What influential voices have to say about the APS review

Posted on November 19, 2018

The Australian Government has established an independent review to ensure the Australian Public Service (APS) is fit-for-purpose in the coming decades. The Chair of the APS review panel, David Thodey, has stated the APS doesn’t need fixing—it isn’t broken. But the panel recognises that the world is rapidly changing. Like many institutions, the APS is under pressure to undertake a digital transformation, to address the fragmentation in government and the growing distrust among the general public.

There are a number of key themes that have emerged from public submissions and discussions of the APS review, which are expected to shape the recommendations delivered in the first half of 2019.

Purpose, values and culture

APS staff may be proud to work for their own agency, but are they proud to work in the public service generally? Is it still a badge of honour? David Thodey has suggested that a clear statement and agreement of the purpose, culture, values and behaviours of the APS across all agencies may drive greater collaboration.

The panel recognises the need to move to a citizen-focused culture, with greater diversity and Indigenous leadership that better reflects modern Australia. This will help the APS enhance its morale, productivity and efficiency, as well as support employment and retention of the best people for the job.

New ways of working

Organisational silos continue to be a problem in many government agencies. In the future, it’s important to have a government that can quickly work around issues, sharing resources and accountability. Peter Shergold, former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, has suggested a ‘Hollywood model’ may be appropriate moving forward—where people are brought in from the public and private sector to complete specific projects, like a film crew.

Shergold anticipates this will foster diversity of thinking, contestability of ideas and enhanced sharing and growth capabilities. However, this flexibility must not be at the cost of continuous machinery of government changes involving amalgamations and restructurings.

Greater community collaboration

This collaboration needs to extend to the private and community sectors, with a number of review submissions recognising the role of private organisations and communities in delivering public sector services. Given so many services are contracted out, there is a need for greater commissioning and contracting capabilities and structures, as well as community consultation for major projects.

There also needs to be a focus on integrity and anti-corruption measures, through training and accountability for the growing external contract workforce. To be effective, this needs to be pre-emptive and future focused. Submissions also suggest that hired guns need to be contractually bound by the code of conduct and requirements of the public sector.

Building trust and confidence

The Australia and New Zealand School of Government submission encouraged the APS to operate with the highest integrity, through an institution first approach. Every touchpoint with government is an opportunity to build trust and confidence. As such, policies and services need to be designed to ensure individuals and businesses can operate effectively and have a positive experience when interacting with government.

Balancing evidence and innovation

Submissions have also argued that policy must be persuasive and able to withstand challenge from a range of think tanks, non-government organisations and lobby groups. There is a need for evidence-based and data-driven policy, to revive an evaluation culture in government and the APS. The panel must make it clear that critically reviewing, reporting and objectively advising on the effectiveness and appropriateness of existing programs is what public servants need to do.

According to the submissions, an improved use of data will lead to greater innovation, which not only makes things better and easier for the general public, but improves the APS’ bottom line. However, there needs to be systematic and ongoing support for innovation. Any accelerated change needs to be carefully managed, to avoid disruption and a lack of accountability.

Focusing on skills and capabilities

Many submissions point to lost capability in the APS. However, Janine O’Flynn, Professor of Public Management at the University of Melbourne, wondered if there was a strong factual basis for this narrative or whether it is simply the Australian tendency to talk down the public sector, despite its fairly good international standing. Either way, it’s clear there needs to be a focus on reskilling and increasing capability within the APS, with a balance between contractor and public servant skills.

The head of the APS, Martin Parkinson, said it best when he stated: “If you get to the space where you basically hand over thinking about policy development, policy prioritisation, to consultants, then you’ve actually given away your core business. And then you should ask yourself ‘what are you doing here?’” It is hoped the panel will identify a need for continuous learning in skills that public servants will require in the future, such as coding, data analytics and basic data literacy.

Next month, we’ll share our own views on the APS review (and take issue with some of the above themes) through the lens of our experience working in government over the past 20 years.