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Meet the Secretariat

26 November 2018

The head of the review’s secretariat David Williamson was asked to speak to emerging and future public service leaders.

At an Institute of Public Administration event, he gave a candid and personal talk on his life and career, getting familiar with public sector reform and serving our panel. 

This is a useful recap of the vision our Chair outlined for the future of the service and the possible recommendations he has flagged so far.

Check this against delivery and see the event page for audio when it’s available.


Thanks Helen [Sullivan].

Firstly I pay my respect to the traditional custodians of the land we’re meeting on today, and to elders past and present.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about an exercise which hopefully has relevance to many of you as the ‘future leaders’ of the Australian Public Service.

Because the independent review of the APS is very much about the future — deliberately trying to look well ahead, with a reference year of 2030.

(When the review’s chair David Thodey met with all the departmental secretaries as a group a month or 2 ago, he opened up by telling them they’d all be dead by that time. It was an interesting tactic to get them on side... seemed to go down ok…)

Anyway before I start I should tell you who I am.

My experience of the public sector and its reforms

No doubt you’re all wondering how this weird Mr Bean-looking character wound up as a deputy secretary working on a review of the public service.

As Helen mentioned, I started as graduate in the APS back in 2000.

I grew up in various bits of country NSW but particularly in Wagga Wagga — place of many sporting stars — not including me, to my surprise. My dad was a clerk in local government.

I studied at Melbourne Uni — arts with a couple of years of law for luck — and was doing postgrad work while managing a bookstore.

Then, as you do, I sat the public service entrance examination — the last one ever as it turned out — as a competition with my younger brother to see who’d get the highest score.

You don’t need to ask who won, though he’s done alright for himself.

I hadn’t considered a public service career until then.

But one thing led to another. I wound up firstly in the agriculture department, and have spent the last 18 years or so in various roles and departments, a couple of white papers and inquiries, all broadly around industry policy in its various forms.

Until now.

And so, having stumbled into the APS without much of a career plan or a deep awareness of the public service, I’m now heading the secretariat working on the review.

This means I’m certainly not steeped in public sector reform.

I have been an interested observer and occasional participant in whole of APS work.

And, I’d have to admit, a bit of an armchair critic…

…Of the APS commission, of secretaries, of ministers, of bureaucracy, of crazy process and archaic IT and confusing sign-in procedures and carparking instructions and... maybe some things are just about me.

But I’ve also got to admit that I’ve rarely done anything about it — other than try to tackle things I felt were more within my own realm — or on a good day, my own control.

So my current role has meant that, firstly, I’ve had to try to get across a lot of material and a long history. Though fortunately we have some absolute gurus on the review team who are well versed in that history.

But more importantly, it’s also forced me to think about my role — not specifically heading a taskforce — but as an APS deputy secretary, as an SES officer in the public service, and simply as a public servant. And think about what that really means.

Because there are some pretty high expectations around our roles set out in some detail in our enabling legislation.

It’s a key question that keeps coming up in the review — how much of what needs to happen in and for the APS actually needs formal agreement or a decision?

How much of it is more about ‘oh just get on with it’?

And how much of what needs to be done has already been called out? I’ll come back to that.

An update from the review

Anyway, where is the review up to?

I’ll skip the process stuff, fascinating though it is.

In terms of the substance, as I mentioned, the terms of reference position it in the future — the idea of a ‘fit-for-purpose APS for the coming decades’.

So, looking at 2030 the panel has asked, firstly ‘what might the world look like then?’ and secondly ‘what will this mean for the APS?’

We’re about to publish some work on this looking at mega-trends and some realistic but provocative scenarios.

Scenarios that envisage various challenges and opportunities for Australia in general, but specifically for the APS.

For example:

  • Further declining trust in major institutions.
  • Social and geopolitical instability.
  • An exponential increase in technological advances.
  • Changing expectations, of customers, clients, citizens, the people.
  • And the changing nature of work.

It’s a useful device, not least because it helps to try and keep our eyes above the horizon, beyond the immediate gripes that inevitably dominate our thinking.

(Like how annoying those sign-in instructions are, especially the ones where there’s a photo taken)

The panel has framed up the major issues against this backdrop.

They’ve distilled the major emerging challenges from the extensive engagement and feedback we’ve had to date.

It has all highlighted what David Thodey calls a ‘vein of frustration’ — concerns that the APS at least risks becoming:

  • Too reactive, lacking in confidence, with disparate priorities.
  • Not fulfilling its potential or meeting expectations.
  • With relationships that are often fragile and distrustful.
  • Struggling to attract, retain and nurture the talent we need.
  • And with structures, rules and processes that inhibit success.

All sounds rather gloomy!

But of course, not evident everywhere — in fact we’re looking for examples that buck this trend and understanding why. And I’m interested in how much they resonate with your experience.

