The APS: now and in the future
Dr Ian Watt AO, Secretary
Tuesday 22 November 2011
National Press Club, Canberra
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today.
I’d also like to thank you all for coming along to hear me speak. I appreciate the roll-up. I propose to speak for about 20 or so minutes, before leaving time for questions and for a drink afterwards.
Let me begin by saying that it is an honour to talk to you as the head of the Australian Public Service (APS), an organisation that I have been proud to work in for the past 27 years. The APS is, by Australian standards, a venerable institution. At the age of 110 we have performed the unusual feat of both standing the test of time and changing almost beyond all recognition.
And it is an organisation that has delivered very well for Australia, the Australian people and Australian governments for the last 110 years, even though we haven’t always received the credit for doing so.
When I became head of the APS, I decided that, early in my tenure, I wanted to talk to representatives from across the public service about the beliefs that I bring to this role, how I see the APS now and in the future and how we can better position ourselves for that future.
I also decided that I wanted a chance to talk to as broad a group as possible: from graduates to Secretaries, and to officers from across the Commonwealth’s departments and agencies.
And I also decided I wanted to talk about one of my most important tasks as head of the APS, which is to help develop our current leaders, and our future leaders, so that they are, and we are, better prepared for the change, complexity and challenges that lie ahead, for us, for them, and for the APS.
Who I am
If any of you have had reason to look at my CV (and I doubt many will have) you will realise it’s a flat document.
My CV is simple – economist by training, economic historian by inclination, an ex-academic who has worked for five Commonwealth departments:
- Prime Minister and Cabinet,
- Communications, Information Technology and the Arts as Secretary,
- Finance as Secretary
- Defence as Secretary
- and, finally, back to Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Each Department was a challenge, each an enjoyable one, and each taught me a lot.
And that experience has helped me form three beliefs that will guide me as head of the APS.
First, I believe in the APS as an institution. I believe that Australian governments need the support of an able, strong, impartial and professional public service to deliver their best for Australia.
I will therefore work, as my predecessors have, to protect the impartiality and integrity of the APS, help enhance our performance, maintain the respect in which the APS is held, and improve the quality of the advice and services that we provide to government and to the public.
Secondly, I believe not just in the APS, but in one APS, and will work to help bring the organisation closer together. ‘One APS’ does not mean uniformity, but working as a single organisation and removing barriers to doing so. The APS will always be an organisation with an incredible variety of component parts, people, skills, expertise and responsibilities.
In this room, there are archivists and policy-makers, scientists and statisticians, police officers and diplomats. Among you are experts in taxation, fisheries, industrial relations, border protection, defence materiel, intellectual property and new media. You have a diversity of ideas, a diversity of skills and you deliver an almost bewildering array of products and services for Australia.
Yet, for all our variety, and for all of our many departments and agencies, we work together for the common goal of helping deliver good government for Australia, and our ideas complement and enhance each other.
And we are at our best when we not only work together effectively, but when we remember we share common values. We work apolitically, with a strong sense of ethics. We work with our colleagues and not against them, and we look after our people. And we are always mindful of the public good, not just because we need to, but because we want to. Thirdly, I believe that every public servant should be proud to be part of the APS. I have found my public service career challenging, enjoyable and immensely rewarding, and I would like that to be the experience of each and every public servant.
We have a lot of advantages in providing challenging careers, including the particular privilege of doing ultimately meaningful work, indeed some of the most interesting work in Australia, as:
… a Centrelink officer delivering services to bushfire or flood victims
… a graduate, drafting a reply to a 10-year-old boy encouraging his efforts to save water in his community; or taking their Secretary to task at the Great Debate
… as an EL2, leading a team devising policy to improve skills training in Australia and helping rescue workers from long-term unemployment
… or as a Deputy Secretary, helping a minister to negotiate a new trade agreement.
And this is reflected in what you tell us about your work. For example, in the 2011 State of the Service report, the factors reported most often by APS employees as attracting them to their jobs included: the ability to make a difference and the challenging business or good reputation of their agency. For example, 73% of employees were proud to work in the APS and 75% of employees believed their agency is a good place to work.
In the same survey, 97% of the APS reported that they were willing to put in extra effort to get the job done when needed, and over 85% were clear about their duties and responsibilities. 65% agreed that they had a feeling of personal accomplishment from their job.
Like any job, work in the public service contains its difficulties, its frustrations, its long hours and its just plain ‘bad days’. But in my 27 years as a public servant, I can think of only about ten days when I woke up in the morning and said to myself, I didn’t want to go to work today. (And those were days when I knew I faced a mess when I got there – sometimes a mess I had created.) Feeling willing to go to work and being happy about it is, for me, the sign of an interesting and rewarding job.
The reforms in Ahead of the Game: the Blueprint for Reform of Australian Government Administration, are designed to help ensure that the public service remains a respected and high-performing institution – and a good place to work. That is what we should all be aiming for.
Where we are as a public service
How do we rate as a public service? In my view, pretty well. But don’t take my word alone. For example, in its assessment of Australia in May this year, the Economist magazine described Australia as benefiting from an “excellent civil service”.
