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IPAA Address - Priorities for Change

19 March 2019
David Thodey speaks at the Institute of Public Administration

Review Chair David Thodey has called for feedback on the review’s priorities for change.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s ACT division, David summarised the areas for work and specific initiatives the review considers most important.

This speech should be checked against delivery. Watch the Institute’s video of the speech and the discussion that followed. 


Thank you Elizabeth.

I 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.

Thank you Drew Baker and your colleagues at IPAA for hosting us today.

I would also like to thank:

  • today’s chair Elizabeth Kelly, acting Secretary of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science
  • Secretaries Dr Martin Parkinson, Michele Bruniges, Liz Cosson, Kerri Hartland, Philip Gaetjens, Renée Leon, Chris Moraitis, Greg Moriarty and Daryl Quinlivan
  • Australian Public Service Commissioner, Peter Woolcott
  • my review colleagues, including Gordon de Brouwer who is here with us today
  • and all of you – in particular the many public servants here today, participating in this important discussion on the future of our nation’s public service.

Today, on behalf of the independent panel, I will lay out our Priorities for Change - the transformational shifts we believe will transition the public service to be fit-for-purpose in the decades to come.

Today I will also discuss some of the initiatives and ideas on how we might get there.

This is our current thinking and there is more to come. Your feedback will help us shape practical recommendations in our mid-year report to the Prime Minister.

When I last spoke to the public service, in November, I set out the panel’s views on what a confident, independent and impactful APS looks like.

I recognised the rich history of the APS and the fact that for over 100 years it has been integral to Australia’s security, prosperity and welfare.

The APS is integral to the wellbeing, prosperity and security of all Australians. We have always known that. However our engagement with the community has brought this into even sharper focus.

Our world is changing, the question is how does the APS can best continue to efficiently and effectively serve the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public.

We have been grateful for the constructive and positive engagement from right across the APS staff. Thank you – your insights are helping us enormously.

We also thank the secretaries – particularly the APS Reform Committee (ARC) – for their enthusiasm in modernising the APS. Last week I attended their expo and was impressed by the ideas and energy of the people and projects there.

An APS that is fit for the future

Our terms of reference ask for ambitious ideas to ensure the APS serves Australia well for coming decades.

Like many other traditional institutions and big organisations, the APS is wrestling with significant changes. Rising public expectations and declining trust; political volatility and geopolitical shifts; new ways of working and the opportunity and challenges of new technology.

To best serve Australia in this environment, the APS cannot stand still.

Over coming decades, the APS will need to meet, and I would say – exceed – these expectations.

You will need to provide outstanding advice to governments on the complex policy issues Australia will face. Your service delivery and your regulating will need to be of the highest standard. You will need to be trusted to help find the right solutions.

And you’ll need to provide stability and continuity – regardless of any volatility around you.

So our challenge is to determine how the APS can best inspire and serve in the future.

Our aspiration for the APS

We need a trusted APS, united in serving all Australians. This is our aspiration – it forms the organising principle for the ideas we’re sharing with you today.

What does it mean?

First, the APS must be trusted, by government, parliament and the people of Australia. Trust is founded on integrity, transparency and reliability. This is essential.

Second, the APS needs to be united in service, harnessing all the insights, resources and energy across its different parts, in pursuit of a shared purpose.

And finally, the APS needs to have the interests of the Australian people at the heart of all it does, as it serves the government and parliament. This means designing and developing solutions with people, not just for them.

That’s our aspiration for the APS of the future.

This review isn’t just about institutional change. At the centre of these initiatives are people: you. You play a critical role in how we, as a nation, advance. Each and every one of the 150,000+ people that make up the service.

The commitment and enthusiasm of the many people we have spoken to is very encouraging. We have been impressed with their appetite for change and we hope this appetite for change endures.

Priorities for change

To be truly fit for purpose in the years and decades ahead, we are focusing on four priorities for change. Let me touch on each of them – and give you a flavor of the specific ideas or initiatives we have in mind.

  1. First, we believe the APS should strengthen its culture, governance and leadership model.

More than ever, our nation needs an APS that is more than the sum of its many parts. This means a service that instinctively works together to tackle complex challenges. One that brings all its expertise, perspectives and resources to bear.

The people of the APS should understand and have confidence in what they are striving to achieve and how well they are performing.  

In practise this means settling a common purpose and vision to unite and inspire the APS. This can only be developed through genuine engagement across the service.

It also means ensuring the Board of departmental secretaries is collectively driving outcomes across the service. This Board already has a powerful legislated mandate but there is great opportunity to strengthen its role.

As part of this we need well defined and empowered critical leadership roles. In particular, this includes the Secretary of PM&C as “head of service” and the APS Commissioner as “head of people”. These roles and their responsibilities should be clearly understood by all.

The APS and the wider public also deserve to be clear on exactly what is expected of our APS leaders. They should have confidence in the processes that inform decisions on who those leaders are.

Finally, the APS culture must invite and welcome scrutiny – and provide transparency, making the most of the insights others can provide. A good start would be reinstating capability reviews of each department and large agency, and publishing the full results of the annual census.

  1. Our second priority is to build a flexible APS operating model.

You all know that the service will be asked to take on new responsibilities – requiring you to reconfigure your teams and deploy your skills where and when most needed. 

This means having rules, systems, structures and ways of working that empower, not encumber, each of you.

It also means being able to meet government priorities quickly and adeptly, by bringing together the right people, insights, resources and energy from across the service to get the job done.

As you would expect, we have heard a lot about machinery of government changes. These are ultimately decisions for government to make – but wouldn’t it be great to reduce the need for ‘MoG’ changes in the first place?

