The APS has responded to the challenges we have faced as Australians—working as one enterprise and recalibrating our culture and the way we work.
Peter Woolcott AO, Australian Public Service Commissioner
There is no start or end date to the reform of the public service, but there are times when the need for ambitious reform is pronounced. Over the past year the Australian Public Service (APS) faced a critical juncture where we chose to scale solutions arising from the pandemic and to better prepare for the complex future ahead.
Changes that in many respects were already underway in the APS have accelerated as the need for an agile APS, oriented to the needs of the community and the Australian recovery, became more important. The APS also sought to strengthen the foundations and culture that build a world-class public service.
The Secretaries Board and the Chief Operating Officers sub-Committee of the Board have worked hand in glove to drive the concept of the APS as one enterprise. There has been an immediate focus on delivery. COVID-19 has underscored the strength of the APS in delivering fast and effective responses when we quickly mobilise resources, share knowledge and align efforts across the service.
That said, just as telling has been the longer term attention paid to mobility and capability. Strengthening the capability of the APS workforce continues to be the cornerstone of the APS reform effort. It is the common thread across all of the priority reform areas. It can be seen in the manner in which the Secretaries Board has brought together a series of initiatives which underpin our future ability to serve the Australian people and Government. They include, the APS Workforce Strategy, the Learning and Development Strategy and Action Plan, the APS Academy, the Mobility Framework and Surge Reserve, as well as the Professions Model.
This State of the Service Report outlines many of the ways in which the APS, as an institution, has responded to the challenges we have faced as Australians—working as one enterprise and recalibrating our culture and the way we work.
Digital technologies and approaches alongside the effective use and reuse of public data are fundamental to responsive public policy solutions and this year has seen concentrated attention on building strong foundations in these areas. The establishment of the Secretaries Digital Committee and a strengthened mandate for the Digital Transformation Agency promote an enterprise approach to digital governance, investment and delivery. Australia’s first Data Strategy set to be released by the end of this year, will further strengthen our capacity to inform government decision-making and drive national priorities.
One of the successes of this period has been the ability of the APS to work together, with new opportunities for different parts of government to come together and more staff reporting that they are working as a team. The APS Employee Census results have highlighted that the collaborative response to COVID-19 and other government priorities, have helped build common ownership in responding to different challenges, and strengthened a sense of purpose in many APS employees.
However, like any organisation with a long history and the size and breadth of the APS, achieving enduring change to work practices and culture will not be simple or straightforward.
To enable his shift, Delivering for Tomorrow: the APS Workforce Strategy 2025 was released in March 2021—the first whole-of-enterprise workforce strategy. The Strategy provides for an integrated approach to workforce management that tackles immediate and emerging priorities for our workforce and signals a major pivot in how the APS develops skills and capabilities. A new networked model of capability across the APS is reflected in the ongoing development of the APS Professions, the new Learning and Development Strategy and Action Plan, and the establishment of the APS Academy.
The APS Workforce Strategy also signalled an ambition for a more responsive APS, and this year we have adopted more agile ways of working, and have seen that there can be more empowerment, autonomy and responsibility in teams, with quality results. Against this backdrop the Hierarchy and Classification Review is considering whether we have the right structures in place to accommodate the diverse functions of the APS to deliver outcomes, enhance performance and ensure accountability. I look forward to receiving the final report from the Review Panel by the end of the year.
This year has shown that system-wide approaches have served Australia well through the pandemic. We need to lean into contemporary organisational design, and remain flexible to agency needs, to emerge stronger as we navigate increasingly difficult public policy issues and prepare for the future of work.
The rapid changes which COVID-19 has spurred across the APS has generated both new opportunities and higher expectations from the Government, the community and our workforce of what the APS can deliver in the future. As we move beyond dealing with the immediate aspects of the crisis we are closely examining our ways of working, our structures, our cultural norms, and our capabilities, to ensure they continue to serve us as they should and realise this promise.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities to inject new flexibility and resilience into public service operating models across the world.
