APS Commissioner Dr Gordon de Brouwer speech at IPAA Secretary Series
16 June 2023, National Press Club
Thank you very much, Katherine. It's really nice to be here. It's a very friendly group, so I'm very grateful for IPAA and the Crawford School. I would like to start as well by acknowledging that we're meeting on Ngunnawal Country and thank the traditional custodians of the land we're meeting on and the families with connections here. I pay my deep respect to First Nations peoples and Elders, past and present, and welcome Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today. I've been overwhelmed in my career by the warmth and generosity of First Nations peoples, and I hope that as a service we can reciprocate that. And I'm going to talk a lot about service now.
I did want to say, thank you very much, Andrew. I just want to draw out and thank Andrew Metcalfe, who is here and retiring from the public service. Andrew has been a great mentor and a colleague to me for a long time. And so, I just wanted to acknowledge Andrew and what you've contributed to the service and thank you for that.
So, I would like to talk to you about public service and talk to you as public servants. If you're not a public servant, you can listen. But I really do want to talk to the public service and many of you who are fellow travellers. And it's really, I think, how do we work for the public service? The requirements of our job are set out in law, in the Public Service Act, and they're very clear. Very clear to serve the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public that that law goes on to require that we incorporate and uphold specific values in our work, starting with being committed to service to achieve the best results for the Australian community and Government. Those values also encompass being ethical and respectful, accountable and impartial, so that those values aren't optional. They are the law. They tell us how to go about our job. The values are inspirational as they should be, but when we don't live up to them, a breach can culminate in loss of pay, demotion or even dismissal from the public service. I meet a lot of public servants, and the commitment to serve is fundamental and deep among us.
I recently met Chris from Services Australia. He was one of the people doing the deliberative committee that I'll talk about later. He works with people who leave jail to get them back into the community, helping them through one of the most challenging transitions in their life. There are many, many stories that I've heard from people around the nation in policy, in programs and service delivery, who are passionate, kind and committed, capable and proudly display their spirit of service every day. I see it every day. And I hope that you see it too, and that you're proud of it. We know that we're not perfect. We fail and we get things wrong at times and sometimes seriously badly. There's a long history of reports and some recent ones underway, like the Robodebt Royal Commission that showed big failures and mistakes. And we have a lot to learn from these events, especially leaders. Not just leaders, but especially leaders. And we'll need to come to grips with the consequences. But these events do not undermine my own belief that the vast majority of public servants are good, decent people and want to do their job well. To use the words of the Prime Minister when he first came down to the Prime Minister's Department, about public servants, ‘You are honourable people in an honourable profession’.
I'm deeply humbled, excited, and I have to say quite daunted, to be appointed by the Government as the Australian Public Service Commissioner. I applied for the Commissioner job and I'm going to note something different: had to apply. There was a there was a process led by Katherine. Thank you, Katherine.
I applied from the position of Secretary for Public Sector Reform because I saw being Commissioner a way to further implement reform in an institution that sits at the very heart and centre of the public service. I saw the opportunity to build on the work of Peter Woolcott and others in establishing the APS Academy, developing the professions, deepening the APS relationship with Parliament House and other places, and improving the way the APS operates. The breadth and depth of change in public administration that is at the heart of the Government's reform priorities are likely to be at least a decade long project, and I wanted to be there for at least some of that process and working with great people. Like many of you, I wanted to be a public servant so that I could make a difference. And I felt at various times I'd made that contribution, including for me in the global financial crisis.
What I have found over the years is just how essential institutions, culture and people are to the success of policy programs and service delivery. That culminated for me recently in the review of the Reserve Bank, of which I was a panel member, that the problems that we identified in monetary policy over the past decade owed more to the decisions and the way decisions were made, rather than actually the faults in the policy framework itself. As a former professor of economics, that was not what I expected. Ideas matter, of course, but so too does governance, culture and people. And at times more so.
So what can you expect from me as Commissioner? First, maintaining and strengthening the rule of law and systems and institutions of government matter a great deal to me, and I take very seriously the obligations on me and on you that are set out in the various acts of Parliament that describe what we do in our duties. We are in a world where the rule of law and institutions are under challenge, and I will look to support the government in strengthening institutions, laws and practices that are the foundations of our democracy and our society.
The second is that what you can expect in behaviour matters a lot in our work and the only way that we can sustain delivering and achieving outcomes for government and Parliament is if our behaviours match our values. I have never seen delivery and behaviour as binary opposites or alternatives, rather the values that we are bound to by law guide us in how to achieve outcomes. It's not just that the law requires us to act in a certain way, but I genuinely believe that the secret to sustaining delivery in our jobs is to act consistently with our values. So, you're much more likely to attract good staff and keep them if you respect, empower and back them, and work professionally with them.
