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Impressed by your curiosity

News
26 November 2018
Alison Watkins

We asked our panel member Alison Watkins to share her thoughts on this review and the Australian public service.

Read on to see Alison’s reflections on the similarities and differences between the public service and the long-standing ASX-listed company she leads.

 

What was the appeal for you to work on the independent review of Australia’s public service?

The Australian Public Service (APS) plays a critical role in shaping national policy and provides stability through the ins and outs of the political cycle. It’s vital that the APS preserves its culture of strong, independent advice and efficient service delivery. This Review is about enabling the APS to do what it does best, by creating the environment it needs to be successful. 

I’m passionate about helping create a positive future for Australia by ensuring it remains an amazing place to live and work, to get an education, and to grow old. A strong, independent and effective APS is fundamental to these outcomes.

What similarities or differences do you see between the Australian public service and the organisation you manage — Coca Cola Amatil?

I see lots of similarities between the APS and Coca-Cola Amatil. We’re a major Australian manufacturer that has been operating for more than 100 years with a strong local employment base. Like the APS we’re firmly anchored in the lives and economies of the Australian community, with a shared interest in its commercial and social advancement. While the APS is accountable to taxpayers, we are accountable to shareholders.

Like other industries and sectors, including the APS, we’re also undergoing massive transformation. We’re being disrupted by local and global trends, mostly driven by technology. And we face the same imperative around talent – attracting the best people and retaining them. These business challenges are mirrored in the APS as it adapts to changes in the Australian community.

There are also notable differences. The budget process constrains the APS in responding to changing trends, more so than private enterprise which can be faster to reallocate resources where required. The Public Service is also understandably more risk-averse. There are good reasons for this, but it can sometimes make it harder for them to move. Finally, there are still many layers in the public service decision-making process which means that institutional change is slow and difficult.

In your opinion, what does the Australian public service do really well and need more of in the future?

I have huge admiration for the calibre of people who work in the APS and for their motivation to contribute to a better Australia. That passion for making a difference is the Public Service’s greatest asset.

As Australia becomes more susceptible to populist decision making, the need for a strong independent voice and a consistent way of thinking about good policy will become even more important. The APS needs to continue to build consistent and rigorous policy approaches to meet this demand.

What do you see to be the single biggest challenge for Australia’s public service in 2030?

It is hard to predict what the APS needs to be and what it needs to look like in 2030. But I think the most important attribute for the APS will be a willingness and ability to adapt. This will mean taking more risks (which will involve making some mistakes) and having a more flexible approach to resource allocation.

What has been the most interesting thing you’ve discovered about the Australian public service through the review?

I have been really impressed by the willingness of people to change; by their curiosity and openness to learning. The APS is a large and complicated institution and it would be easy to be dismissive of the relevance of private sector experience and views, but I have found there is a real desire to learn from different models.

Alison has put a version of this article on her LinkedIn.