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Senior leadership in the APS

The importance of senior leaders in the APS has been well documented in previous State of the Service reports. Leaders are central in establishing both the strategic direction of the APS as a whole and the strategic direction of their agencies. Leaders are also essential in mobilising the change necessary to achieve the best results. Critically, leaders have a stewardship role. They look beyond the immediate and beyond their own organisations to build the long-term capability of the APS as an institution.

Senior leadership collaboration

Sophisticated leadership practice is a key requirement for organisations seeking to transform or make progress on complex challenges. Highly effective leadership is an enabler of genuine collaboration—testing assumptions and values, drawing out competing perspectives and helping groups see one another as problem-solving resources.

The Secretaries Board and APS 200 Group were created to support the strengthening of leadership collaboration across the APS; in particular with APS reform. The Secretaries Board sets the overall direction for the APS, drives collaboration, prioritises collective resource use to achieve cross-boundary solutions and gives priority to the creation and maintenance of a One-APS shared culture. The APS 200 Group brings together Secretaries, Deputy Secretaries and their equivalents to collaborate on crosscutting issues and undertake strategic projects as cross-portfolio teams.

The case study on the establishment of the APS Diversity Council demonstrates how collaborative leadership is being harnessed to address challenging issues across the APS. Detailed diversity data is included at Appendix 5.

Across the APS: The Diversity Council

The APS Diversity Council (the Council) was established in 2012 to provide visible, strategic leadership on diversity issues and to motivate APS agencies to improve outcomes for employees in diversity groups. The Council is chaired by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Australian Public Service Commissioner serves as deputy chair. Council membership includes nine other Secretaries and agency heads.

The Council's priority since 2012 has been to improve employment outcomes for Indigenous Australians and people with disability. Despite the commitment of the APS to build a workforce that is representative of the broader Australian community, these two groups continue to be under-represented in the APS.

The Council has made diversity issues more visible by championing new employment measures, leading improvements across the APS and encouraging APS agencies to share and promulgate good practice. Key achievements include:

  • established Indigenous and Disability Champions Networks to act as visible and influential links between the Council and employee networks and forums
  • secured funding for APS-wide Indigenous employment programmes (‘Pathways’)
  • introduced APS-wide entry and exit surveys and a comprehensive research programme to inform understanding of why employees in some diversity groups leave APS employment at higher-than-average rates and develop more effective retention strategies
  • established a set of principles to better support reasonable adjustment for people with disability
  • endorsed a set of recommendations around Information and Communications Technology (ICT) accessibility to improve access to assistive technology
  • re-established the APS Diversity Awards to motivate agencies to develop innovative and creative diversity programmes and celebrate and share successes.

The Council's 2014–15 agenda aims to develop more creative diversity strategies and accelerate actions across the APS to improve employment experiences, recruitment and retention of Indigenous Australians and people with disability.

Senior leadership collaboration within agencies

Capability Reviews3 have also highlighted the need to build broader, united, collaborative leadership within agencies. A more unified senior cohort, ‘speaking with one voice’, with clarity of vision and with a strategy to deliver on agency objectives and priorities, will assist to motivate employees, manage limited resources more effectively and efficiently, and strengthen external stakeholder relationships.

The importance of improved collaboration among the senior APS cohort is evident in the frequency with which the issues have been raised in Capability Review reports. These three quotes from published reports provide a sense of the findings agencies have been asked to consider and address through the Capability Review process.

Capability Reviews: Collaborative leadership

‘It is clear to the review team that group identity and a siloed approach dominates at the group manager level. Executive Board members—along with the leadership generally—need to take steps to ensure greater collegiality and collaboration across group boundaries.’

‘The Senior Executive Service (SES) work well together as a team on policy matters. However, there is a need for this group to take a greater leadership role on broader organisational matters.’

‘Staff are highly committed and a major asset to the organisation. All SES officers need to explicitly act as a team and as an exemplar to staff of a leadership group working to achieve a single vision.’