This is why we see great potential to apply dynamic ways of working and different structures across the service, regardless of department or agency. The objective is to make collaboration the norm.

We all know that budgets are tight and will remain so. But we think there are options to be more strategic in allocating funds and resources to the highest priorities.

Governments and the wider community rightly have great expectations of the public service. You should be resourced in a way that allows you to meet those expectations as efficiently as possible.

A genuinely flexible APS operating model will rely heavily on common processes and networked enabling systems.

There is much happening in this space. But it can be taken to the next level, particularly through initiatives to deliver a digitally enabled APS – with sophisticated systems and deep capabilities in big data, AI and automation.   

  1. The third priority for change that we are setting out today is about people. The APS needs to invest in capability and talent development.

This recognises a simple truth: the APS cannot fully deliver upon its priorities if we do not also prioritise the APS itself. 

This means investing in its leadership, capability and diversity – and supporting all staff to be ‘professional public servants’ in the 21st century.

It also means undertaking strategic workforce analysis and planning as a matter of course. Planning ahead, and understanding not only current capabilities, but also future capability needs. Our people deserve nothing less.

So we are developing proposals to build and maintain the necessary skills, innovate across the service, and provide fulfilling work opportunities. 

This includes formal, focussed professionalisation of all APS roles. This should encompass delivery, regulation and policy, as well as key enabling functions such as HR, procurement and IT.

We are also looking at empowering people managers, so they are able to devote the time to develop and nurture staff and teams – and are recognised for doing so.

There are great opportunities for more strategic approaches to recruitment and people development.

Mobility is important but must be carefully planned. It should include career-defining opportunities for all staff – perhaps through overseas postings or exchanges with state and territory equivalents.

These approaches to talent and capability development will ensure we have a workforce of capable and empowered people. New recruits and old hands alike will see great change.

This workforce will also spearhead a renewed focus on the foundations of outstanding policy and delivery excellence.

The opportunity is to reprioritise time, effort and resources for deep research, analysis and evaluation, and big data and analytics. This will underpin your capacity to provide high quality advice to governments.  

We also see a heightened need over the coming years to ensure policy advice integrates social, economic, security, and international perspectives.

  1. Our final priority for change recognises the imperative to develop stronger internal and external partnerships.

The APS’s success in the decades ahead will rely heavily upon meaningful, lasting relationships.

This will require quite a shift in mindset and approach. It means the APS bringing greater confidence in its role and contribution, but also greater humility in how it partners with others.

These partnerships will be many and varied – including with state, territory and local governments, civil society, business, communities, service providers, and the Australian public. This gives rise to some exciting possibilities to rethink how the APS designs and delivers government services.

For example, a service-wide ambition to ensure people can access seamless and personalised services and support – irrespective of which agency, portfolio or even government is responsible for its provision.

Stronger partnerships must be predicated on being open and accountable for sharing information and engaging widely.

Your stakeholders will appreciate an APS that is proactive in engaging with Australians on their views and expectations of the APS. Martin Parkinson’s commitment to begin regular citizen surveys is a great case in point.

The importance of relationships extends to APS investment in goods and services from private and not-for-profit providers. This requires the knowledge and skills to expertly design, oversee and manage contractual arrangements with integrity.

For this reason we are exploring approaches to procurement, to deliver better value and outcomes for Australians.

Finally, it is clear that the APS’s critical relationship with the executive and the Parliament has evolved over time. We have identified some opportunities to strengthen the relationship.

Key to this will be a commonly agreed understanding of respective roles. In particular we should formally recognise the important role of ministerial advisors. We also think there is scope to make it easier for ministers to access APS expertise and insights.

Delivering lasting change

Finally, I want to turn to implementation of our final set of initiatives. We need to be realistic: organisational change is not straightforward or easy.

The history of reviews of the APS is instructive. We have examined many of these reviews – and their many excellent recommendations. 

What surprised us was that many solutions and innovations have not been fully realised. Some changes lost momentum, others were less effective – but many good ideas were simply not implemented.

This tells us that it is one thing to recommend change but much harder to make it happen. We must be as focused on implementing change as on defining it.

This cannot happen in isolation. There is much that the APS can do to improve its own performance. You all know that.

But you also know that the broader authorising environment does matter.

The incentives must be clear. Strong support and active champions from outside the service are essential for lasting, transformative change.

Government in particular has a vital role to play.

To get this right, we need to get a few essentials in place.

For example, senior leaders need to own and drive change. Implementation needs to be resourced and coordinated day-to-day by a dedicated leader.   

The entire service needs to be deeply engaged – at all levels and in all locations. This cannot be left to a few or just imposed from on high.

And change needs to be focused on meaningful measures of success, not traffic light reports.

You can expect us to have more to say about the criticality of implementation in our final report.

Next steps

As I’ve said, the panel is struck by the deep spirit of service across the APS. There is a real groundswell for change at every level, from graduates to secretaries. This provides the basis for genuine transformation of the APS.

Ten months ago we were tasked with reviewing the APS, to ensure it is fit-for-purpose in the decades ahead. Now we need your help to shape, test and push the proposals I have outlined today.

We want your thoughts on how to strengthen our proposals, your advice on what’s missing, and your insights on how to make lasting change for the APS. 

I look forward to our discussion this morning. I encourage you to have a conversation with your teams when you return to your workplace today. Take this opportunity to influence the future of your public service, and through it, Australia.

As Abraham Lincoln and Peter Drucker said ‘the best way to predict the future is to create it!’

I believe the APS has the opportunity to create an exciting and vibrant future for over the next two decades – it is a journey worth pursuing.

Thank you.