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Modern organisations recognise the importance of their people to the achievement of business outcomes. Recent research across a range of private and public sector organisations indicates that successful ones invest in talent management as a key business strategy so the right people are ready for critical roles.

The main driver for talent management in the public sector is to deliver better public value for government and citizens. In recent years the APS has evolved its talent management approach to ensure it has people with the vision, capability and diverse perspectives to lead the service.

There is a risk that APS talent management is seen as exclusive. This is not the case. All employees provide a valuable contribution in delivering for government and citizens. It is important that all employees be supported to operate to their full potential, with opportunities to develop and grow, including through high-quality learning and development. Harnessing the full potential of individuals should contribute to a more productive APS.

At the same time, there is a growing recognition of the need to identify employees with the potential to take on larger and more complex jobs (high-potential employees), and through targeted career development, improve their readiness for critical APS roles. Taking a systematic approach to building the depth, breadth and capability of high-potential employees is a long-term investment in the institutional strength of the APS.

The challenge for the APS is to be really serious about talent management. Recognise the value of your people, what they will bring into your organisation and the future they give us.

Ann Sherry AO, Chairman, Carnival Australia81

Figure 58: Talent Management System


Talent management in the APS

The Secretaries Board, as stewards of the APS, has engaged with efforts to implement talent and has started developing talent management for senior offices with oversight from a group of secretaries, the Secretaries Talent Council. The Council, reporting to the Board, has led a process to design and test talent management for the most senior APS roles. The design is built on the work of a group of deputy secretaries who initiated a cross-APS talent process for SES Band 1s in 2015.

In December 2017, following the Talent Council’s successful pilot process with a small group of high-performing Band 3s, the Secretaries Board endorsed an APS approach to talent management. This approach is based on an agreed set of principles and includes:

  • SES talent being managed at a cross-APS level to promote ‘one APS’ senior leadership and facilitate career mobility as necessary.
  • Below the SES, talent processes being managed by individual departments and agencies, under the ownership and guidance of agency executive boards.



Talent management at SES level

Talent management at SES level is overseen by two talent councils. The Secretaries Talent Council focuses on high-performing SES Band 3s with potential for Secretary or Agency Head roles, or more complex Band 3 roles. The Deputy Secretaries Talent Council considers SES Band 1 and 2 employees with the potential for SES Band 3 roles.

To date, the Talent Councils have managed five talent assessment and development planning processes, involving 98 high-performing SES. Two processes are underway, with plans for more assessment rounds by the end of 2019. The intention is to embed SES talent management by 2020, aligning it with annual SES performance cycles.

The results from talent processes are providing fresh insights into the senior APS leadership group, including what drives them to contribute for the public good. General themes include:

  • The SES participating in talent processes are intelligent, resilient and courageous, and benchmark well compared to public and private sector counterparts.
  • Most SES have excelled in demanding roles, often through disruptive and changing circumstances. They have the ability to navigate a unique APS environment, with a complex set of objectives, issues and multi-stakeholder environments.
  • The drive to deliver consistently rates as the strongest leadership capability. Collaborative and enabling capabilities appear to be less well developed, as is self-awareness.
  • Motivations and aspirations are diverse, underpinned by a strong notion of ‘service to others’ and making a difference for the nation. The sense of purpose is palpable.
  • Most have lacked formal career planning and constructive feedback over their career in the APS. This may be contributing to lower self-awareness and enabling capability.

Some themes are also emerging about APS cultural settings. These have broader implications for the capability and performance of the service:

  • The diversity of SES talent management participants in terms of their cultural and professional backgrounds is limited. Such homogeneity may mean less diversity in thinking and fewer challenges to existing ideas. This is a concern. The best leadership teams have a mix of people with different life experiences, who bring many insights to the consideration of issues.
  • SES appear to have little systematic career management and development. Many talented participants describe themselves as self-taught leaders with little formal leadership development, and little supportive feedback from managers. This aligns with perceptions from the 2018 APS employee census. There is a question about whether this has impacted on individuals being able to realise their full potential.
  • The low mobility rates observed across the APS are reflected in the career histories of some talent management participants. In particular, at the SES Band 1 classification, many participants have quite narrow experience, having worked in a limited number of agencies or in similar types of roles for most of their careers. Individuals most often require experience-based development (that is, role moves) to improve depth and breadth of capability.

