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Early reflections by David Thodey

15 August 2018

On Wednesday 15 August, the Chair of the Australian Public Service review David Thodey delivered this speech at a dinner for the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ conference on the public sector in modern society.

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I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here today.

I would like to thank the Australian Institute of Company Directors for extending this kind invitation to speak tonight.

It’s an honour to be with you to discuss the public sector. It’s a topic that increasingly occupies my mind and I find it endlessly thought-provoking.

I am both excited and challenged to be chairing a panel conducting an independent review of the Australian Public Service — the APS.

It’s an enormous task, a privilege, and one that we’re tackling with great enthusiasm.

I think it’s easy to underestimate the size and scope of this great institution. It has:

  • over 150,000 employees
  • 18 departments of state and nearly 100 agencies and authorities
  • a significant presence right across Australia — not just in Canberra — and overseas

The public service is responsible for a truly breathtaking range of work:

  • providing world class advice to government
  • delivering well over $170 billion in payments
  • providing advice to 4.4 million users of business.gov.au
  • 700 million digital and telephone transactions to Australians each year

There really is no other organisation in Australia which is so diverse or has such an impact on all our lives.

Given the scale of the task of reviewing the APS I’m pleased to be joined on the review panel by Ms Maile Carnegie, Professor Glyn Davis AC, Dr Gordon de Brouwer PSM, Ms Belinda Hutchinson AM and Ms Alison Watkins.

We, of course, bring our own experiences and perspectives to the task, but also a shared commitment to the notion of public service.

Tonight I would like to talk about three things:

  1. An update on where the APS review is up to and some of the megatrends we’re conscious of
  2. Some early observations on what we’ve heard so far
  3. Some thoughts on the international experience of public sector reform

The review so far… and some megatrends to 2030

The first point to emphasise is that this review is not about ‘fixing’ the APS. I don’t think it’s broken.

The APS has served the Australian public and successive Australian governments very well.

This review is about taking time to consider where we think the public service needs to be by, say, 2030-5.

The world will be a different place by then - but different in what ways? And what will that mean for the APS?

While we cannot accurately predict the future, we think that in 2030:

  • The world’s population will be 8.7 billion and Australia’s population is predicted to be 30 million by 2035 (from 7.3 billion and 25 million respectively)
  • The ageing of the developed world will continue with over 25% of the population over the age of 60
  • Technology advances will continue, such as the progress of AI and machine learning. And as we move into an increasingly data driven world, the importance of cybersecurity will continue to grow
  • Citizen expectations are rising. They expect the same level of service from government that they get in other aspects of their lives, including the tailoring of services using the latest technologies
  • The nature of work is changing as well, people are working more flexibly, and many of the jobs that will exist in 2030 do not exist today
  • While this is all occurring, climate change, environment, energy and health issues remain key concerns

But we don’t know what the impact of these trends will be. For instance:

  • It’s unclear how much new technologies will be adopted
  • We don’t know how technology giants (e.g. Google, Facebook) will evolve
  • It is unclear if inequality will increase or decrease
  • We don’t yet know how the role of government versus private sector will evolve

Trends are important to understand. As a nation we need to have a view of these changes and understand what the impact could be for Australia.

While there are Departmental views, interestingly, there is no integrated view of the future operating environment for the APS.  

So, we have this rare opportunity to debate and really determine what we can do now to make sure the APS continues to be an inspiring, attractive place to work. And continues to perform its policy, delivery and regulatory functions to a high standard in this future.

Now, we don’t have the answers yet. But we have been asking lots of questions.

I’d also like to emphasise that I’m not under any illusion that transformational change of the APS will be easy to achieve.

The last holistic review of the APS was the Coombs Royal Commission in the mid-1970s.

I have great respect for the work of that review. Indeed the structure, approach and operations of today’s APS reflect a framework for public administration shaped largely by Coombs.

That framework has been refined by subsequent inquiries and reforms, including the Ahead of the Game review, Peter Shergold’s 2015 review, the Unlocking Potential report, and numerous capability reviews.

We have been examining this work and each has recommended sensible changes.

Indeed, we are pondering many of the same issues, like the provision of strategic policy and delivery advice, and the best ways to support decision makers.

But we are applying a future-focussed lens to these questions.

