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Organisational accountability and performance

As reported in last year's State of the Service report, the Australian Public Service Commission (the Commission) has implemented two methods to assess organisational capability. The principal method is the Capability Review programme. The second and complementary method was to have all agencies assess their key organisational capabilities against a capability maturity model. This seeks to place organisational capabilities into a standard and comparable structure that allows an agency's senior leadership to assess the maturity of a particular capability area and establish priorities for improvement. The capability maturity model assessment was conducted in 2011 and 2013. The findings of these assessments were discussed in detail in the 2012–13 State of the Service report.2

This section highlights the findings of Capability Reviews as they relate to the organisational capability of agencies. The capability of agencies to manage organisational performance is assessed through Capability Reviews by asking whether the agency:

  • is delivering against performance targets to ensure achievement of outcomes set out in strategy and business plans
  • drives performance and strives for excellence across the organisation and delivery systems in pursuit of strategic outcomes
  • has high-quality, timely and well-understood performance information, supported by analytical capability, which allows for the tracking and managing of performance and risk across the delivery system
  • takes action when not meeting (or is not on target to meet) all key delivery objectives.

Findings from Capability Reviews identify agency capability to manage organisational performance as the second most in need of development after the need for more outcome-focused strategy. Systemic concerns in relation to the organisational performance capability include:

  • the capacity to consolidate and distil data (that is, there is either too much or too little performance data with too little intelligence and applied analysis)
  • a tendency to focus on measuring outputs rather than outcomes
  • a disconnect between strategy and practice (that is, translating vision into business, team and individual plans)
  • a gap in analytical capability where it is needed, and in plans to grow it over time
  • lack of agreement within agencies of the frameworks or methods to understand and interpret organisational performance (resulting in a lack of integrated, outcome focused performance information).

Capability Reviews also examine the effectiveness of agency governance and accountability mechanisms to deliver outcomes and contribute to high performance at the individual, team and enterprise levels.

Findings from Capability Reviews completed to date demonstrate that agencies vary in their ability to develop and implement the most appropriate governance policies and structures. Agencies with relatively strong governance arrangements ensure that business planning provides a clear line of sight from government priorities through to section-level activities and individual performance plans. They also ensure the accountabilities and responsibilities of committees are clear and well aligned to facilitate effective decision making and make the best use of members' time.

In contrast, findings from other Capability Reviews indicate a lack of clarity around the purpose and roles of committees and complex, overlapping membership can lead to confusion and a divergence between formal charters and actual practice. Capability Review reports also discuss instances where committees are overly involved in resolving operational matters, instead of focusing on more important strategic discussions.

Another general observation from Capability Reviews relating to performance and accountability is the upward elevation of decision-making in some agencies. This is attributed to a number of factors including a lack of clarity in strategic direction, reluctance by senior officers to delegate decision-making and an absence of a defined risk appetite. Capability Reviews have noted that this trend has a negative impact on agency performance in that internal expertise is not fully harnessed and opportunities to develop junior employees are reduced, leading potentially to lower levels of employee morale and engagement.

The extent to which decision-making authority is centralised or decentralised within an agency depends on organisational factors such as its function, geographic spread and the extent to which decision-making information is made available. It is also influenced by workforce factors such as the level of managerial experience in the agency and the degree of autonomy afforded to employees to make decisions. The centralisation or de-centralisation of decision-making varies from agency to agency. The right balance for each agency is that which contributes most to organisational productivity through efficient and effective decision-making.

In 2014, the APS Employee Census (employee census) asked two questions that sought to provide a perspective on decision making in the APS (whether the work and decision-making authority provided to the employee was appropriate for their classification). The employee census also asked employees to indicate the extent to which they have a choice in deciding how they do their work, in other words, the autonomy they have in their jobs.

The following analysis focuses on Executive Level (EL) 1 and 2 and Senior Executive Service (SES) Band 1 employees. Given their middle management role, these classifications are most likely to experience the effects of increased centralisation in decision making in agencies. This may be experienced as not working at a level appropriate to their classification, perceiving the decision-making authority held is not appropriate to their classification or having less control over how they do their work.

Table 9.1 shows that the majority of employees at these three classification levels believe the work they are given is appropriate to their classification.

Table 9.1. Employee perceptions of the appropriateness of the level of work they are given, 2014
Classification Above classification (%) Appropriate for classification (%) Below classification (%)
Source: Employee census
EL 1 9 83 8
EL 2 6 88 6
SES Band 1 4 92 4

Similarly, the majority of employees at these classifications believe the decision-making authority they exercise is appropriate to their classification. A substantial proportion of EL 2 employees (25%), however, believe that the decision-making authority they hold is below their classification. This may be an indication of the upward elevation of decision-making in agencies observed in the Capability Reviews.

