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A fit-for-purpose APS needs an engaged and highly capable workforce that is able to serve government and citizens into the future. While the future is opaque, some trends are likely to impact on the capabilities required by the APS. These include globalisation, demographic change, technological change, resource challenges and workforce changes.

The APS is grappling with building and maintaining the capability needed to respond to increasingly complex challenges. Two themes emerge as the APS looks to the future:

  1. The ability to quickly re-configure around a problem will be crucial in managing complexity. Adaptability and agility will be the norm, with the need to build new capabilities rapidly, and bring together skills and resources in new ways.
  2. The need for the APS to maintain the continuity and stability that government and citizens expect. There will continue to be a need for professional public service skills, including deep public policy and implementation expertise. Employees will need to know how to operate within the APS framework of values and integrity. Accountability to government and citizens will remain central to a trusted and high-performing institution.

Given the breadth of APS operations, agency-specific knowledge and skills are likely to continue to be important for delivering outcomes for government and citizens. Deep expertise will remain crucial to APS performance particularly in specialised agencies. This deep, technical expertise cannot be undervalued.

As managers and as future leaders, we have to spend, I think quite rightly, a significant amount of time thinking about how we prepare our workforce for the capabilities and skills they need for the future. Optimising the collective ability to deliver for the government and for the people of Australia, and that’s an immense challenge for all of us.

Chris Moraitis PSM, Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department63

Changes in the way work is performed will also have an impact on building capability. The likely shift to a more mobile APS workforce will require the APS to find ways of developing and maintaining skills throughout more fluid careers. The impacts of technology such as automation and artificial intelligence will require re-training employees as technology becomes even more integrated into their daily lives and work.

As the APS engages with future trends, including technological advancements, new capabilities are emerging as necessary for the functioning of the modern organisation and workplace. In the APS, the current focus is on digital and data capability, systems thinking, adaptation and change, and agile design. Operating globally will mean capabilities such as cross-cultural competence and intercultural communication will be increasingly necessary, as will a global mindset.

An early theme emerging from the Independent Review of the APS is the need to build, maintain and renew skills and capabilities in employees. Numerous submissions have highlighted the need to strengthen relationships with other jurisdictions and sectors to better use external capabilities.64 The need to improve digital capability is a recurring theme, including in the submission from the Office of Innovation and Science65, which reports that ‘…the APS needs new mindsets, skills and capabilities to deliver innovative digital services’.

In the 2018 APS agency survey, the top three learning and development needs for agencies over the next 12 to 24 months were:

  1. improving digital literacy
  2. developing leadership and management capability
  3. improving core skills in areas such as policy development and project management.

Investing in capability

… we all know how important on-the-job coaching and mentoring are—passing on traditions, insight and guidance is like a capability multiplier.

I sometimes think about my own public service career as a lifelong apprenticeship: I’ve never stopped learning from people around me and hope the Australian Public Service can deliver this for all its members.

Dr Martin Parkinson AC PSM, Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet 66

The development of capability occurs across a career through experiences, job roles, manager support, mentoring, coaching, and formal learning and development programs.

The APSC plays a role in fostering leadership and high-quality development in the APS. This is provided through guidance, advice and some program delivery, however responsibility for capability development is largely devolved to agencies. For this reason, it is difficult to accurately assess total APS expenditure on formal learning and development.

Responses to the 2018 APS employee census showed that around 70 per cent of employees report being able to access learning and development solutions to meet their needs. A similar proportion agreed that their supervisor provides time for them to attend learning programs and supports them to apply their learnings back in the workplace.

There are areas for improvement regarding supervisor support for capability development. Just under 60 per cent of employees agreed their immediate supervisor coaches them as part of their development and/or discusses their career plans. Ensuring the optimum level of investment in the development of employees will contribute to a more capable workforce, better able to provide government services. These results are discussed in more detail in Chapter 8, Mobilising capability.

Professional public service

Professional public service skills underpin the ability of the public service to serve citizens through the government of the day. These skills go to the heart of what a public service does—policy, service delivery, regulation, implementation design, program management, and evaluation.

Recent work to analyse the capabilities that underpin the professionalism of APS employees identified six core enabling capabilities. These include working with government, working with people, effective communication, APS decision making, and management. The sixth capability, data and digital, is increasingly critical for all public servants.

While many of these skills have traditionally been learned on the job, there is a role for more structured learning and development to accelerate their acquisition and ensure consistency and fitness for purpose.

A case study highlighting recent evaluation results for ‘working with government’ and ‘APS decision-making’ capabilities demonstrates the extent to which ongoing attention to development is needed. Workforce renewal, including recruitment through entry-level programs and lateral recruits, means developing professional public service skills is an ongoing task.

Building digital capability

Rapidly changing technology is transforming the economy and significantly altering the way the community interacts with government. A breadth and depth of digital capability is crucial for a public sector that is fit-for-purpose now and into the future.