The use of flexible working arrangements in the APS, including working from home, pre-dates the pandemic and looking to the future will remain a feature of how the APS operates. The large scale shifts to home-based work, necessitated by health orders, has proven a more distributed model of work is viable without undermining productivity. Substantive questions remain about how greater flexibility can support both employee wellbeing and operational needs, including ensuring the strength and quality of networks, teamwork and collaboration. However, greater flexibility offers clear benefits for the APS in its capacity to recruit and retain expertise from wider labour markets.
As the world becomes more complex and international considerations more intertwined with domestic issues, the skills and knowledge needed by the public service are evolving. The APS will be required to grapple with issues in new ways and will rely on technology, agile work models and the digital and data capability of our people to deliver successful outcomes. The continued development of the APS professional streams—Data, Digital and Human Resources—reflect the need to uplift key capabilities and foster rewarding careers in these critical areas across the APS.
The APS is not alone in wanting more digital and data skills in its workforce. Skills shortages in the labour market and strong competition for specialist talent and expertise require, now more than ever, flexible consideration to the location of APS roles and innovative ways of accessing capacity and capability.
In addition to technical expertise, the importance of strong foundational public service capabilities, such as policy analysis and implementation of services, is reflected in priorities for the new APS Academy. The ‘APS craft’ capabilities reflect the skills every public servant needs to work effectively in the APS and develop and refi over their career. Complementary efforts to build purposeful career pathways in the APS and increase skills and capabilities, are being driven by the professional streams and through enterprise-wide entry-level programs such as the APS Career Starter, to mid-career transitions for veterans, to the development of stronger leadership capabilities for our senior leaders. These initiatives will provide diversity of thought and experience to bring balanced insights to the complex and interconnected challenges facing the service.
As Australia responds and recovers from the pandemic, APS staffing numbers have modestly increased with the size of the APS rising to 153,945 employees. This was a rise in both ongoing and non-ongoing roles to assist the Government’s recovery plan, providing essential services and supporting the roll out of the 2021 Census.
Tasked with serving Australians, it is important that the APS reflects the range of differences that exist within the Australian community.
Long term trends show increasing diversity in the APS, with greater proportions of women, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander employees and those from a non-English speaking background.
There is more work to be done and we are still lagging in some areas, particularly in our representation of people with disability which has not seen material improvement. People from non-English speaking backgrounds, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander employees and public servants with a disability also still remain under-represented at the most senior levels.
The APS Disability Employment Strategy 2020–25, launched in December 2020, focuses on ways to attract, recruit and retain more people with disability into the APS, and to create accessible and inclusive workplace environments.
Implementation of the practical actions in the Strategy, along with existing agency-led initiatives, will support improved employment outcomes for people with disability in the APS.
For the first time women in the APS have reached, and in most cases exceeded, parity with men at every level up to and including the collective SES cohort. The independent evaluation of the previous APS Gender Equality Strategy noted however that the APS cannot become complacent about gender equality. A renewed Strategy, to be released by the end of 2021, will help normalise flexible and respectful workplaces, and further embed gender equality.
Recognising the trend toward an ageing workforce, the APS is also focused on ways to embrace and support an age-inclusive, multigenerational public service. Harnessing this diversity will enable innovation, strong contestability, and ultimately better outcomes for Australians.
Let me conclude by emphasising that in 2020–21, the APS has demonstrated its agility and responsiveness to help the Government respond to the many economic, social and health challenges arising from COVID-19.
In being responsive to significant surges in demand and priorities, the APS has not forgone long-term thinking about the future. We are working to embed lessons learned and drive the big reforms to improve public service capabilities and performance.
Our capacity to continuously learn and adapt will depend on effective structures, an inclusive culture, strong capabilities and leadership. I am confident that the APS is well placed to meet the demands of our rapidly changing environment and continue to meet the needs of Government and the Australian people into the future.