Further, the 2009 report by KPMG Benchmarking Australian Government Administration, which compared the Australian Public Service with eight other high-performing national public services, found that the APS was among the best performers in its perception as an independent and values-based public service, and in its responsiveness to change. The APS also came up well in our approach to performance-based budgeting of government programs and its mechanisms for collaborating across government.
This evidence suggests that we are in good shape, but there are areas that can be improved. And, we need to acknowledge that the world doesn’t stand still – if we are performing pretty well today, then we won’t be in 5, 10 or 20 years unless we continue to change and develop.
Around the mid-2000s I reached the conclusion that the APS needed to be reviewed and changes needed to be made if we were to meet the challenges of the coming decade.
I reached that conclusion not just because of our then performance (which I thought was good, but slipping a bit), but because of the challenges that I thought the APS would face in a dynamic, rapidly changing world.
I also had doubts about whether we were doing enough to develop the next generation of APS leaders. I didn’t think we had that completely right then, and I don’t think we have it completely right now.
The Blueprint does address most of the issues that I thought we needed to tackle (and a few I didn’t), and it helps us move forward as a service. It contains a sweep of significant reforms and changes to improve the way we provide services, enhance collaboration with citizens, give policy advice and improve our leadership.
I support the Blueprint, not because it is the perfect solution to any issue the APS might face (no report ever is) but because it is a considered piece of work that provides a good basis for enhancing our capability. And it is important that we continue to implement it.
The Blueprint was not designed to be a once in every 10 or 20 year event, a brief period of change and reform, followed by the new status quo and nothing else. It was designed to bring ongoing and substantial improvements to the APS, but it was not and is not the start and finish of the future improvements we need to make. The Blueprint provides a good platform, but, alone, it will not position us to meet all of the challenges the APS will face in the future.
There is more to do.
For example, those of you who have been public servants for more than a few years can easily think of things we work on now that we didn’t expect to be doing one, let alone two, decades ago.
- As a public service, we’re now responding to the digital age by making use of online engagement with citizens and in our responses to online threats against our security;
- We’ve done much more to help the Australian Government work with the state and territory governments to achieve truly national reforms;
- We are supporting Australia’s significant overseas military operations in Afghanistan, Timor Leste and the Solomons;
- We are now tackling some of our biggest policy problems in a truly whole-of-government way, from homelessness to climate change;
- We are playing a bigger role in providing support following natural disasters, not only in Australia but internationally; and
- We have engaged far more directly with citizens, such as the intense remote service delivery we are providing indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, Cape York and the Kimberleys.
We are meeting these challenges today, but will implementing the Blueprint be sufficient to position us to meet the challenges of tomorrow, and the day after?
Some of the change ahead of us lies within our collective imagination. For example, we know that the coming decade will require government:
- to help manage major demographic change;
- to better position Australia in an Asian century;
- to help guide our economy through fundamental structural changes;
- to achieve more with fewer resources, and to achieve faster while minimising real risks of speed;
- to meet the rising demands of our citizens and give them more of the input they expect in designing policies and services;
- to improve delivery and implementation
- and to adapt to ever faster technological change and information flows.
But we know there is more change coming, change that we cannot yet imagine [Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns]; and the public service needs to be ready for them, too.
How can we prepare for such an uncertain landscape? One way is to develop the best possible leaders who, among other things, are well-honed with varied experience; who are flexible and adaptable; who have the judgment to make good decisions about whatever comes their way; who communicate effectively; and who mentor, guide and inspire their people.
The State of the Service Report regularly tells us that APS leaders overall need to do better in some of these areas.
This is an important conclusion because, while we might not know what our challenges will be or where they will come from, we do know something about who our leaders will be. After all, most of the future leaders of the APS are today’s public servants.
Some of them are in this room. Most are already in the APS. And I want them to have, and they need to have, the opportunity to become our best possible future leaders and managers.
My vision for the APS
People often ask me what vision I have for the APS. I have a short and simple one.
My vision for the APS is for it to be and to remain the first choice for policy advice, policy implementation and program and service delivery for Australian governments.
Now all kinds of organisations and individuals can and do provide policy advice, help to implement policy and deliver services for the Australian Government – and that’s a good thing.
I do not think that the APS ever has a monopoly on providing advice, implementation or delivery. I think that competition is a good thing, be it in the preparation of advice or service delivery. And there will be occasions when we should encourage governments to look elsewhere for knowledge or expertise.
But in whatever tasks Australian governments face, the APS should be the organisation they look to first and foremost. And governments should be confident that the APS can meet their expectations of the work it needs doing.
How do we get there?
To fulfil this vision for the APS, we need to be an organisation with good policy, implementation and service delivery skills. But more than that, we need to become an organisation of high quality leaders and managers.
In my view, everyone in the APS is a leader, whether or not they have staff working for them. Everyone can model the leadership behaviours that help influence and set the tone for the workplace.
Everyone can behave with honesty and integrity, share their skills and expertise, encourage those around them, give praise for good work or progress and notice when someone they work with needs particular help or support. And also I want every member of the APS to be able to develop their ability to lead and to manage.
I am not someone who likes to create change for its own sake.