Connectivity and the growth of networks are outpacing national laws, rules, regulations and policies—and indeed the technical comprehension of many regulators and administrators.

Michael Pezzullo, Secretary, Department of Home Affairs67

For the first time in 2018, the APS employee census captured the proportion of employees working in digital roles. While just 1 per cent of respondents indicated that digital best described the work they do, this percentage is expected to increase. Agencies are reporting a need to develop digital skills. They are also reporting skill shortages in some digital roles.

In the 2018 APS employee census, 50 per cent of respondents agreed that SES in their agency support and provide opportunities for new ways of working in a digital environment.

In the 2017–18 Budget, the Government announced funded work by the APSC and the Digital Transformation Agency to build APS digital capability.

As part of this, Learning Design Standards have been developed for various specialist digital capabilities. These standards outline the knowledge and skills required to be competent in a digital role, with recommended training content. One standard focuses on the foundational level of digital capability required for all employees. The standards are being progressively placed on the Digital Training Marketplace, where they can be used by agencies and training organisations to deliver training in the digital skills the APS needs.

The Learning Design Standards are supporting the design of digital career pathways. This is important for attracting and retaining the digital talent needed to transform the way government does business. The expansion of entry-level programs, such as the ICT apprenticeship program, are also important for this, as is mentoring and access to professional networks.

It is also critical that SES understand and support digital ways of working. Recognising the need for this group to value and champion digital ways of working, a program has been designed to enhance SES digital leadership skills.

Initial results of the digital leadership program are positive. Data shows significant shifts in capability for all areas of learning, with an average increase of 56 percentage points. The three program areas showing the strongest capability growth were ‘Principles of digital leadership’, ‘Applying digital strategies, methodologies and tools’ and ‘Systems-thinking to meet digital transformation challenges’. Program participants reported strong commitment to implementing program learning, such as creating a digital culture in their agencies, applying digital methodologies and continuing their digital leadership development.

Data capability

Government has provided funding across the APS through the Modernisation Fund to improve the use and management of data. Better data analytics will improve policy and program implementation and expenditure. It will also lead to better design and delivery of services.

The 2018 APS agency survey indicated that a priority area for capability development is data analysis and reporting. Most agencies (65 per cent) cited skills and capability as a barrier impeding data use.

To further develop data literacy capability, most APS agencies have taken a range of actions (Figure 46). Most have ensured that employees can access on-the-job training and development opportunities (79 per cent) or formal training (71 per cent). Just under half (46 per cent) facilitated access to an internal data champion.

Figure 46: Proportion of APS agencies undertaking actions to improve data literacy capability

Source: 2018 APS agency survey

To support agency efforts, a data literacy program was designed and released in 2018, a partnership between the APSC and the ABS. The program includes five eLearning modules, focused on using data, undertaking research, using statistics, visualising information and providing evidence to decision makers. In addition, a ‘Using statistics’ workshop was piloted twice in mid-2018 before general release.

Pilot participants reported an average of 37 percentage point increase in capability. Most noteworthy was the reported improvement in ‘basic statistical terms and concepts’ and ‘selecting the most appropriate measure for a purpose’. In a recent interview, one participant reported that program impacts went beyond increased knowledge and competency, with benefits including improved reporting and credibility with stakeholders.

Strategic policy skills

The APS Policy Capability Project is an initiative of the APS Reform Committee of the Secretaries Board and is linked to the Roadmap. This cross-agency project aims to align, leverage and support efforts to lift policy capability across the APS. It is a response to the rapidly changing policy environment, concern about potential capability gaps and the expanding policy toolkit. The project is taking a collaborative and system-wide approach, as long-term efforts to lift capability need to be owned by practitioners and reflect the practical reality of policy work. While still in its early phases, the project will identify practical actions and engage with APS policy professionals to co-design a longer-term approach to improve capability.

Attraction and retention

The APSC’s Contestability Review ‘Unlocking Potential’, outlined the importance of having appropriate mechanisms in place to attract, recruit and retain talented people with the skills and capabilities the APS needs.68

The Review found that unnecessarily complex and lengthy recruitment processes had developed over time. To help agencies better understand their obligations under the Public Service Act, and to improve transparency for employees and the wider community, the APSC has been working towards a streamlined approach. Agencies are encouraged to develop methods of attracting and selecting the right person for the right job in a way that continues to support the APS Employment Principles by being open, fair and competitive.

Some innovative recruitment and selection methods being used by agencies include:

  • one-page pitch without requiring responses to selection criteria
  • video applications
  • informal face-to-face interviews
  • Skype interviews
  • online psychometric assessment at various stages of the process.