Broadly, the barriers to collaborative leadership identified through the Capability Reviews include a lack of understanding of agency vision, immediate and particular demands of day-to-day management, limited opportunities to build relationships in larger agencies, and performance management regimes that have been task-oriented and are only now beginning to consider behaviours. In response to the findings of Capability Reviews, departments are focusing on enhancing leadership skills through increased use of the services offered by the Australian Public Service Commission (the Commission) as well as other training courses, mentoring programmes and on-the-job experience.

Australian Customs and Border Protection Service: Strengthening leadership capability and culture

The ability of senior executives to engage with staff and leadership at all levels was identified as an area for improvement in the 2013 Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) Capability Review.

The ACBPS has also started a major programme of reform to build new border control capabilities, against a backdrop of increasingly sophisticated serious and organised crime, growing trade and travel volumes, and complex cargo supply chains and passenger travel routes. Strengthened leadership capability was both an objective and an enabler of this reform.

While the ACBPS will cease to exist as it consolidates with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection by 1 July 2015, programme implementation will continue and will form the capability platform of future portfolio arrangements. This will include establishing an operationally focused Australian Border Force.

Initiatives undertaken to improve leadership capability and culture within the ACBPS include:

  • expansion of invitations to leadership forums to include the Executive Level 2 cohort
  • introduction of the Core Service Behaviours, developed as a mechanism to operationalise the APS Values
  • development of A Professional Service: my responsibilities to guide employees in modelling the Core Service Behaviours and acting professionally
  • introduction of a new operating model to improve agility and accountability
  • establishment of the new Chief Executive Officer Awards and Recognition Framework, recognising outstanding leadership qualities of officers
  • release of the ACBPS Giving and Receiving Feedback course, designed to develop organisational capability regarding effective communication and understanding of the Core Service Behaviours influence on performance; 899 employees completed the course during the initial training sessions held between April and June 2014
  • empower employees to manage their own careers through the introduction of formalised career plans; 4,750 ACBPS officers have such plans in place.

A dedicated approach to leadership is driving reform and creating an environment where senior leaders are ‘leading by example’. Furthermore, Senior Executive Service (SES) leadership behaviours, responsibilities and accountabilities are clearly defined with leadership charters developed for all SES employees.

Senior women in the APS

Overall, the majority of the APS workforce is female (58.0% of the total workforce and 57.6% of the ongoing workforce). As noted in previous State of the Service reports, however, this representation declines the more senior the position. As at 30 June 2014, women comprised 39.6% of the total Senior Executive Service (SES) (up from 39.2% in 2013) and 40.1% of ongoing SES (up from 39.7% in 2013).

Similar to 20134, agencies were asked in 2014 to report on the representation of women in the most senior ranks of their organisation in a manner similar to that recommended to Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) 200 companies by Male Champions of Change.5 Rather than reporting by classification level, such as SES Band 2 or SES Band 3, agencies reported by level of hierarchy:

  • agency head
  • direct report to agency head (AH -1)
  • direct report to those who direct report to the agency head (AH -2).

Of the 98 agencies with an independent agency head, 29% were women, up from 27% last year.6 This compares favourably with the percentage of women on ASX 200 boards (18.3% as at 31 August 2014).7

Considering agency size, small and medium agencies were slightly more likely to have a female agency head (30% and 29% respectively), than large agencies (26%). Large agencies, however, increased their representation of women in their senior leadership groups at agency head and AH -1 levels, with a notable increase in the proportion of female agency heads of large agencies. Table 5.1 shows this data for all three leadership groups by agency size, for 2012–13 and 2013–14.

