APS Commissioner, Peter Woolcott AO – Speech at the APS Wide Conference Sydney
Mr Peter Woolcott AO
Australian Public Service Commissioner
19 September 2019
Good morning and it’s a pleasure to be here.
Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we meet on today and pay my respects to elders both past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.
Welcome everyone, to the APS Wide National Conference. I am always pleased to be in Sydney and out of the Canberra bubble. I began my professional life here as a barrister and have constantly been drawn back in other roles.
When I spoke at last year’s APS Wide Conference, I had been Commissioner for some seven weeks. Much has happened in just one year.
We’ve had an election; we have a new Morrison Government and a new Governor-General; and the Thodey Review, the largest review of the Australian Public Service in 40 years, is nearing completion.
Today you will hear from leaders in the APS talking about the Government and the Australian people’s changing expectations of the public service. You will also hear from other speakers sharing their perspectives and talking about local challenges and initiatives.
It was Herodotus who said two and a half thousand years ago that you can never step in the same river twice - and that river has now become a torrent.
The pace and scale of change is unprecedented.
The acceleration of technology, our global inter-connectedness, and the changes in the way we receive our news and how we engage with one another - has profoundly altered the fabric of our community.
As we grapple with these changes to society, the public service must also tackle increasingly interconnected, complex policy problems and adapt to new priorities including digital transformation; growing demand for the rigorous evaluation of policies; security and privacy concerns and a renewed focus on person-centred service delivery.
The APS, like many institutions in Western Democracies, is under challenge. Never before have public expectations been higher and trust in shorter supply.
These high expectations are echoed by Prime Minister Morrison, who has sent a clear signal by taking on the responsibilities of the Minister for the Public Service and appointing Minister Hunt as the Minister assisting in this role.
In his recent address to the service the Prime Minster made clear his respect for the APS and its critical role in the delivery of policies for the benefit of the Australian people.
The Prime Minister also set a high bar for the public service outlining a set of six guide posts on how the public service can best support the Government to address the multiple challenges society faces.
He called for a public service that was much more outward facing with a ‘laser like’ focus on citizens that included providing quality policy advice that was actionable and shaped by a diversity of views including from public servants that had moved in and out of the sector.
With this focus on delivering outcomes the Prime Minister emphasised the importance of setting targets, measuring performance and understanding the impact we are having.
And importantly, he stressed the need for public servants to have a clear line of sight between what you are doing everyday through to the Australian public.
This strong commitment to delivery is manifested in the Prime Minister’s formation of Services Australia and in the creation of a dedicated Implementation Unit within the Prime Minister’s own department.
A public service that is focussed on the citizen is, of course, not new to us.
We know the APS is full of committed and talented people who joined to make a difference. The people of Australia is why we are here and why we do what we do.
Accountability to the Australian community and commitment to service that delivers the best results for the Australian people and the government is embodied in the APS Values.
What is different now is the speed with which issues move, the technological tools, including data, at our disposal and the expectations of people.
The Prime Minister has challenged the APS to demonstrate these values in a rapidly changing environment by working smarter and working more collaboratively to deliver outcomes on the ground that make a real difference to people’s lives.
The Prime Minister highlighted the strength of initiatives like Operation Sovereign Borders and the response to the North Queensland floods in working across bureaucratic boundaries and focusing on solutions.
City Deals are another example in recent years where the three levels of government have worked together across jurisdictions, across agencies, and with the community and private sector, to tackle issues and harness opportunities for growth in our cities.
Increasingly we need to work differently - we need to be less hierarchical and more team based; we need to be less siloed and more joined up; and we need to work better across jurisdictions.
Another change is that the APS is working in a much more contested environment for influence. This is the way of the world.
Good ideas and sound delivery approaches are not the monopoly of the public service. While we still have the authority that comes from the institution that is the APS, there is no room for nostalgia nor complacency.
Our advice has to be well argued and persuasive and open to challenge by political advisors, think tanks, lobby groups and NGOs. Similarly, the services we deliver ourselves need to be tested against credible alternatives.
It is important we get our capabilities right as it is the APS that brings the wider lens to any issues and ensures that the Government has all the relevant data and analysis that it needs to make a decision. To strengthen our effectiveness we must ensure that we are a public service that is capable, open, dynamic and flexible.
