Australian Public Service Commission’s Launch of Unlocking Potential and the APS Gender Equality Strategy

Australian Public Service Commission’s Launch of Unlocking Potential and the APS Gender Equality Strategy

Office for Women Leadership
Thursday, April 28, 2016

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Martin Parkinson
Secretary, The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet


Thank you Geoff, it's a pleasure to be here today with you, with all of our colleagues, with Minister Cash and with Sandra McPhee for the launch of the APS Gender Equality Strategyand Sandra's Unlocking Potential report. Both are designed to accelerate change and modernise the APS.

Speaking as someone who's had a pretty good run in the APS, can I just say that the last thing I'm interested in is preserving the conditions and circumstances that allow only people like me to prosper. As we all know, the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem and, APS, we have a problem.

Many of you would be aware that when I was Treasury Secretary I led a program of change, built upon unconscious bias training, a discussion of what we really meant by merit, an overhaul of performance appraisal processes and the introduction of flexibility by default approach to jobs.

This only came about after we did a cultural audit of the entire organisation, one that revealed to the leadership group some alarming results about our behaviours and how this was contributing to our lack of diversity. As one of my deputies, Nigel Ray, remarked at the time, and this is a quote, "we are not leading the kind of organisation we thought we were leading".

As head of the APS though, it then falls to me to ask: what kind of APS do I think I'm leading, and what APS am I actually leading?

Both reports question some of the most deeply held assumptions in our employment practices. Sandra McPhee's findings on merit reveal something I've suspected for a while, which is that merit has a "God status" in the public sector hiring process, yet there is no single definition of merit and the concept is something that is understood and applied subjectively.

To compensate for that subjectivity, we try and pretend to become objective by building unnecessary processes to justify our hiring decisions, which, in the long term, actually counteract our ability to attract a more diverse pool of applicants.

This problem is made worse when we factor in the presence of unconscious bias, which often means that selection panels see merit worthy candidates as people with backgrounds and experience similar to their own. It's the, "if the person looks like me, sounds like me, then they must be me and I'm great, therefore they're great" approach.

Now the Gender Equality Strategy is designed to push our boundaries as leaders. Apart from targets and entrenching unconscious bias awareness, one of the major elements of the strategy will be implementation of a 'flexibility by default' approach to jobs. But it's not enough just to offer flexibility.

If you go back to Treasury, Treasury had a range of processes in place for nigh on 20 years and yet was making very little progress. We actually have to model what we want to see. And for us as leaders we need to model it as well. While part-time work is only one dimension of flexibility, we should keep in mind that 20.1% of the APS works part‑time, but only 3.8% of the SES.

I'm sure that some of you are sitting there thinking, "it's a nice idea, but there's no way that all jobs in my team could be flexible". Well, you're right, it's a nice idea. But you're wrong, because it can be done and it is being done in a wide range of institutions.

Companies as diverse as Telstra, Qantas and ANZ all run 'flexibility by default'. The trick is to work out what flexibility actually means for you. Does it mean working part-time? Does it mean flexible rosters? So Alan Joyce is very proud of the fact that Qantas has 'flexibility by default'. Everybody has a roster. They have capacities to trade routes. They have capacities to swap which days of the week they're going to fly on and that's a flexibility that works for his institution.

Part of our challenge is to think about what flexibility means for our institutions and implement something that's institution specific and that doesn't have to be one model for the entire APS.  

'Flexibility by default' vastly increases the willingness of both women and men to take control of their working hours but importantly it means that you're not ruling out a sizeable chunk of your workforce from a sizeable chunk of jobs.

The challenge for us though, the second challenge here, is that as managers we need to learn how to manage a flexible workforce. And again, our default which is about 'presenteeism', about trying to control inputs, is really a sign of weakness of us as leaders because it's saying that we don't trust our staff.  

Flexibility's not a one way street, it relies on good will, commitment and reciprocity from both sides. But if we're committed to it, then I think we can make big progress.  

As head of the public service I am committed to progressing both of the strategies being launched today. My fellow secretaries and I have established a Secretaries' Talent Council to foster the quality of our high potential senior leaders and a Secretaries' Equality and Diversity Committee to progress the Gender Equality Strategy and diversity matters more broadly.

We will be putting our time and effort and energy into making this happen, and you and everyone else in the public service should be holding us to account to show measurable progress. If we, the Secretaries Board, can have a go, you, the leadership team of the APS, can also have a go. As I've said a few times already since returning to the service, leaders come at every level and in every job in the public service and they come in packages that look just like you.

It's everybody's responsibility to unlock potential, wherever you may find it. So, I encourage you to read the reports, think about how you can promote change within your sphere of influence, and just do it!

Thank you.