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The Australian Public Service (APS) grapples daily with the complexity of modern society and the implications this has for government and administration. Complexity of government administration is not new. In 1927, American philosopher John Dewey, reflecting on the complexity of modern society, wrote1:

The ramification of the issues before the public is so wide and intricate, the technical matters involved are so specialized, the details are so shifting, that the public cannot for any length of time identify and hold itself.

Complexity in government involves making progress on complex policy challenges that lack straightforward solutions. It also involves the complexity of public administration itself, which is characterised by interdependencies between agencies where the work in one agency can have significant flow-on effects or unintended consequences for another agency and its clients and stakeholders.

Complexity and interdependence in the APS has deepened over time leading most recently to the National Commission of Audit's role in rethinking the role and scope of government. This included examining whether existing activities should continue, whether there is a case for government's direct involvement in an activity or whether it could be undertaken more efficiently by other sectors or jurisdictions, and the principle that government should only do for citizens what they cannot do for themselves. Any re-positioning of government's role has a direct impact on what the APS does, how it does it and how it is organised to achieve government objectives.

The emphasis on rethinking government's role and the tight fiscal environment, which demands that the APS strive for ever greater efficiency and effectiveness in every aspect of its work, points to the need for transformational change across the APS. The size of the APS and its activities are, however, determined by the way in which government approaches the complexity of public administration and how it chooses to achieve its policy objectives.

The Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has summarised the role of the APS in adapting to change2:

It is up to us [the APS] to adapt to the expected leaner operating environment. To do so we need to boost our productivity … [including by] investing in systems and cultures that ensure effort is applied in line with changing priorities, that the contribution of each employee is as high as it can be, and that we are proficient in planning for and managing change. Ensuring our workplaces are open to ideas and routinely generate innovations both in policy work and in delivery systems … Building a culture that is up for transformational change—one which readily accepts that what may have seemed previously unthinkable is not only thinkable but achievable.

The quality of APS leadership is central to successfully navigating complexity and mobilising the APS to undertake the transformational change required to adapt to new circumstances. Recognising this, the APS Secretaries Board has placed considerable emphasis on investing in the development of leadership practices and management expertise across the APS. This investment is guided by the APS Leadership and Core Skills Strategy 2012–13 (the leadership and core skills strategy), which outlines the collective leadership capability and management expertise required for the APS to serve government and citizens to the highest standard.

This chapter examines the state of leadership practice and management expertise in the APS. It focuses on the way leadership and management contribute to APS effectiveness, performance and productivity.

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1 Dewey, J 1927, The public and its problems, Swallow Press, Denver, p. 137.

2 Watt, I 2013, Address to the APS: The Path Forward for the APS, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Canberra, viewed 2 October 2014, http://www.dpmc.gov.au/media/speech_2013-12-06.cfm.