I will come to how we will do that.
The APS Review
The Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, led by David Thodey, is expected to be handed to the Government shortly. This is the first root and branch review of the APS since the Coombs Royal Commission some forty years ago.
It is likely to propose wide scale changes to the APS to ensure it is fit for the future. I expect it will focus on the need for more joined up, people facing, data enabled, capable and trusted public service able to deliver effectively in a radically new operating context.
The Thodey panel has put a great deal of work and widespread consultation into the Review and one part of its value has been in ensuring an important conversation about what we need to do to prepare for the future.
The Government will respond to the Review in the fullness of time.
What is already clear is that the necessary direction of travel is well understood by the APS leadership and is being pursued. Both the Secretaries Reform Committee and the APSC have been moving ahead with reform.
Some of the more sceptical among you will point to the numerous reviews of the public service over the last 15 years and question whether this will be any different.
You may be reminded of the advice by the Prince in Lampedusa’s The Leopard – ‘Change everything just a little as to keep everything exactly the same’
It is different this time - and different for a number of reasons. Firstly, you have strong direction from the Government with the PM’s sharp focus on implementation and the Australian people; second you have an APS leadership that is committed to reform and understands absolutely the importance of good governance and staying relevant; thirdly, the speed of technological and societal change is creating its own momentum; and finally, layered on top, are public expectations.
We need to position ourselves for the next quarter century and I would like to talk briefly about a few of the current areas of focus for the APS involving our culture, our capability and mobility.
First – Culture…
To build a trusted and effective APS, a foundational set of values and behaviours must underpin our culture.
A culture that reflects a professional public service and maintains a strong focus on integrity.
We need to demonstrate high levels of personal integrity while adhering to the APS Values and Code of Conduct. In an era of declining public trust operating ethically and transparently is taking on an even greater significance.
All of us, whether we work in the regulatory environment, service delivery, data management or policy, touch the lives of Australians through our work.
We each need to think through how our work improves the lives of Australians and collectively engage more effectively with the different parts of the public service and with citizens, the community and business.
For trust from the people stems in large part from the Government’s ability to deliver on its promises – and that is about implementation.
We also need a culture of collaboration across the APS and externally. The traditional approach to addressing multifaceted policy and service delivery issues usually prioritises information sharing and consultation, rather than collaboration. However, genuine collaboration- across agencies, with citizens, business and other levels of government will be transformative.
In building a high performance culture we also need to develop an APS that is willing to experiment with different ways of working and this will require a cultural and organisational shift. We are currently working in a much too hierarchical structure with rules that discourage innovation and risk. Being open and curious, and embedding a culture of continual learning will be important….along with investing in the capability of our people.
On the topic of capability, consecutive State of the Service Reports have highlighted that building capability for the future is a must for the public service.
The nature of work is changing and in this increasingly digital world, digital skills and data analysis have been highlighted by agencies as a priority area for capability development.
Add to this an aging population and younger generations entering the workforce means that we are seeing changes to the way people want to work, an increased importance on soft skills, STEM skills and a new approach to learning – in fact continuous learning.
The capabilities required to be an effective public servant are not static and we must continuously renew and refresh our ability to provide expert advice on policy and effective services to the public.
In this regard we have commenced work on an APS wide workforce strategy which will look at how we recruit, develop and deploy our people.
The APSC has set up a Taskforce which is working collaboratively with senior HR and business leaders across the APS to develop an evidence-based product for the strategy by December 2019. The team is in the Discovery stage, mapping out priority intervention areas, and what a successful delivery of the strategy would look like – that is its outcomes and benefits.
My colleague Helen Bull will talk to you more about the strategy build and evidence base. I am convinced that a clear strategic direction and integrated delivery of innovative workforce initiatives will help us achieve our 2030 vision of a high performing APS delivering for Australia now and into the future. And I am fully committed to championing the Workforce Strategy across the APS senior leadership cohort to build and maintain traction for this critical piece of work.
As you can see, building a high performing APS is very important to the Prime Minister, and to me in my role as the APS Commissioner. In this context, we
have also zeroed in on performance management. In July this year, I issued new APSC Directions in this area.