A vision for the future

David recently set out a vision of the APS of the future — an APS of 2030 and beyond that has tackled those emerging challenges and is thriving in the sorts of scenarios I touched on.

Specifically he named the five essential ‘end states’ the panel thinks represent that vision.

Firstly, an APS that is united in a collective endeavour.

This is the ‘why’. It’s about common purpose and how we meet our legislated objective serving the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public. It includes:

  • Culture, behaviours and values.
  • The roles of leaders, Secretaries, agency heads, central agencies, line departments, the APSC, portfolio bodies.
  • The concept of ‘one APS’ and its implications for decision-making and accountability.
  • How we entrench stewardship.

Secondly, an APS that is world-class in its policy, regulation and delivery performance.

This is the ‘what’. What we do and how well we do it.

On the one hand how we measure and evaluate ourselves, including against others. But also our disposition and focus on improvement. And whether we truly are a profession, with common and consistent standards.

Thirdly, an APS that is an employer of choice.

This is the ‘who’. The hopefully unique APS pitch of 2030.

  • Our investment in people.
  • Terms and conditions.
  • Recruitment processes.
  • Training and managing people.
  • How to reflect the diversity of the people we serve.
  • How mobile we need to be across the service but outside the service too.
  • Our capability.

Fourth, an APS that is a trusted and respected partner.

This is the ‘with who’. The relationships with people and organisations we need to inform, support, implement, or benefit from our work.

  • The elected representatives, Ministers and their staff.
  • States and territories (3 cheers for the Federation).
  • NGOs, business, academia.
  • The broader community.

And finally, an APS with dynamic, digital and adaptive systems and structures.

This is the ‘how’ — how we work.

  • Our processes, rules.
  • Our approach to risk.
  • Our enabling services and systems.
  • Our use of data and our digital capability.

So the panel is now considering — and asking — how do we make this vision a reality in 2030?

Recommendations being considered so far

David Thodey and the panel have given various signals — some more subtle than others — about what’s being seriously considered.

At a high level, he foreshadowed likely recommendations that go to:

  • Making the most of finite resources.
  • Tailoring solutions for people and places.
  • Embracing data and analytics at scale.
  • Deploying specialist talent to tackle specific problems.
  • Working across organisational boundaries and subject areas.
  • Boosting openness, transparency, ethics and pursuit of the public interest.
  • Engendering a healthy risk culture.

And more specifically, he flagged ideas like:

  • A new service-wide purpose statement and APS decision-making that reflects it.
  • A transparent, accountable performance framework that entrenches stewardship, drives behaviour and focuses on outcomes and results.
  • A full-scale ‘professionalisation’ of the public service, drawing on international best practice, including the ‘academy’ learning models used in Singapore and the UK.
  • A new employee value proposition that is attractive not only to graduates but mid-career professionals, and caters for people moving in and out of the service.
  • A new operating model which embeds agility and flexibility – with new rules around resources, people and funding.

Lessons from the past

It’s worth talking further about reforms and recommendations for a moment.

Our terms of reference say that the last exercise of such scope was the Coombs Royal Commission way back in the 1970s. The glory years.

But there have been lots of reviews, inquiries and reports into virtually every aspect of the public service in the intervening years.

As you would expect, we’ve had a look at many of them.

Reports from some heavy-hitters — Moran, Shergold, McPhee, Belcher. Capability reviews of most departments, ANAO work, Productivity Commission work, parliamentary inquiries.

Not to mention many APSC publications and other guidance material going back many years, setting out best practice in the core aspects of our work.

What’s most striking about them is that, by and large, the themes, the conclusions and the 300-plus recommendations still stack up.

They’re hard to disagree with. Or to ignore. And we don’t want to - we’re going to re-publish some as gentle reminder.

This raises an obvious but vital question — why is it that, if so many of the ‘solutions’ have already been identified, they haven’t been implemented? Or, if they have been implemented, why haven’t they ‘stuck’?

The hypothesis at this stage — and we’re open to suggestions — is that the answer lies in the fundamentals...

...Not whether — to take a simple example — greater collaboration in the APS is a good thing...

...But whether the APS’s underlying incentive structures and the authorising environment is such that greater collaboration is something to seriously support or facilitate.

(Unless there’s a crisis. Or if particularly noble people are involved.)

What this means for us

Getting to the heart of this is really important if you are talking about an APS for 2030 and beyond.

This is one reason why our chair has said — somewhat controversially — the review is unlikely to just list another 50 ‘you must do this, you must do that’ recommendations.

Instead, he is pushing us to try to focus on a smaller number of meaningful, bold changes or ‘transformations’, to use the language of the terms of reference.

They could be meaningful but simple. Or bold and complicated.

They could have been suggested before — but perhaps without an accompanying tweak in the authorising environment to make them ‘stick’.