Table 9.2. Employee perceptions of the appropriateness of their decision-making authority, 2014
Classification Above classification (%) Appropriate for classification (%) Below classification (%)
Source: Employee census
EL 1 6 72 23
EL 2 4 71 25
SES Band 1 4 79 18

Examining this data by agency functional cluster demonstrates that EL 2 employees in larger operational agencies were the most likely to indicate their decision-making authority was below their classification level (larger operational 29%, policy 24%, specialist, regulatory and smaller operational 22%). This pattern is slightly different for SES employees, with SES employees from policy and regulatory agencies the most likely to report their decision-making authority was below their classification level (policy and regulatory 18%, smaller operation 15%, and specialist and larger operational 14%).

Similarly, Canberra-based EL 2 employees were slightly more likely than EL 2 employees from other states and territories to report their decision-making authority was below their classification level (27% compared to 25%). Canberra-based SES employees were also more likely than their state and territory counterparts to report their decision-making authority was below their classification level (17% compared to 14%).

Figure 9.1 shows a potential effect of agency size on employee perceptions of reduced decision-making authority. One-quarter of EL 1 employees in small agencies (agencies with 250 or less APS employees) reported their decision-making authority was below their classification level. This fell to 22% for larger agencies. Alternatively, 13% of SES Band 1 officers in small agencies felt their decision-making authority was below their classification level, increasing to 19% in large agencies. More than one-quarter of EL 2 employees in medium and large agencies indicated their decision-making authority was below their classification level.

Figure 9.1. Employee perceptions of the appropriateness of their decision-making authority by agency size, 2014

Source: Employee census

The extent to which employees consider they have choice in how to do their work may also provide an insight into the upward elevation of decision-making in APS agencies. Overall, employee perceptions of whether they have choice in the way they do their work is substantially more positive in small agencies. For example, 68% of APS 1–6 employees in small agencies indicated they often or always had a choice in how they do their work compared with 53% of APS 1–6 employees in large agencies.

Figure 9.2 shows the extent to which EL 1, EL 2 and SES Band 1 employees believe they have choice in how they do their work increases with classification. When considered across agency size, employees from small agencies were more likely to agree they had a choice in deciding how to do their work than employees from large or medium agencies. Notably, only 66% of EL 1 employees in large agencies indicated they had a choice in deciding how they do their work.

Figure 9.2. Employee perceptions of their work autonomy by agency size, 2014

Source: Employee census

Overall, the Capability Reviews identified an upward elevation of decision-making in a number of agencies. Analysis of data from the employee census shows that most employees consider they are given work appropriate to their classification, they exercise an appropriate level of decision-making authority and they agree they often or always have a choice in how their work is done. However, these results vary. The larger the agency the less positive employee perceptions are of these work characteristics. In relation to decision-making particularly, more than 25% of EL 1 employees in medium and large agencies did not believe the level of their authority matched their classification. Furthermore, employee perceptions may reflect a ‘cultural norm’ that may differ from an independent assessment such as through the Capability Review process or application of APS work-level standards.

APS work-level standards

Work-level standards underpin high performance and accountability in the APS by describing what is expected of individuals at each classification level. They are a practical tool helping agencies to make decisions on the assignment of work and the profile of their workforce.

Since 2012, agencies have been required to apply work-level standards issued by the Commissioner for SES classifications. In 2013, the Commissioner released a set of APS work-level standards for APS 1–6 and EL classifications, and agencies are expected to apply these before the end of the calendar year. Establishing one set of work-level standards will achieve greater consistency in classification decisions across the APS and provide a more uniform understanding of an individual's roles and responsibilities.

Work-level standards determine requirements for each classification in the context of, among other things, leadership and decision-making, independence and accountability, and the exercise of judgement. As an example, employees at EL 2 classifications are expected to exercise a significant degree of independence and perform an important leadership role. They are responsible for the management of workgroups, including the performance management and talent development of employees under their direction. They are also responsible for influencing and developing strategy, policies, and operational practices in their agency, and providing a high level of advice to senior management and Ministers on matters within their area of expertise or responsibility. The APS work-level standards also require EL 2 employees to understand the wider political and community context in which their agency operates, be an advocate for the agency's position, and identify risks and solve problems associated with highly sensitive or complex issues and projects.

While work-level standards articulate what is expected of APS employees, to perform at their best, individuals also need to operate in an environment that focuses on results and values risk management.

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2 Australian Public Service Commission 2013, ‘Chapter 10 Organisational capability’, State of the Service Report 2012–13, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018