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Looking forward: what's next for the APS

The Hon. John Lloyd PSM
Australian Public Service Commissioner

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  1. Today, I want to talk to you today about what 2016—and beyond—holds for the direction of the APS.
  2. I'll outline the significant reforms we have in the pipeline for the employment framework, HR, performance and talent management. It's not the whole story, but it should give you a taste of where things are headed.
  3. Some of the changes under consideration will be challenging.
  4. However, standing still is rarely an option. As our society and economy develop and adapt, so too must the APS.
  5. I am confident we can renew ourselves. We can create a contemporary Service the Australian people continue to value.

The starting point: An engaged and high performing workforce

  1. We start from a solid base. The APS is a dynamic and adaptable organisation. Results from the employee census clearly demonstrate that employee engagement is consistently high and robust.
  2. Employee engagement is an important concept because an engaged workforce is likely to be more committed to organisational goals and more productive. It is also more likely to be high performing.
  3. Expectations are greater than ever that the Service will be efficient, effective and responsive to the Government and the Australian community. Embedding high performance in the culture of the APS is fundamental to this.
  4. High performance is not an abstract idea. You know it when you see it. It's about getting as much as possible out of the effort you put in.
  5. High performing individuals and groups:
    1. have clear purpose and goals
    2. are motivated
    3. are accountable for duties and outcomes
    4. are committed to excellence and quality, and
    5. have diverse skills, experiences and backgrounds, and see diversity in others as an asset.
  6. I believe a diverse workforce is a healthy workforce.
  7. It seems we are doing well on this front. The State of the Service Report shows that 80% of employees agree that colleagues in their workgroup are accepting of people from diverse backgrounds.
  8. Women currently make up 58% of the APS workforce. The representation of women in the APS has now reached parity with or exceeded men at all levels from APS 1 to EL 1. While we have some way to go on this front at senior levels, it is clear we are making progress.
  9. Overall, the findings from the State of the Service Report are reassuring.

The employment framework

  1. Every few years it's vital that the Service take stock, and ask itself the question: 'could we do better?'
  2. The imperatives for change this time around are multiple. They include:
    1. budget repair and economic uncertainty
    2. demographic change and the aging population
    3. digital transformation, and
    4. the push for smaller government and less red tape.
  3. For me, a standout area for reform is the employment framework. The employment framework refers to all the policies, rules and practices that govern the appointment, movement and separation of APS employees. It embodies the conduct of workforce management in APS agencies.
  4. Our record on workforce management is mixed. Only a third of respondents to the employee census agreed that the workforce in their agency was well managed.
  5. It is clear that we can do better.
  6. We are preparing for reform in several areas of the employment framework. We have consulted widely with APS agencies and looked closely at what needs to change.
  7. First, recruitment.
  8. The self-imposed red tape that some agencies have created, such as detailed selection criteria and elaborate interview processes, impede efficient recruitment.
  9. It can take three months or more for a recruitment process to run its full course. The best people for any job may not wait this long.
  10. We are keen to make sure that recruitment can be completed in a timely and straightforward manner. The objective is to enable rather than obstruct our ability to attract the best and brightest people.
  11. Too many people in the private sector observe that the process is so complex it is not worth applying.
  12. Part of attracting the best and brightest people means refreshing the APS 'brand'. We will be looking closely at who we are as an employer, what we offer and who we want to attract to work with us. This will include an overhaul of the current APSjobs website.
  13. Second, mobility of staff.
  14. The capacity for the rapid deployment of staff is critical to a modern public service. Once in the APS, we want to make it easy for employees to move within and across agencies, and to and from the private sector. Currently movement is technically possible, but can be difficult in practice.
  15. We have set up a secondment service to better support movement in and out of the APS. We are working with the Business Council of Australia and other peak bodies and jurisdictions to place APS staff in long and short-term roles outside of the APS.
  16. This type of movement is mutually beneficial. Business can develop new perspectives on the role of the Commonwealth government. Commonwealth officers obtain a greater understanding of business conditions and the impact of policy.
  17. We will seek to facilitate the more effective use of the full range of employment types, such as part-time, casual, fixed-term, contractor and labour-hire employment.
  18. These employment types can supplement an agency's permanent staff during times of peak activity. They can also bring in key skills and experience for short-term projects.
  19. Over the past 10 years the number of non-ongoing employees in the APS has steadily increased. This is a healthy sign and reflects the changing nature of public sector work.
  20. Third, separations.
  21. An adjunct to this is performance management. I'll speak a bit more about that shortly. For now, let me just note that our current arrangements for employer-initiated separations are often seen as punitive. Also, the processes, some of which are required under legislation, are frequently lengthy and
  22. Avoidance is a common response. Managers, for example, may choose not to engage with an employee who is clearly underperforming.
  23. Some employees seek to mask their lack of capability or lack of job satisfaction, time-serving rather than actively participating in their workplace.
  24. It doesn't need to be like this. In many private sector organisations, a mutually respectful parting-of-the-ways works to everyone's benefit. We should aspire to this for the APS.
  25. These changes to the employment framework are likely to require a mix of policy and process adjustments, cultural change initiatives and legal reform. We've commenced the process of working through what's needed with agencies.