And they could well involve numerous actions to implement.

But they won’t be something vague like ‘Recommendation 1: why can’t we all just get along?’

The sorts of ideas David has already floated could seriously change life as we know it as public servants in 2030.

Serving an independent panel

A couple of reflections on working with a panel of ‘externals’.

The cliche is that private sector types see everything very simply, profit and loss, etc etc, don’t ‘get’ the complexity of the APS, will have naive ideas and so on.

Well firstly the panel isn’t all ‘private sector types’.

Gordon deBrouwer is a very recent Secretary with a distinguished APS career.

And — apart from being (until recently) a Vice-Chancellor and distinguished academic — Glyn Davis also squeezed in a public sector career that included 4 years running the QLD Premiers’ department.

But the other members are first to acknowledge the many differences between public and private sector, the greater levels of ambiguity and uncertainty in which we operate.

They’ve been loath to leap straight to ‘let’s just do it like we do in company x’ approaches.

But they are very good at spotting nonsense and asking ‘why’, and demanding data, and taking a customer or client or citizen or people focus when they think the secretariat is indulging in public service navel gazing.

They are also good at bringing different perspectives and pushing us to seek out different perspectives.

And they are certainly independent.

Let's unpack that

Three other quick observations.

Firstly, we want this review to be relevant for everyone in the APS — and indeed beyond the APS — not just the leadership, or secretaries or agency heads. Or highfalutin policy-types.

We sometimes forget that most of the APS is a) outside Canberra and b) outside policy.

We want to paint pictures — not literally — of what the transformations could mean in practice for APS and EL staff in any context — how their day-to-day working lives will be improved.

That might be through better systems and access to information, through less time on process and more on substance, through being better managed or a better manager, through being empowered, through a genuine sense of being part of a community of practice.

Secondly, although we’ve had tremendous support and enthusiasm for the review, for what the panel has been asked to do, and for how they’re framing things up, there is also a degree of cynicism — or perhaps weariness — from some.

So we’ve heard a bit of ‘well what precisely does that aspiration mean’ or ‘we can’t be partners with stakeholder X’ or ‘we tried that before’ or ‘great idea but it will never happen because of X’.

It’s largely understandable. But we’d rather unpack those sorts of concerns, call out the underlying issues if necessary, and take them on.

Which brings me to the elephant in the room — if that’s the appropriate metaphor — what about ministers, politicians, ministerial offices?

Are we considering them? How can you ‘fix’ the public service if you don’t?

Well the answer is of course, the panel is looking closely at those issues.

They are fundamental to being a ‘trusted and respected partner’.

There is some incisive published work on this topic and loads of personal experiences and reflections.

The review’s lens is how can the public service be its very best.

By definition that includes building and maintaining influence and trust with Ministers, in an increasingly contested and contestable environment.

A starting point is a common understanding of respective roles and responsibilities.

And then looking at how best to embed that understanding, and what collectively needs to be done to get there.

The historic context is important here. The traditions of Western liberal democracy and where the various players — including the APS — sit in that tradition.

Get involved

Finally, to come back to where I began — the role of future leaders — ie you.

Of course it’s a cliche to say the future is in your hands. But it turns out the future is in your hands.

I haven’t talked about ‘culture’ but clearly, alongside whatever specific changes are made, the attitude and motivation and disposition of APS leaders — current but particularly future — will largely determine success or failure.

We do have a unique opportunity here.

So please, get involved in the review. We’ve got an online engagement platform up and running which is working through the ‘end states’ I mentioned earlier.

We’re also encouraging departments and agencies to keep debating these issues within their organisations.

If it’s not happening where you work, ask why! Or, better still, do it yourself

We’ve closed our formal capital ‘S’ submissions period but we’re certainly not closed for business.

We won’t be reporting until the middle of next year and we’ll be testing ideas before then.

It will be done iteratively.

The panel has been clear in its preference to develop this report together, to publish what its hearing and reading, to check in with people, to minimise surprises, with plenty of opportunities to contribute.

If you have some thoughts, or you and some colleagues have some thoughts — or if IPAA has some more thoughts — let us know.

Particularly with a view to those end states, that 2030 focus, and to those underlying questions of incentives and disincentives and authorising environment.

Because, for me, those issues are at the heart of this review.

What small lever should we pull over here to deliver us something over there?

It doesn’t matter if it’s an idea that has been suggested before. As long as there’s a practical and pragmatic way to make it stick, the review is definitely interested.

Also get involved more broadly.

Don’t be like me — a good piece of advice in general, really — but I mean insofar as don’t be on the sidelines.

Recently we’ve had several leaders both endorse the review and its directions but also say ‘don’t wait for the review’.

It begs the question — if something can be done now, why wait for the review?

Maybe instead of bemoaning sign-in procedures someone should design a common platform to streamline access to APS premises across the board?