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A vision for Australia's public service

7 November 2018
David Thodey speaks at the Institute of Public Administration

Review Chair David Thodey has called for ideas on how we reach 5 different characteristics for the future of the public service.

Speaking to the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s ACT conference, David summarised what the review is hearing, its aims for the future and how to have your say.

Please check this against delivery. Watch and read the Institute’s video and transcript of the speech and the question and answer session that followed.  


I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we meet on today and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I also want to extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

My thanks to Drew Baker and the Institute for giving us this platform to reflect on the future of the Australian public service — an institution that has contributed so much to our society, economy and democracy.

I would also like to thank:

  • conference chair and host Carmel McGregor
  • secretaries Renee Leon, Steven Kennedy and Chris Moraitis
  • Director General and head of the ACT public service Kathy Leigh
  • Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott
  • my review colleagues including Gordon de Brouwer
  • and all of you for the time you are investing in thinking about the future of your sector

You, the Australian public service, carry the baton for what is now a 117-year tradition of service to our people and nation. It is a privilege to experience the extraordinary depth of passion and commitment displayed across the service as we have started this review. It really is quite remarkable and inspiring.

However, all large, complex organisations around the world are experiencing a period of change. This is often described as a period of ‘no ordinary transformation’ by the commentators, driven by many external factors.

And the Australian public service is not immune to these pressures. While it has performed well in the past, it must continue to reinvent itself if it is to deliver on its mission.

We need a confident, independent and impactful public service!

I said at the outset of this review that the Australian public service is not broken. And our work to date has validated this. We’ve uncovered significant optimism and capability across the service — but there is also a vein of frustration.

The submissions covered a wide range of issues:

  • purpose and culture
  • outcomes and people
  • how the service is valued
  • skills and capability
  • leadership
  • expertise
  • and the difficulties of remaining responsive and inventive

The submissions also made it clear there are many challenges, frustrations and inefficiencies.

These include:

  • a lack of confidence in parts of our organisations
  • a disparity or misalignment in some of our priorities
  • a sense of not always meeting potential or fulfilling expectations
  • fragility in many of our relationships
  • a struggle to find and hold onto good people
  • and too many barriers to success

What is encouraging is the willingness of the public service to identify these challenges, confront them and propose new solutions. This is an essential part of remaining relevant and impactful. 

I am going to discuss 4 areas today:

  • some considerations in navigating the future
  • a vision for the APS
  • some thoughts on how to realise that vision
  • and the review’s plan of action

Navigating the future

First, let me start by talking about the long term — because the next 2 decades are guiding this review.

I understand this morning you looked at the domestic and international trends that will shape our lives in 2030.

Our review commissioned some work on how these might play out, which shortly we will publish on our website.

As you know, it’s very difficult to predict the future but we do know some external realities:

  • populations are shifting in location, number and age, domestically and globally
  • the resources we need are scarcer, yet more in demand
  • power is converging in different parts of the world while simultaneously becoming less centralised

To these changes in our society and geo-politics, we add:

  • growing public expectations of government
  • advances in technology, data, computing power and online threats
  • new jobs and different ways of working

While scenario planning cannot predict the future, it is a powerful tool to work through unknowns and overcome our tendency for short-term thinking.

Here are some glimpses of the possible futures we have thought about:

  1. A world in 2030 where disruptive technologies have developed at an accelerated and exponential pace. Where huge leaps in quantum computing, AI and blockchain see Australians embracing the possibilities this offers their lives.
  2. How about a world where people have lost further trust in big institutions and old established brands – preferring to reconnect with their local communities, embracing place-based approaches, buying local and relying on tailored services?
  3. Or a world where global instability increases at all levels — political, economic, environmental and social — causing all nations to turn inwards? Where caution and conservatism around data and cybersecurity slows the rate of technology adoption.

Each of these futures pose challenges and opportunities for the APS. Each would demand an APS that looked and functioned quite differently to today. 

Such scenarios reinforce some clear ‘no-regrets decisions’ for the public service, including:

  • focusing and making the most of finite resources
  • tailoring solutions for people and places, greater personalization of services
  • embracing data and analytics at scale
  • deploying specialist talents to tackle specific problems
  • working across organisational boundaries and subject areas
  • boosting openness, transparency, ethics and pursuit of the public interest
  • demonstrating people come first

We know the service is working on many of these areas already — in a way there is nothing new. …So what can we do to help? 

A vision for the public service

A number of people have set out their compelling vision for the Australian public service recently.

I agree with the Minister’s hope for a public service which is enabled to do a good job and advances the interests of Australia and Australians. Effectiveness, efficiency and productivity are good measures. 