Human resource management

  1. HR management has taken a back seat in previous episodes of APS reform. This time around, however, we're placing it front and centre. So much depends on it.
  2. Traditionally in the APS, HR practitioners have focused heavily on what is commonly called 'transactional work'. This includes things like running recruitment processes to bring in new staff, and dealing with underperformance problems as they arise in particular teams. It's important but routine, low-level
  3. But it's not enough. HR managers need to have a seat at the table in agencies' strategic decision making.
  4. Agency HR managers and senior leadership need to be able to have a conversation that answers the question 'Do we have the workforce required to implement our business strategy?'
  5. HR planning and strategy leaves a lot to be desired in some agencies. In others, it is adequate and could be improved. Commission is in process of addressing this in collaboration with agencies.
  6. We're looking at a number of solutions, such as national accreditation of HR managers and targeted mentoring programs, to drive change. Unlike some of the other reforms I'm talking about today, it's likely that improvements in this area will take longer to implement.

Performance management

  1. Another key area of reform activity this year is performance management.
  2. Make no mistake; we are not good at this. APS employees consistently report in the employee census that their agency struggles to manage underperformance. Only around 20% of employees ever agree that their agency deals effectively with it.
  3. We need robust systems and processes to support performance management. The Commission is developing advice, in partnership with agencies, about what to focus on when reviewing their performance frameworks.
  4. Getting this right is fundamental to assuring individual accountability. Keeping it simple is fundamental to doing it efficiently.
  5. APS managers may find performance management challenging. Frequently processes are too complex. The rules we have in place should not hinder taking the most effective course of action to resolve underperformance cases. This may include, where necessary, termination of employment.
  6. However, the more fundamental challenge that performance management has to address is motivating staff to do their best. All the research shows that the key to unlocking high performance is to ensure that good performance conversations occur regularly between managers and employees.
  7. We know from industry research, for example, that the provision of fair and accurate feedback can make a difference of nearly 40%1 to employee performance. When honest feedback is absent at a workplace, employees are left in the dark as to what's required of them.
  8. The Commission is committed to energising all aspects of the performance conversation. It is crucial to support employees to achieve their best on the job. We know what good performance conversations look like. Among other things they:
    1. are forward looking,
    2. connect employees to their organisation and other relevant stakeholders,
    3. highlight the impact an employee's performance has on the organisation's success, and
    4. are honest and informed about how people are actually performing.
  9. Going into a performance conversation, you—as employees—should be reflecting on:
    1. your strengths
    2. your development needs, and how to best meet those needs
    3. whether you are performing at your best, and why
    4. how you have contributed to your organisation's success
    5. how you can contribute more in the future and improve your performance, and
    6. your career goals.
  10. We are aiming to reframe the way managers and employees approach performance conversations. Everyone stands to gain from them when they are good. They shouldn't be a box-ticking exercise.