Table 5.1. Women in leadership by agency size, 2012–13 and 2013–14
Agency size Agency head (% female) AH –1 (% female) AH –2 (% female)
2013 2014 2013 2014 2013 2014
Source: Agency survey
Small 28 30 42 38 57 49
Medium 30 29 43 41 51 50
Large 18 26 30 35 42 41

This data is included by agency in Appendix 5 and, similar to last year, shows female agency heads were more likely than their male counterparts to have direct reports that were also women. That is, of the 29 female agency heads, 44% of their direct reports were women (compared to 45% in 2013). The proportion of women reporting directly to male agency heads was 36% (compared to 37% in 2013).

Department of the Treasury: Women in leadership

Beginning in May 2011, the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) Executive Board considered the results of analysis of the recruitment, retention and progression of women in the department, including the results of widespread staff consultations. The work found that a range of subtle, cultural and behavioural issues were impeding women's progress in Treasury and that time and leadership committed to change were needed to tackle this. It was apparent that action on multiple fronts was needed, driven from the top.

The Treasury launched the Progressing Women initiative in early 2012, which includes:

  • developing a comprehensive suite of strategies aiming to build an inclusive culture and workplace for women and men, encourage greater diversity and ensure all employees of merit were given opportunity to progress
  • positioning Progressing Women as a mainstream business imperative
  • making the Secretary and Executive Board accountable for the initiative's success
  • establishing a formal Inclusive Workplace Committee comprising Treasury internal members and two non-APS members
  • adopting innovative approaches to flexible work, job design and work allocation
  • providing appropriate training and development, including on topics such as ‘unrecognised bias’
  • reviewing the performance management system
  • establishing and implementing key performance indicators; including a target of 35% female representation in the Treasury's Senior Executive Service (SES) by 2016 (with a longer-term target of 40%).

The Secretary has also played a key role in the Male Champions of Change group and has been a public advocate for organisational change across the economy. By raising public attention on women's success, the Secretary also communicated the cost of failure for the Treasury if it fails to deliver sustained change.

2014 progress updates

  • Periodic reporting by each of the Treasury's five groups has led to deeper, more mature analysis and open conversations (‘calling behaviour’) and shared accountability for outcomes across and within each group.
  • The ‘If not, why not’ flexible work policy was launched earlier in 2014.
  • The rollout of unrecognised bias training continued.
  • A cultural audit began in August 2014 to assess progress, including on removal of barriers to career progression of women in the department.
  • Changes to the Treasury's performance management system are underway to refresh the behaviours to reward and recognise.
  • Broader conversations about inclusiveness and diversity, beyond the lens of gender, are evolving.

Employee perceptions of senior leadership

Using the APS Employee Census (employee census), employee perceptions of their senior leaders can be tracked over time. Figure 5.1 shows three years of employee census data relating employee satisfaction with senior leader behaviours. While there remains room for improvement, results for 2014 show significant gains in some areas.

Figure 5.1. Employee perceptions of senior leader behaviours, 2012 to 2014

Source: Employee census

In previous State of the Service reports, the positive relationship between senior leadership behaviour and employee engagement was clearly demonstrated; in particular in relation to senior leader visibility and engaging with employees on future challenges.8 Given this relationship, the continuing increases in employee satisfaction with these aspects of senior leader behaviour are positive.

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3 Agency Capability Reviews are independent, forward-looking, whole-of-agency reviews that assess an agency's ability to meet future objectives and challenges.

4 Data in this section may differ slightly from that published in the State of the Service Report 2012–13 due to post publication data corrections.

5 The Male Champions of Change is a group of Australian Chief Executive Officers and chairpersons brought together by the Human Rights Commissioner to elevate the issue of women's representation in leadership to the national agenda.

6 In 2013, there were 101 agencies with an independent agency head.

7 Australian Institute of Company Directors 2014, Appointments to S&P/ASX 200 Boards, Statistics, Director Resource Centre, Australian Institute of Company Directors, viewed 2 October 2014, http://www.companydirectors.com.au.

8 See, for example, Australian Public Service Commission 2013, ‘Chapter 2 Leadership and culture’ in State of the Service Report 2012–13, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018