Translating capability from a military career to the public service
Mr Leigh Gordon AO CSM joined the Royal Australian Mint (the Mint) in February 2021 after a career in the Australian Defence Force (ADF), most recently as the Air Vice-Marshal of the Joint Strike Fighter project. Leigh was particularly motivated to join the APS to continue to make a contribution to Australia and Australians.
Since joining the APS, Leigh reflects that the range of skills and experiences acquired during his 38-year military career readily translates to his role as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Mint. “These include strategic leadership, personnel management, program and project management, and stakeholder engagement,” says Leigh.
One of the core skills developed in the military and valued in the APS is strategic leadership. As the CEO, Leigh leads the Mint to adapt and thrive in an increasingly complex environment where the use of cash is changing, where technology is advancing, and where supply chains are becoming more fragile.
“A significant proportion of my ADF career has also centred on project and program management and I have found that my skills are readily applicable to the APS,” says Leigh. “Each year the Mint undertakes a significant program designing, manufacturing and delivering a range of coins for banks, commercial partners, and collectors. Key program management skills, such as risk management, business acumen and financial management, have translated across from the ADF.”
The APS is positioning itself to be more flexible and agile for the future, and Leigh considers that “the APS benefits from the transfer of skills from outside the organisation to ensure it develops and remains relevant.”
The future of the APS leadership
Public service leaders have to make space for innovation while managing risk and being accountable for results, support fast-moving political agendas, manage and transform vast public organisations, motivate and inspire their workforces, and be trusted partners to citizens and an ever-growing list of partners and stakeholders. All of this while promoting the highest level of personal and professional ethics and integrity.77
Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development
Public service leaders—senior level public servants who lead and improve major Government functions—are at the heart of Government effectiveness.78 SES leaders require a broad range of capabilities to guide the APS through an increasingly complex environment. The APS Leadership Capability Framework, which identifies the leadership capabilities considered critical for success in the most senior APS roles,79 was updated as part of Delivering for Tomorrow: the APS Workforce Strategy 2025. It now includes driving institutional integrity, a citizen-centric focus and a commitment to life-long learning.
Figure 2.5: The APS Leadership Capability Framework
Secretaries and Agency Heads are continuing to build an APS workforce with stronger leadership capabilities. With an eye to the future, the Secretaries Talent Council and Deputy Secretaries Talent Council focus on the senior leadership pipeline. The objective is to ensure the APS has people with the skills, experience and expertise to lead at the most senior levels, now and in the years ahead. This includes being able to work with diverse stakeholders and a range of ministerial arrangements, provide sound policy, service delivery and regulatory advice that takes a whole-of-government view, and manage large and complex organisations to deliver value for Government and Australian citizens. The APSC has continued to support these Councils in their work.
A key element in building a strong and diverse pipeline is understanding the current capability of the senior leaders. As part of the APS reform agenda, in 2020 the SES Band 3 benchmarked capability assessments were integrated into the Secretaries Talent Council Band 3 talent assessment program of work. As at September 2021, 87 SES Band 3 capability assessments have been completed with several assessment rounds delivered in 2020 and 2021.
Future assessment rounds will focus on new SES Band 3s and Band 3-equivalent Agency Heads. All SES Band 3s will complete a reassessment every 2 to 3 years to support ongoing development and career planning.
As a leader in the public service, I think it’s about empowering your staff … really pushing down responsibility, enabling them to grow, helping them with their challenges and guiding them, but not stepping in and doing it … unless we, as leaders, take responsibility and make sure that we’re there to nurture and to nourish that capability, I think that for the public service, the stewardship won’t look as good as it could.80
Mary Wiley-Smith, Deputy Secretary, Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources
Just as organisations have adapted to new ways of operating, embracing digital technology and reorganising their supply chain, leaders have also adapted over the course of the pandemic. Leaders globally will need to adapt to a ‘new normal’ to operate in workplaces that are more flexible, less hierarchical and more diverse.81
The public sector is no exception. Even before COVID-19, there were calls for leadership within the public sector to adopt a different mindset to best respond to broader remits and increased complexity.82 The mindset needs to build and support teams of diverse expertise and embrace innovation more strongly in the face of budget restraint and changing technology. There is also an increasing focus on collaboration across blurred boundaries of responsibility and influence, as well as on resilience and self-awareness.83
Employees are seeking more meaning and value to their work, alongside increased support to balance professional and personal lives.84 Leaders who can offer this direction and support will be much sought after.