We’ll also draw on implementation experiences and lessons learned from these past reviews, to ensure the program of reform we recommend is practical and implementable.

I’ve been speaking to numerous current and former public sector leaders, from the Commonwealth, the states and overseas, since the review was announced in May.

We’ve also been digesting the diverse stakeholder views that have been presented through our recent open submissions process.

It is encouraging that over 600 individuals and organisations took the time to share their ideas and tell us what is important to them.

One of the early, and I am sure, lasting impressions for me has been the passion and pride evident in many of the submissions provided by public servants.

And the submission process is just the beginning.


It is still early days but there are some recurring themes emerging, including the importance of:

  • a clear statement and agreement of the purpose, culture, values and behaviours of the APS across all stakeholders
  • valuing and respecting the institution of the APS and the people who work in it — the Public Service Profession
  • the changing nature of leadership and functional expertise required in the APS
  • devoting adequate time and resources to continually develop the APS workforce and maintain core capability, while developing the skills and capabilities of the future
  • the nature of an impactful and effective APS that is driven by outcomes and cross-government collaboration
  • continuing to develop innovative approaches to policy, corporate, regulatory and delivery functions
  • understanding the needs of the public, regardless of who they are and where they live — a modern, citizen-centric public service
  • contemporary governance, management processes and organisational design
  • ensuring the APS is both innovative and responsive in meeting the evolving expectations of the Australian people and the government of the day

Of course, this is just some of what we’re hearing. But they illustrate the types of matters people are passionate about.

The task for the review panel is to examine these matters thoroughly, understand the issues and opportunities, and then develop practical and implementable recommendations.

I have continued to be impressed with the commitment, capability and dedication of APS staff. It is inspiring to hear the stories of what these teams achieve.

We have heard though that, in some instances, there is more we could do to nurture this talent and to empower those working in the APS.


Part of our Terms of Reference talk about an APS that is ‘fit-for-purpose for the coming decades’.

It’s a useful way to frame our task.

I am a firm believer in the importance of purpose in any organisation, but particularly one as large and complex as the APS.

Of course, the Public Service Act 1999 (Cth) defines the values and employment principles of the APS.

Many departments and agencies have mission statements or something similar, but there must be hundreds of those, each very different.

It’s not surprising so many staff identify as working for a particular department as opposed to working for the APS.

It’s great that national surveys find more than two-thirds of people are proud to work for their agency, but what about the public service as an institution that supports our society, democracy and economy?

I wonder whether a single, clear, aspirational purpose statement for the APS would help drive greater collaboration and convey to Australians the unique and valuable role of the APS.

It would be fantastic if working for the public service was seen as a badge of honour and pride, and the term bureaucracy was not used to describe the APS.

Over the course of the review we will pursue this question of ‘purpose’ with APS staff and members of the public, in workshops across the country and online.

I’m optimistic we can work together to succinctly articulate the future important role the APS has in our democracy.


Setting up the APS to thrive and lead in a very different future will take more than purpose, it needs the right culture.

We have heard that there are some great opportunities for the APS to move to a more modern, citizen-focused culture.

This could improve morale, productivity and efficiency and help the APS to attract and retain the best people.

Now culture is not an easy thing to grapple with, and it’s not sufficient for the review panel to vaguely recommend a change.

Instead, we need to consider the fundamentals – what is it about our rules and structures, our ways of working – that might be making it more difficult to excel? What incentive structures do we have in place – are they the right ones? Is our authorizing environment empowering our public servants to do the job we know they want to?

There is already some encouraging work taking place across the APS in this area that we will work with.

Then we need to put together a program of reform, and an implementation plan, that will, over time, positively impact culture.

It’s a rather big task.

The International Experience

Thankfully, there is a wealth of public sector reform overseas that we can also look to for guidance.

Like the APS, other public sectors are grappling with the implications of:

  • growing distrust in traditional institutions and the changing expectations of the people and organisations we serve
  • new developments in science, research, innovation and technology
  • shifts in geopolitics, the distribution of wealth, our natural environment and our populations

The United Kingdom                                      

Firstly, our international colleagues who share our history of the Westminster System, are responding to these challenges in a variety of interesting ways.

The UK Civil Service, for example, has put a lot of effort in to professionalising its corporate functions.