But if I can change the APS in one way, I hope to help build a public service that is better at developing its leaders; a public service that is better at leading and managing for the benefit of Australia, the government of the day and the people who make up our APS.
To my mind developing the future leadership capacity of the APS requires three things: that we attract and retain the best people; that we offer them diverse experience; and that we help them develop as public servants and leaders.
There are steps in the Blueprint for developing our human capital, and we now have work led by the APSC to identify our leaders, develop their talents, define what good APS leadership means and make mobility easier… but I think developing our leaders needs to receive more emphasis still.
1. Attracting the best people
Attracting the best people is made easier by the intrinsic value of our work and by the experience and career development that we are able to offer.
As Sir Gus O’Donnell said, when he spoke to the APS200 here in Canberra a couple of weeks ago, public servants are lucky in engaging in work with a higher purpose – as he put it, we are not here to sell pot noodles. The work of public servants can be and is as challenging as anything the private sector can offer, and more, and we should never forget that advantage in helping to secure the best people.
Attracting good people also depends on the respect and the reputation of the APS, and that is something we all need to think about and work on.
We do need to continue to attract lateral transferees into the APS. Public servants with experience in the private sector, the non-government sector or academia are valuable for their skill sets and for their fresh perspectives.
I’ll take Prime Minister and Cabinet as an example here. Among the SES at PM&C are public servants with a range of career backgrounds from outside Canberra including as a UK naval officer, an executive in a major charity, a university professor, management consultants and state public servants almost too numerous to mention. And finally, it has a Secretary who was a lateral transferee into the APS.
Lateral recruitment in the APS is growing, with over 30% of our new SES recruited laterally in 2010, half of whom had no prior APS experience.
But lateral transfers will not address all the challenges that we face, and there will always be a limit to how many we can and should attract. This makes developing our own people all the more important.
2. Diverse experience
We do need to provide opportunities to make the most of the diversity that exists within the APS.
Our future leaders, the most-senior APS leaders, ideally should have experience in policy and in implementation and delivery. They should have worked in at least two or three agencies with varying responsibilities. They should have been exposed to the private sector or the non-government sector or to state or foreign governments. And they should have experience leading different kinds of people, and hopefully in large numbers.
At this point, I should say that I am not the best example of this kind of leader. Here, it’s a case of ‘do what I say, not what I did!’ – because experience has taught me that an entirely central agency background is not always the best basis for leadership in the broader APS.
And there is plenty of room for us to broaden the experience of our leaders. In 2010, less than one quarter of our new SES had worked in more than two agencies during their APS career.
And one thing I will be doing is working with my Secretaries Board colleagues to make mobility easier in the APS and to encourage it. This will help us take advantage of the abundance of opportunities that is one of the greatest selling points of an APS career. It is also a part of creating one APS, and I believe that seeing more of the APS will help public servants to lead well.
3. Developing people
Developing people is not just about the work we do, but about what we learn while we are there. It is for that reason that I am deeply committed to improving the development opportunities provided to public servants, particularly in leadership and management.
Those who have worked with me will be familiar with that commitment.
When I started at Treasury, I was given a pen, a desk and a file and told to get on with it… but I’ve tried to give a little more than that to my own staff!
While I was Secretary of Finance, for example, we created development programs that spanned from Graduates to SES Band 3s, which focussed not only on policy but also on leadership and management skills. Why did we do that? – because of a fundamental belief that you cannot expect people to become better leaders and managers without help. And, along with my colleagues, I will work to create the same opportunities Commonwealth-wide, and, even more importantly, to help see they are well used.
I also want every public servant to be able to discuss with their managers their learning and development needs – and then to create the opportunity to take the development steps that will be most valuable. You can probably guess by now that I think leadership should be an important part of such discussions.
This should not just be training requirements imposed from above; I encourage every public servant to find development opportunities that will help you to be the best public servant you can; and I encourage managers to help make those opportunities possible.
While formal training and development will be part of this, my commitment is to leadership development in all contemporary forms: knowing, doing and being. We should be training one another each day at work and taking an active interest in mentoring and guiding; and spending time with our people to make sure that they have work that interests and challenges them and opportunities to develop their expertise. I know we are all busy, but this doesn’t always take a lot of time and it pays off; and I expect it from all of you (and from myself).
And we also need to accept that in order to develop judgment, we all need real experience, which means that sometimes people will try things and get them wrong.
We need to accept that this is part of the learning and development process, and should encourage our people to acknowledge mistakes quickly and, most importantly, to learn from them. After all, we all make mistakes – what matters most is that we learn from them.
To conclude, my pride in being a public servant and a member of the APS stems not only from what we do now but from what I know we are capable of becoming. My vision for the APS is for us to be and remain the institution governments turn to first for advice, implementation and delivery in a rapidly changing world.
It will require us to develop excellent leaders, to encourage people and improve their performance. It needs to be implemented not as a one-off, and not only as part of even a major reform like the Blueprint, but as an ongoing task.
And it is a vision that needs to be implemented not just by me, not just by the APS Commissioner, not just by the Secretaries Board and not just by the SES. It is a task that we own together and that we can only achieve together.