Optimising talent

  1. Another key focus this year will be doing more to manage our most talented employees.
  2. This means identifying high potential people and preparing them for business-critical roles. Let me be clear, talent management is about far more than just a training program. It is a long-term investment to make sure we have the right people in the right roles.
  3. Making the most of our best and brightest employees makes sense for any organisation. The APS is no different.
  4. It will help us to be more agile and responsive. It will enable us to deploy our best people to tackle our most challenging problems. It will make agencies more sustainable by ensuring that we have prepared our top talent to step into our most critical roles, when the need arises.
  5. The Commission has recently released a Talent Management Guide and toolkit. These resources are designed to help agencies implement good talent management practices.
  6. The approach we are taking reflects extensive research and industry best practice. It is based on three key principles:
    1. that talent management is owned and led by the business leaders
    2. that assessment of talent is objective and valid, and
    3. that talent management is systematic and dynamic—it changes in response to what is happening in the organisation's environment.
  7. From time to time, I am asked how talent management fits with the notion of merit in the APS. I believe that the concepts are complimentary, not contradictory.
  8. Talent management does not mean favouring the people you like. It does not mean neglecting solid contributors who have found their niche or do not want to go further.
  9. Talent management does mean investing more in those with the potential to contribute more. It means keeping valuable people highly engaged by giving them work that stretches them. We should be doing this at most levels, not just higher up.
  10. For those of you here who are managers, keeping your valuable people engaged and developing will ring true. The reality is that, on a day-to-day basis, you are the ones responsible for managing the talent in your team.

What does it mean to be a manager?

  1. One of the common threads through all these activities is 'management'. So much depends on individual managers following through on what the Government and APS senior leadership are aiming to achieve.
  2. Unfortunately, I think we often overlook what it means to be a manager in the public sector. The Service has focused strongly on leadership and strategy in recent years, and with good reason. But somewhere along the way, we forgot about the manager who is typically responsible for detailing and implementing
    plans created elsewhere.
  3. I've spoken briefly about this before, but allow me to recap: management is vitally important. Good management makes our organisations operate efficiently and effectively. We all recognise good management because things work and outcomes get delivered. In its absence, dysfunction is often the result.
  4. Management is all about:
    1. using your authority
    2. maintaining order
    3. solving technical problems, and
    4. being accountable for decisions, people or the use of resources.
  5. This last point is critical. Managers are accountable. If you see a problem in your team and you choose not to do anything about it, you're not being accountable. And this means you're not being a manager.
  6. Alongside management sits leadership. In fact, many public servants, especially in the state and regional officers, are leaders—not just managers or members of the SES.
  7. I expect you to: see the big picture; listen to and put forward new ideas; embody the APS values; and call out poor behaviour. That is leadership.
  8. Support is available to become a better manager and leader. The Commission's core and management skills programs build skills that are specific to the public service. And, importantly, these programs are available to APS employees across Australia.


  1. Before I conclude, I'd like to say a few things about enterprise bargaining.
  2. It's important that we finalise the current bargaining round so we can get on with the business of government and building careers. To date, 35 agencies have voted 'yes' to a new enterprise agreement.
  3. Getting bogged down in an acrimonious debate over the detail of individual agreement clauses is no way to conduct a productive bargaining process. Agencies and employee representatives have to find workable solutions within the Government's established bargaining framework.
  4. Successful conclusion of the bargaining round will open up opportunities to get on with work and implemented new agendas.
  5. Government policy for the current bargaining round is to remove the more detailed policy and process content from enterprise agreements, and place this material in agency documentation.
  6. This creates a more flexible environment for managing important but routine matters.
  7. It's important that managers continue to step up on enterprise bargaining, and embrace the opportunities that more streamlined enterprise agreements present.
  8. A number of agencies have moved early on this, overhauling their systems in the wake of, or in tandem with, developing new agreements. I welcome this initiative and think it shows clearly that HR managers can be at the forefront of change if they so choose.
  9. Finally, a few words on change. It's never easy, but we must change now, before we are forced to. The reforms we launch today are really about the kind of Service we want in 5 years, 10 years and beyond.
  10. I am confident that the agenda we are progressing will resonate with the vast majority of public servants. Most people understand that being your best requires ongoing effort.
  11. I encourage you to stay tuned in to the activities of the Commission over this year—via my Twitter account1 and the Commission's website— and get involved as opportunities arise.
  12. Thank you.

Twitter account: @JohnLloyd_APSC

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Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018