The APSC has reviewed its online material on recruitment and introduced the Management Essentials69 series. Agencies are being consulted to better understand and share innovative recruitment practices. The APSC is reviewing changes made to the Commissioner’s Directions in 2016, in particular to understand the impact of enabling agencies to share merit lists for similar vacancies.

The 2018 APS employee census sought views from employees about why they joined the APS. Figure 46 shows that more than half of respondents sought employment for security, stability and employment conditions. Newer employees were more likely to be attracted to employment conditions (Figure 47). Remuneration is a lower motivating influence on employees to join the APS.

Figure 47: Most common reasons why employees joined the APS

Source: 2018 APS employee census

Over time, reasons for joining the APS have shifted. Twenty years ago people remember joining because the APS offered security and stability. While this is still a main reason for starting an APS career, results from the 2018 APS employee census indicate a far greater proportion of new employees are attracted by employment conditions and work that aligns with their skills and experience. In addition, more new starters are attracted by the long-term career progression being offered by the APS.

Entry-level programs

Attracting high-calibre candidates and investing in their foundational development is an important aspect of building APS capability. One way of achieving this is through strong entry-level programs.

Part of the APS Workforce Strategy, under the Roadmap, commits to ensuring new entrants are adequately developed to provide a strong foundation for their career. This includes through improved entry-level programs. Effective induction, on-the-job learning, support from teams and managers, and specific training can all bring new entrants up to speed quickly and build their capability.

This will be increasingly important as the APS becomes more permeable and people join the APS, or move in and out of it, throughout their career.

APS Induction Portal

A pilot of an APS Induction Portal began in 2018, with 71 agencies now participating. The portal is designed to support employees as they begin their careers in the APS. In addition to general guidance material, the portal provides eLearning modules on relevant topics for new employees. Developed in partnership with subject-matter experts across the APS, the modules cover:

  • working in the APS
  • structure of government and role of Parliament
  • departments and agencies
  • APS frameworks
  • information management
  • fraud awareness
  • integrity and values
  • money and resources
  • work, health and safety
  • security
  • risk
  • diversity.

Resources and reference materials are provided to managers, who have an important role in inducting new employees into the APS.

Agencies will complement learning from the portal with agency-specific induction processes.

The pilot will test the value of a cross-APS approach to induction across the four objectives of an effective induction process:

  1. increasing the rate at which a new employee becomes fully productive
  2. ensuring the behaviour of a new employees aligns with the APS Values and culture
  3. helping a new employee learn how to work with APS frameworks
  4. fully engaging a new employee in the work of the APS, capitalising on their individual talents and strengths.


Half of respondents to the 2018 APS employee census reported they had applied for a job over the previous 12 months. Employees were most likely to apply for a job within their own agency (37 per cent), ahead of another APS agency (18 per cent) and/or outside of the APS (12 per cent).

Figure 48 reflects employee thoughts about tenure in their agency. Half of respondents said they wanted to stay working for their agency for at least the next three years. Another 24 per cent said they want to work for their agency for the next one to two years.

Figure 48: APS employee intention to remain with their agency

Source: 2018 APS employee census

The top reasons employees cited for wanting to leave their agency in the next 12 months were:

  1. lack of career opportunities within the agency (26 per cent)
  2. a desire to try a different type of work or seek a career change (14 per cent).

Overall, 47 per cent of respondents to the 2018 APS employee census indicated they would consider leaving the APS for other job opportunities. Just more than a quarter (26 per cent) said that they would not.

Many reasons exist for preventing respondents from seeking job opportunities outside the APS.70 The main ones included:

  • current pay and conditions would not be met (38 per cent)
  • the impact on their superannuation (36 per cent)
  • values being more aligned with their APS work (22 per cent)
  • nearing retirement (12 per cent).

While younger respondents were more likely to consider leaving the APS for other job opportunities, the possibility that their current pay and conditions would not be met would prevent them from doing so. Respondents 50 years of age and older reported that the impact on superannuation, or the fact that they were nearing retirement, would prevent them from doing so.

63 IPAA Secretary Series, 21 February 2018.

64 Submissions include from the Building Council of Australia, ANZ bank, QBE Insurance, Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, and the Australian Information Industry Association, https://contribute.apsreview.gov.au/submissions

65 Part of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

66 The Mandarin, ‘Brexit, multilateralism and how the media impacts policy work’, 19 October 2018, <https://www.themandarin.com.au/100211-dr-martin-parkinson-brexit-multilateralism-and-how-the-media-impacts-policy-work/>

67 Speech to the fourth Australian Security Summit, 17 July 2018, Canberra.

68 APSC (2015), Unlocking potential: If not us, who? If not now, when?, Australian Public Service Workforce Management Contestability Review, Canberra.

69 https://www.apsc.gov.au/management-essentials (accessed 16 October 2018).

70 Respondents could select more than one reason.

Last reviewed: 
30 November 2018