As an outcome of its work, the Deputy Secretaries Talent Council has seen high mobility rates and merit-based promotions from within the talent pool. As at 30 June 2018, more than half of talent pool members had broadened their experience by moving to a new agency.

Feedback from talent pool members is that being ‘noticed’ and given a ‘nudge’ has made a significant impact to the way they view their career development. Many have said they would not have considered moves or taken on experiences outside their comfort zone without the focus from the Talent Council. This highlights the importance of career conversations, and of senior level sponsorship in encouraging high-potential individuals and their agencies to ‘loosen their grip’, allowing for more career movement.

Talent management in agencies

The Secretaries Board agreed that talent processes below SES level would best be managed within agencies, under the guidance of an agency’s Executive Board. An agency’s Executive Board is likely to have closer insight into talent at these levels, with capacity to support development and career moves. As they implement talent management processes appropriate to their needs, agencies can draw on central support, guidance and tools.

Talent management approaches for non-SES employees vary by agency. In the 2018 APS agency survey, just over one-quarter of agencies reported having a formal talent management strategy in place, while 58 per cent reported having a governance body that oversees employee development. This suggests that while conversations about talent are happening, the process underpinning the work may be less formal.

Eleven agencies had talent management strategies dedicated to developing leadership capacity and capability. These strategies focused on identifying and building high-potential employees for future leadership roles.

Eight agencies described their talent management strategy as concentrating on the identification and development of high-potential employees. These strategies generally incorporated a framework or similar tool to identify high-potential employees, followed by skills and career development programs for identified employees. As a result, agencies were able to fill critical roles in response to business needs and ensure continuity and stability across the organisation.

Agencies reported that talent pools were the most common mechanism used to support their talent management strategies. By establishing pools, agencies reported being able to develop and deploy people with the right mix of skills and experience to fill more complex roles. For this reason, strategies were widely linked to succession planning and equipping the organisation to respond to changing needs and priorities.

Finally, agencies identified their most common challenges in implementing talent management. The three most common challenges were:

  1. capability to implement a talent strategy
  2. capacity to implement talent management
  3. a strategy in place to guide implementation.

As talent management matures in agencies, there is an opportunity to strengthen the link between strategic intent and practical implementation.

Talent management in the future

APS talent management will continue to evolve as more is learned about how it best delivers value in a changing APS environment. The APS Reform Committee of the Secretaries Board will explore ways to strengthen the approach as part of developing a whole-of-government workforce strategy. A fit-for-purpose APS for the future is likely to require a more integrated talent management approach. Questions to be considered include:

  • How can the APS attract the talented people it needs for key leadership and technical positions? How can it better support those people in their transition to the APS?
  • How does the APS ensure greater diversity in its talent pipeline, for example through building the diversity of feeder groups to leadership roles, or recruiting laterally?
  • How can the potential of employees be identified at an earlier career stage and nurtured more purposefully over a career?
  • What development approach would best support career-long learning for all, as well as providing accelerated development of high-potential employees?
  • How can career moves be more easily facilitated for high-potential employees?
  • What mechanisms could the APS adopt to retain talent?
  • How can talent be deployed across the APS to fill critical job roles?
  • What will succession management look like in the APS of the future?

81 IPAA, Helen Williams oration, 23 August 2018.

82 The APS framework for identifying high potential includes: ability (cognitive capacity, emotional intelligence, learning agility and propensity to lead); aspiration for a bigger, more complex role; and engagement with the purpose and values of the APS. This framework was developed after a review of 150 papers and models for predicting potential used across the world.

Last reviewed: 
30 November 2018