I like the Shadow Minister’s recent description of ‘clear eyes, cool heads, corporate memory, policy courage’. It’s so evocative of what our public service can and should be.

I applaud the Public Service Commissioner’s vow to maintain the service as the ‘beating heart of good government’.

And just last week, one of your secretaries provided us with a very timely and insightful reminder of the historical context for the Australian public service — the very foundations of your work.

Each of these perspectives are relevant to this review.

I see a strong future for your profession. A future where you can be all you wish to be— forward looking, respected and impactful, delivering the highest quality work, engaged and motivated to be your best.

Today I would like to lay out our initial thinking of the vision this review has for the public service. There are characteristics or themes that we are focused on for 2030 and beyond.

The 5 themes are:

  1. a strong Australian public service united in a collective endeavour
  2. a world-class Australian public service in its policy, regulation and delivery
  3. an Australian public service that is truly an employer of choice
  4. trusted and respected by its partners
  5. and renowned for using dynamic, digital and adaptive systems and structures

    So the question is – how do we make these aspirations a reality in 2030.

Realising this vision

These attributes are designed to take us away from inputs and outputs, the constant ‘you must do x and y’ advice so often given to the public service.

In these 5 qualities, we describe a state of being which — if consistent and pervasive — would make a difference.

We will use this framework to consider our recommendations. And those recommendations are likely to include actions for the public service, as well as legislative or other changes for government.

Of course these attributes are not set in stone. But they are our overall direction and themes that we are adopting to help us explore big ideas that can drive real, sustainable change.

Let me take a moment to look at each.  

The first — united in a collective endeavour — is about a clear purpose and clarity of roles which unites the whole service.

This asks, why are we doing this?

How are we delivering on our current legislated objective — serving the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public?   

It goes to fundamentals — culture, behaviours and just how aligned we really are to the Australian public service values.

Leaders play a major role in getting people on the same page — Secretaries and their board and agency heads bringing to life the ‘one APS’ enshrined in legislation.

Other parts of the public service have crucial roles to play — whether central agencies, line departments, the Australian public service Commission, or the many portfolio bodies.

This is a whole ecosystem which needs to be driven by a common purpose. Perhaps a new, clear purpose statement, owned and lived across the Australian public service? With decision-making arrangements that deliver ‘one APS’?

A clear purpose must reference a transparent, accountable performance framework that entrenches stewardship and drives the behaviours and outcomes we all seek.

As for a focus on the people, Australia’s first public servant Sir Robert Garran knew they were the main game from the start.

120 years ago, he wrote ‘The nation will be a nation, not of clauses and sub-clauses, but of men and women; and the destiny of Australia will rest with the Australian people rather than with the Australian Constitution.’

In drafting the Constitution, Garran’s fingerprints are on the birth of this nation and his work has served us well for over a century.

Which brings us to the second part of our vision for Australia’s public service in 2030 — world-class performance in policy, regulation and delivery.

This goes to the heart of what you actually do, and the quality of what you produce and implement.

In part, this stems from the rest of our vision. You don’t get great performance without empowered and courageous leaders, a high calibre workforce and modern work practices.

World-class is more than a metric. It’s an attitude, a disposition, an outward focus on the people we serve — a curiosity to learn and a push for continuous improvement.

In pursuing excellence, we should of course measure ourselves against others.

As one workshop participant told us, the aim is to ‘deliver services as if your customer had a choice’.

We need agreed ways of evaluating performance and results. We also need to build skills, capability and expertise. And assess the extent to which the Australian Public Service is truly a profession, with common and consistent standards.

What could an Australian public service version of the UK Civil Service Policy Profession look like? Could we take the ‘Academy’ model and apply it right across the service?

Would that develop the capabilities needed?

And so we come to the third part of our vision for the future of the Australian public service — being an employer of choice.

Public service is valuable and valued work and must be seen as such — both from within the service and to those outside it. It should continue to be a home for some of our best and brightest people.

The question is how do you attract, nurture and keep the people you need?

Is there a compelling employee value proposition that will be compelling to the graduates and mid-career professionals who will become senior leaders in 2030, and what capabilities will we need?

This means investing in the necessary resources to develop our people. If you don’t invest in something you don’t get a return — it’s that’s simple.

So we’re interested in terms and conditions, recruitment processes, and developing, training and managing people. How should the public service reflect the diversity of the people it serves? How will you draw on your people and outside help to meet your objectives in 2030?

And what would it take for the service to become more porous, with people moving in and out during their careers, bringing expertise and insight from other sectors?

One workshop attendee described their public service employment as ‘started by chance and stayed by choice’. It’s an insight into how fulfilling they find their work and a vote of confidence in what you have to offer.

Even as an employer of choice however, the public service will never be at its best working in isolation.