Third, pretty much everything in government and public administration is about people and I think that's great. I am a people person. I love people. As a public service, our ultimate focus is the Australian people, like it is for the Government and like it is for the Parliament. As Commissioner and I'm speaking to public servants, my immediate focus is you, the people. With the openness of the public sector and helping you create a great place to work, to be the best you can be in your job and have the opportunities and professional development, to have the impact you want to have. That you see that we're better as a service for all the richness and wisdom that our difference and diversity bring, that we treasure diversity and that we all belong as the people we are. I want to hear from you and learn from you. Please, I would like to hear from you and learn from you. I would like you to feel that you can talk to me and my colleagues at the Commission and share your ideas and your experience. For that reason, I'm going to start doing monthly drop ins where anyone in the service can join me in a safe space to catch up. I'll let you know more about what that means in practice in the coming weeks.
So what do we want to be as a world leading service? Well, when I started as Secretary for Public Sector Reform and in talking with ministers, they said that they'd know when the public service is working really well when they saw three things. Public servants are confident – they're not cowering and they're not arrogant, they're comfortable they know themselves, and that public servants know what they're doing and they’re really good at that. They can understand and explain initiatives and they have great advice on how to address it in a way that will endure over time and not just create another problem down the track. They said they wanted people to come to them and say just how great it is to deal with those public servants and their departments and agencies, that they listen well, that they help them navigate a complex system and issues, that they are respectful and that they have integrity. So my vision for a world leading service is that the APS is a great place to work where people can have a rewarding career and it truly cares about people. Both, the members of the APS and the people that we serve. And it's recognised for unwavering integrity and honesty, it achieves the things that matter for government and for the people. It's a place where behaviour really matters, where culture and inclusion matter. It's a place where when things go wrong, people put their hand up and say: “How can we do better?”. It's a place where hierarchy means that people are empowered and enabled to do their job with clear responsibilities and clear accountabilities, and not primarily as a tool of command and control. As much as command and control have their place, and they do. But I'm interested in hearing what you think constitutes a world leading public service. And then how we get there, what the steps are.
So how are we changing? I hope you see reform as a way to strengthen our service. Reform is such a loaded word. For some, it's the opportunity to make this more effective and relevant. For some, it's exhausting. A seemingly endless call to change and never-ending pet projects. Reform is not something new, it's been going on for decades and years. When a new government comes into office with its own priorities and expectations, it forms its own story and this Government has done that. Minister Gallagher has outlined that the Government's reform priorities of integrity, people at the centre, a model workplace, and building capability, are really important. They draw from a variety of different sources: they come from the Government's election commitments, they come from the 2019 Thodey independent review of the APS, they come from the experience of the pandemic and changes we saw in how the service responds, they come from looking overseas and to the states and territories, and they come from understanding the changing needs of Australians. So it's good to know that collectively as an APS we've progressed 37 out of the 40 Thodey recommendations, with the remaining three under consideration.
The ongoing work of reform has provided a strong foundation underpinning the 35 initiatives that we're currently implementing that have been announced by the Minister Gallagher, under the Government's reform agenda, with more to come. We have a structured approach to APS Reform, identifying actions with clear accountabilities and governance built into the institutions, structures and tools of state, including departments, Secretaries Boards and corporate planning and reporting. It's on the Reform website. Rachel Bacon reminds me that it's a work in progress, but it's actually pretty significantly underway. To my mind, this structured approach is necessary, but it's not at all sufficient for a reform to succeed. Reform only takes hold if it's personal to you. And I'd like to make it personal to you. So please take it personally. It's got to be directly relevant to your lived work experience and the impact that you want to have on our nation. At the end of the day, the reform program is seeking to empower, enable and support you to be the best you can be in your workplace. It's doing that in steps, where one step leads as naturally as possible, hopefully seamlessly, to the next step. I'm very much in that Peter Varghese’s ‘School of Radical Incrementalism’. You know, where you want to get to and you take steps in the sequence of steps to get there, and you help them unwind to take you on that path. So all of this is meant to be making you more effective and enjoy your workplace more, and achieve the purpose of your work.
You may have seen or heard of the changes happening around APS reform, but bargaining on workplace conditions and pay is well underway. The SES Performance Leadership System is being updated with a whole of service best practice approach to assessing both, the outcomes achieved and the behaviour exhibited by an individual, with equal weight on both elements. It's relevant also for secretary performance leadership and it will increasingly inform approaches to performance of EL and APS staff, both for outcomes and behaviour matter.
The in-house consulting function starts next month. Work is underway on projects funded through the Capability Reinvestment Fund, including evaluation, First Nations cultural safety, gender budgeting, lifting cultural diversity, lifting capability in line agencies about Asia and the Pacific, and lifting strategic foresight capability. The Commission is firmly focussed on improving inclusion and diversity. The data, digital and HR professions are continuing to grow and mature with the evaluation profession underway, and thinking on how to strengthen procurement, and project and contract management capability within the service.
As part of APS reform, the Government is exploring where it needs to hardwire a change in legislation to make change stick. That means changing the law to make sure that the commitments and promises we make through APS reform are followed through, as part of the strengthening systems that I talked about earlier.