It has embraced a ‘functional model’ that provides central leadership of cross-departmental corporate functions.

The model aims to improve decision-making, organisational capability, efficiency, resilience and control.

John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the UK Civil Service, says the functions have three primary roles:

  • first, to set standards (e.g. on working with the private sector, on pay structures, data standards)
  • second, functions have a leading role in building deep skills and capability
  • third, functions shape cross-government strategies, helping to quickly identify which people across the service should be brought into a team to work on a particular project and highlighting career opportunities for specialists all across the service not just the department they’ve built their expertise in

As well as strengthening corporate functions, the UK Civil Service have focused on building policy capability.

There is a ‘Head of Policy Profession’ who works to develop cross-government policy capability and standards across the Civil Service. This should enable:

  • better development and use of a sound evidence base
  • better understanding and management of the political context
  • better planning and clarity, right from the outset, as to how the policy will be delivered

Of course, the question for the APS Review is whether this sort of transformative approach is applicable to the Australian context.

Would it help the APS better serve the Australian public and Australian governments?


Canada has been asking public servants for their vision of a reformed public service as part of its Blueprint 2020 reform process.

The Blueprint 2020 vision is guided by four principles that help examine how work is done in the federal public service:

  • an open and networked environment that engages citizens and partners for the public good
  • a whole-of-government approach that enhances service delivery and value for money
  • a modern workplace that makes smart use of new technologies to improve networking, access to data and customer service
  • a capable, confident and high-performing workforce that embraces new ways of working and mobilises the diversity of talent to serve the country’s evolving needs

Are such principles meaningful in the Australian context?

New Zealand

New Zealand has made some interesting governance changes to reinforce the enduring nature of their public service, as politically neutral, professional and permanent.

The role of the State Services Commissioner in New Zealand is different to our closest comparator ‑ the Australian Public Service Commissioner.

The New Zealand State Services Commissioner’s core roles and responsibilities are to:

  • appoint and employ Public Service chief executives
  • review the performance of Public Service chief executives
  • investigate and report on matters relating to departmental performance

Ministers and a public sector chief executive have been made responsible for the achievement of results and public reporting on progress.

Would the Australian public appreciate a similar approach here?


In Singapore we’ve heard about their approach to training and development.

For instance, as part of Singapore’s public service leadership program, individuals at the start of their public service careers receive training in core public governance capabilities.

As mid-career public servants they can choose to pursue a specialist career path or a whole-of-government career path.

The specialists can access centrally-organised training and rotations in whatever sector they choose to specialise in. For example, economy building, infrastructure and environment, social, security or central administration.

And the whole-of-government cohort can access training and rotations to help them gain a deep understanding of the interdependencies across the public service.

There may be some lessons for the APS from this sort of structured, centrally-organised approach as used in the Singapore public service.

We’re hearing through consultations that staff in the APS want more and higher quality training, and managers want both specialists, and individuals able to take an inter-disciplinary approach to work.

Perhaps a version of the Singapore model is the answer?

Our Reference Group

I am pleased that as we undertake this review of the APS, the panel and I have the benefit of a truly stellar Reference Group.

The Reference Group includes eminent individuals with a diverse range of domestic and international public and private sector expertise.

I’m asking the international members of the Group for a frank assessment of the experience of reform in their own public services. And asking the domestic members for their views on the Australian context as well as how some of the international examples could apply to the APS.

This will help ensure we learn from the best reforms occurring in similar public sectors globally, and if we think it’s warranted, we could tailor them to the Australian context as appropriate.

Of course, we are well aware that in many respects the Australian system is unique and that three levels of government adds to the complexity but it’s always useful to see how others tackle similar issues.


In conclusion, this review presents a unique opportunity to ensure that our APS is fit-for-purpose for the coming decades.

All of us value and admire the public sector and want to make sure it continues to make a positive difference to the lives of all Australians.

I am optimistic about the future of the APS.

I know you’re going to hear a lot more about these issues tomorrow as you continue to consider the role of the public sector in modern society, and hear from a great range of speakers.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, suggestions and solutions.

Lastly, I’d like to thank you for your interest in, and support for this review.

I look forward to all of us working together to ensure the APS continues to be a great institution — serving all Australians and the Government — for decades to come.