Performance management is about best practices that allow the APS to manage talent and in support of maintaining a high-performance culture.
It involves managers dedicating time to develop and mentor staff and teams. And it’s not just for managing under performance it is about proactively promoting high performance and recognising talent.
Agencies have had performance management systems in place for years but they have tended to focus on underperformance rather than career development or developing a pipeline of leaders.
Performance management needs to support meaningful career conversations that link to future career opportunities and learning and development requirements.
The revised Directions also make clear that the responsibilities for performance management are no longer limited to agency heads but extend to all supervisors and all employees.
The amendments are about achieving optimal performance across all agencies.
They also hold all APS employees accountable for upholding the APS employment principle that requires effective performance from every employee.
Now, several reviews of the APS over recent years have highlighted enduring capability gaps across many professional fields such as human resources, data analysis, IT, procurement and project management.
So another area of attention is setting out clear career paths in order to attract and develop specialist talent. And this has led to the work we are doing around establishing a formal professions model in the APS.
The aim is to lift in-house skills and expertise, improve capability and provide rewarding public service careers in particular for those with technical skills.
The Australian Public Service Commission has looked at what other governments overseas have learnt, such as in New Zealand, Singapore and the UK.
In the UK, for example, when you join the Civil Service, you become part of a profession. Your profession offers networking opportunities, career routes, training and development programmes.
A formalised professions model has the advantage of being able to help define and support career paths for both generalists and specialists, providing opportunities that value expertise and management capability.
It needs also be flexible, keeping in mind that what works for one profession may not work for another and there should be scope to work across different professions.
To do this we have to build career paths for our core professions that create a common understanding of the skills and experience needed at each level and the opportunity to gain these in a structured way.
We will be in a position at the end of October to announce the establishment of the first of the profession models relating to strategic human resources. This will include the announcement of a Head of Profession. It will provide a systematic service-wide approach to lifting people’s strategic HR capability and leveraging skills and capability to improve overall performance of the APS today and the future.
The Commission will then turn its attention to setting up professions models in other areas where there are clear critical needs, such as in the digital and data analytics streams.
Finally, let me turn to mobility. An enabler of continuously developing the APS workforce is to allow employees to move freely both within and throughout the system.
From our employment data we know that only 2.6 per cent of the APS moved to a different agency in 2018.
Our analysis shows that most movements between agencies are in Canberra, and most of these are to agencies focussed on developing policy.
Anecdotally, we know there is mobility within agencies, but it is more difficult to capture this data.
For the first time this year we used the APS Census to ask employees if they have taken an internal mobility opportunity. 16 per cent of respondents indicated they had.
Mobility in the public sector is important. The APS must be more permeable and mobile in order to foster diversity of thinking, the contestability of ideas and assist in capability development.
The ability to quickly re-configure ourselves around a problem is going to be crucial in managing complexity. We do this in a crisis and we do it well. It needs to be more commonplace and part of a cultural shift in the APS.
But we also need a balance. Too much or poorly targeted mobility can have an adverse impact. Government needs deep expertise from its public service. It is not mobility for mobilities sake - but the systems.
The traditional view of mobility within the APS has focused on individuals moving internally and across agency boundaries.
We are working with other APS agencies, the private sector and state and territory governments to broaden this view of mobility to include movement to and from the different tiers of government, the private sector and the not for profit sector, with a focus on the end results for citizens, communities and business.
In conclusion, all of you here today will play a critical part to changing the direction of the APS now and into the future.
There is work already underway on the challenges and opportunities before us. But there is much still to do as habits and cultures have become engrained.
Those challenges, of course, go well beyond technology. They go to how we manage complex and interconnected issues, how we practice statecraft and weave national solutions which cut across jurisdictions.
And they go to how we attract and manage talented people, and how we build career pathways and develop skills to advance the capability of the APS.
There is a saying that culture will eat strategy for breakfast every day. In this context our work to build a diverse APS that is outward looking, engaged and high-performing is critical if we are to ensure the good governance and prosperity of Australia.
All of us are custodians of this great institution, the heart of which is its people. As public servants it is up to us to do all that we can to make the APS a stronger institution.