On Wednesday, Assistant Minister Gorman started the series of legislative reform by introducing an amendment to the Public Service Act, to the House of Reps to make seven substantive changes. I'm going to talk through those. The Minister for the Public Service, Minister Gallagher, announced most of these changes last October, and there's been a lot of public consultation on many of them since then.
The first is adding stewardship as a value for public servants. Stewardship captures the notion of responsibility for an institution, both in how it performs now and how it remains effective for the future. Stewardship is currently in the Public Service Act, but only as a responsibility for secretaries and Secretaries Boards. We each have responsibility for our bit of the system to ensure that our bit of the institution, our workplace, is as effective as it can be and to leave our workplace and the things we work on better when we move on to something else.
The reform office ran a public consultation with over 1500 submissions received. Around 90% of those, many of whom were APS and executive level staff within the staff within the public service, said that they saw themselves as stewards in their workplace and they welcomed stewardship as a value. Some of the others, the other 10% or so, saw it only is the responsibility of senior people or not relevant to do their job. Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff said that stewardship was instinctive to them by custodianship and their responsibility to Country. They said that stewardship was embedded in the question that they asked themselves of what sort of ancestor will they be to the generations that follow.
The second change in the legislation is requiring a purpose statement for the public service, setting out the vision for the service over the next five years. This is another Thodey review recommendation. It's quintessential David Thodey: inspire to aspire. Purpose matters to most people and it's a primary motivation for public servants and to people in public life in general.
We've seen the incredible things that we can achieve when we work together to a common goal as One APS, and we saw it in the pandemic. The first purpose statement is underway with a deliberative committee of staff from around Australia, and Chris, who I mentioned earlier, is one of them. It's a kind of public service citizen's jury. Working together to design a common purpose across the APS that draws us together and helps us achieve more. So they came up with eight options that they are now testing with staff and the public. These are available on the APS reform website for you to give feedback and rank and say which ones you prefer or not. Three final options will go to a public and staff vote in August, and they'll become part of the toolkit that guides departments and agencies. And I really encourage you to take part in that ranking and the voting process.
So these two changes go to core purpose and values in the service. The next three, I'm going to talk about are data governance, accountability and transparency. The third change is to strengthen provisions that ministers cannot direct agency heads on individual staffing decisions. This affirms the APS as apolitical in nature and it’s taken from Graeme Head's review of appointments in New South Wales.
The fourth change is to require agencies to publish APS census results and also publish their action plans to address the findings. That's designed to lift transparency and encourage accountability and continuous improvement in agencies. Again, it's a Thodey recommendation and it will be complemented by a greater opportunity to compare outcomes across the service in the State of the Service Report put out by the Public Service Commission.
The fifth change is to ensure decisions are made by employees at the lowest possible classification level, so that decision making is not raised unnecessarily to higher level. It's all part of risk management. The point of this is about reducing unnecessary hierarchy and empowering and trusting staff to do their job. It's not about forcing work down to lower levels in a hierarchy without proper remuneration. This change applies a similar provision in Western Australia's public sector legislation.
The next two changes that I'll talk about go to capability and expertise in the service. The sixth change in the legislation is to require regular, independent and transparent capability reviews of each department of state, and Services Australia and the Australian Tax Office, and is required by law. This too is a Thodey recommendation. Forward looking strengths based reviews with action plans are significant in how they inform and motivate improvement. The APSC, and the Minister was very clear on this, the APSC had to be first off the rank, and our capability review will be released soon with those for Infrastructure and Health to be followed to follow in the next few months. They are a device by which public servants can see and contribute to their work, how their workplaces modernise and how they improve. It's participatory.
The seventh change is for Secretaries Board to commission regular long-term insights reports to explore medium- and long-term issues, trends and risks and opportunities. It's a tool to build up forward looking, strategic insight and one of a series of devices to strengthen public service outreach and understanding of the community. It's an idea that we adapted from New Zealand. The pilot underway is looking at the opportunities and constraints in A.I. to build trust in the trust of the community in government.
I am coming to an end. There are some clear features of this reform program. It focusses on institutions and on people, both the public we serve, and the people, us, who form the public service. It's a stepwise approach to transformation. A big vision about the public sector and a series of steps that get us there. Steps that can be implemented, that change culture and behaviour, and that achieve outcomes. It seeks to embed some changes through legislation, some by the direction of the Minister, some by decision of Secretaries Board, and some by the Commissioner's direction. They are principles-based and they are intended to be hard wired into the system of public administration. They are meant to stay, meant to endure. So, I'd like to say to my fellow public servants that I hope you see yourself in these changes, and what they mean for you in how you do your job, your workplace, and your part in creating a world leading APS.
So please speak up, join in and be part of the conversation. There are opportunities for you to have your say and to be heard. What I hope we can do together is, step by step, build on integrity, capability and workplace standards. Strengthen the role of service that we're all committed to. and support you in being the best you can be as a public servant.