Which brings me to the fourth quality we want to see — the public service as a trusted and respected partner.

We’ve chosen the word ‘partner’ deliberately. It applies to the relationships between the public service and the people and organisations you need to inform, support, implement, or benefit from your work.

In this group, we include:

  • the Parliament, elected representatives, Ministers and their staff, the government of the day and governments of the future
  • your peers in other levels of government
  • non-government organisations such as business, academia and charities
  • and the broader community

We want to set out what genuine 2030 partnerships would look like with each of these groups, developing and delivering workable and successful outcomes for the Australian people. What would encourage collaboration, clever compromise and clearer understanding of each other’s capabilities and constraints?

And how does partnership look in different contexts, for example with a policy department versus a regulatory agency, or in the large delivery departments?

There is real equality in the open and free sharing of ideas. It’s a process that shuns status and embraces curiosity and debate. One workshop participant suggested the APS should facilitate rather than lead discussion on important issues.

It’s interesting also to reflect on how this trust has manifested previously. Let’s consider the critically important partnership with the government of the day.

Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies had a great relationship with the public service. An economic adviser who served a number of PMs said he spent more time with them than his Ministers.

A secretary of his department referred to the relationship between the public service, Menzies and his Ministers as ‘an integrated enterprise’ which ‘led to much of the achievement of the whole Menzies period’.

Go forward 20 years when Bob Hawke was in the early stages of a Prime Ministership known for enduring reforms such as Medicare and floating the Australian dollar.

It may not have been a coincidence that — as several people have pointed out to us — most of the Ministers in that government had public servants as a chief of staff or senior adviser.

In serving others, trust is a foundation stone for good work. It is vital to government, but also underpins doing things differently.

Global expert Rachel Botsman calls trust ‘the conduit that enables new ideas to travel’ and the ‘social glue between the known and the unknown’. It is hard to forge a new path without it.

It’s in this spirit of doing things differently that we come to the fifth and final characteristic for our future public service — a dynamic, digital and adaptive organisation with agile systems and structures.

This is about how you work. And how we must make it easier to be nimble and flexible while having clear processes, rules and approaches to risk - that enable not constrain.

It is a difficult balance.

But it demands serious thinking about your current operating model, the rules around resources, your people and their incentives, how funding is allocated, and enablers such as digital systems and a healthy risk culture.

It also means acknowledging that, outside the APS, no one cares how many departments there are. No one knows what a ‘MOG’ is or even which level of government is doing what.

But people do care about the services they receive and the outcomes for the nation.

Interestingly, a new take on the ‘outcomes’ focus has been deployed with some success recently in New Zealand and in New South Wales.

We’re not the first to say that collaboration across the APS is vital to success. But how many times have we all seen that undercut by process, structures, funding or culture?

When it comes to the systems we work with, the small things can significantly impact productivity. While the big ticket items can slow major improvements.

As an example, Australia’s secure cloud strategy found that our resourcing models don’t support uptake for that service-based technology. Those sorts of barriers must go.

One public servant asked the review how we could shift a mentality that sees the APS continuing to use antiquated software because newer versions can be seen as extravagant.

The judgement implicit in that word — ‘extravagant’ — is something we need to change.


We’ve spent the last six months listening, talking and thinking. Starting today we have opened the next phase of engagement for this review which includes an online forum available on our website.

There we will share the initial thinking of the panel on each of these 5 themes, starting with trusted and respected partner. We’ll share more of the research guiding our work as well.

What we are looking for is your ideas on how we realise our vision. And we’ll be scanning for suggestions which are transformative.

This change must stand the test of time. Plenty of ideas have merit but the bar we set is a direct contribution to the vision I’ve outlined today.

Transformation does not necessarily mean revolution. The simplest ideas can change the world.

We know there are many good initiatives already underway. We’re not about reinventing the wheel.

But we also know there have been many well considered ideas in the past. So we are looking at why they weren’t implemented or fully realised.

It seems to us that at least some of the answers lie in our authorising environment, the incentives and the disincentives — some explicit, others implicit — which underpin the current Australian public service.

In the coming months we are committed to unpacking these basics and reframing them in the context of a public service that is fit-for-purpose in the decades ahead.

I encourage you to continue to advocate for your work and your craft. You can and should have these conversations with your peers and your organisation.

I have great confidence in your future and you should too.

We all need the Australian public service to be confident, independent and impactful — as it has been for more than a century.


  • Robert Garran’s quotes are from his handbook The Coming Commonwealth, 1897
  • The insights to Prime Minister’s Menzies relationship with the public service is from The Pivot of Power: Australian Prime Ministers and Political Leadership from 1949 to 2016 (download the relevant chapter)