In the APS, employees’ attitudes towards senior leadership continue to improve. Over time, respondents to the APS Employee Census increasingly view their SES managers as aligning work effort to the strategic direction of their agency and to the broader APS, and as articulating the direction and priorities of their work area.
Figure 2.6: Employees’ perceptions of their SES managers’ performance (2018 to 2021)
APS employees are also seeing their senior leaders demonstrate the mindset that will increasingly be required of them in the future. More than half of all 2021 APS Employee Census respondents agreed that their SES managers demonstrated behaviours that suggest they were influential, collaborative, innovative and enabling. However, as seen in these results and through the talent assessments of senior leaders, there is still work to be done to continue to build on these capabilities.
Figure 2.7: Employees’ perceptions of their SES managers (2021)
Since 2014, the APSC has delivered a range of leadership development initiatives to increase participants’ leadership capability. Each year more than 500 SES and EL staff from across the APS participate in APSC leadership development activities through longitudinal programs that include workshops, coaching, peer learning, and on-the-job activities or secondments.
Evaluation data indicates strong shifts in capability as a result of participating in these activities. With the establishment of the APS Academy, a broader range of support for leaders will be available as resources to support manager performance. Program Alumni will support implementation of learning and performance on the job.
Ensuring high performance
The APS must remain high-performing to meet the growing expectations of Government, parliament and the Australian community. Achieving these levels of performance is the responsibility of every APS employee. This is made clear in the July 2019 amendments to the Australian Public Service Commissioner’s Directions 2016. The amendments clarified the obligations of agency heads, supervisors and all employees in achieving, promoting and fostering a high-performance culture. In late 2020, the APSC surveyed departments and agencies to understand how they implemented amendments to the Directions and found that agencies have established fit-for-purpose performance frameworks that now align with the intention of the revised Directions.85 Consistencies across these performance frameworks include the ‘no surprises principle’ for the management of underperformance and the importance of regular performance conversations and frequent feedback to support high performance.
Achieving a high-performance culture involves more than just managing under performance or rewarding high performers. It is also about developing the capability of employees and providing regular constructive feedback. Evidence suggests that not all managers are prioritising these activities. Just under three-quarters (73%) of respondents to the 2021 APS Employee Census thought their immediate supervisor was invested in their development.86
A similar proportion (74%) agreed that their immediate supervisor provided them with helpful feedback to manage their performance.87 Other research suggests that managers are often both directly and indirectly encouraged to prioritise the delivery of outcomes for Government over the other duties of their roles, such as people management and development.88
In recognising the importance of people management, the APS Learning Board has recommended focused training for leaders in how to engage in conversations about staff development. The APS Academy is reviewing existing programs to make sure there is support for managers and employees to more constructively engage in development discussions to build workforce capability and performance. These programs, along with the focus on performance frameworks, will enable the APS workforce to meet today’s increasing and changing expectations.
75APSC. (2020). Australian Government Graduate Program. n.d.
76Department of Veterans’ Affairs. (2021). APS Veteran Employment Pathway: Continuing to Serve. 14 July
77OECD. (2021). Government at a Glance 2021. 9 July.
79APSC. (2021). Leadership Capabilities. 21 March.
80Mary Wiley-Smith, Deputy Secretary, Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. (2021). IPAA Work with Purpose Podcast Episode #39. 24 May.
81McKinsey & Company. (2021). What matters most? Five priorities for CEOs in the next normal. 8 September.
82Deloitte Insights. (2019). A new mindset for public sector leadership. 28 June.
83Deloitte Development LLC. (2021). Transforming government post-COVID-19: How flipping orthodoxies can reinvent government operating models. n.d.
84IBM. (2021). What employees expect in 2021. n.d.
85Agency Performance Frameworks Survey.
86 2021 APS Employee Census.
88APSC Centre for Leadership and Learning, APS Learning and Development Strategy user research 2020.