Create a common purpose

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APS Review
20 Nov 2018

It is commonly recognised that high performing organisations have a strong understanding of their goals and a clear, unifying purpose. We know the public service is apolitical and serves the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public. But we’ve also heard that the Australian Public Service is lacking a unified purpose, a clear understanding of how and why its people do their do our jobs and what they’re seeking to achieve.

Do you think the Australian Public Service needs a single, clear, future-focused and aspirational purpose?

  • If so, what should it look like?
  • How could the Australian Public Service embed a common purpose across the service?
  • What would be the benefit of a common purpose across the Australian Public Service?
13 Mar 2019

I don't think we can achieve a shared purpose while there is vast inequity in pay and conditions across the APS. If we don't share common conditions of service, we lose the ability to have meaningful and productive staff rotation within the APS. Staff in high paying agencies have 'golden handcuffs' and never seek transfers, so the agency loses opportunities to innovate with fresh ideas. Managers in low paying agencies cannot attract candidates due to the poor conditions they have to offer, and who lose their effective staff, who transfer at level to get $10K+ more in pay for the same work.

How you unpack the current state and return to a standard collective agreement encompassing all APS agencies etc is a conundrum. The pay disparity is many thousands of dollars at each classification. Standard hours are different, leave entitlements and allowances are different, shut down is provided or not provided - the problem is immense.

Until you do this we are not one public service.

Michael Renner
11 Feb 2019

I think the Australian public would like to consider the Australian Public Service as a centralised entity that serves needs and provides functions and guidelines and surety in the most efficient means possible. We are approaching a time where the Public Service and Government should be able to work from one holistic base for each Australian citizen and seamlessly integrate services and understanding of individual circumstances. Greater acceptance of shared data with appropriate privacy considerations is inevitable, in my opinion, and certain facts like contact information preferences are a low risk regardless.

An Australian Public Service that works towards one common purpose of effectively working with every Australian citizen is indeed an aspirational goal that we should strive to achieve. Every department and every APS employee has their role to play in the greater view, and the sooner that we can see how we should work together the better is my view.

6 Feb 2019

There are likely to be a number of barriers to creating an understanding of common purpose for the APS, or the elusive 'One APS'. Many of these are likely to do with individuals' needs to have a clear sense of identity and purpose as well as a feeling of security and stability of circumstances, and so would be difficult to overcome.

However, one of the main extraneous factors that makes the One APS narrative difficult to sustain is the completely disparate working and pay conditions between agencies, even those with very similar operating profiles. (That being said, it also doesn't make sense to me that in some (but not all) agencies' pay scales are determined by level rather than by role/specialisation/technical expertise - but that is a separate matter.)

I think the focus in terms of 'creating a common purpose' should ultimately be about putting in place measures to better realise the potential of the shared experiences and expertise of the entirety of the APS (rather than whoever happens to be in a particular agency at a particular time), fostering cooperation (rather than competition) between agencies, and ensuring consistency of approach.

For example, more focus on APS-wide knowledge sharing and communities of practice utilising the many technologies now available could result in less 'reinvention of the wheel' and increased efficiency for the Commonwealth.

The way in which central agencies interact with other agencies also needs to be examined to ensure they are actually facilitating the achievement of outcomes by line agencies, and that where centralised policies and processes are needed to create checks on the activities of line agencies, the reasoning behind these processes is made more transparent.

Melanie Fisher
4 Feb 2019

Understanding the larger purpose of the APS and your agency's and team's role in meeting that purpose are important drivers of engagement and therefore job satisfaction and work performance.

My observation during my time in the APS is that, despite induction programs and grad programs, early career (and some long career) staff often didn't understand the purpose, context and history of the public sector/government machine they were part of. This matters because it can lead to distorted views of who you are here to serve, whether your role is as an advocate for one set of stakeholders over another or your agency vs another, a narrow view of what approaches are appropriate to use (eg that genuinely open-minded early stage consultation or co-design are inappropriate or risky) and so on.

Training seldom includes content knowledge but I have always felt that public sector staff should receive at least an introduction to key concepts as they relate to the public sector profession in economics, philosophy, public administration, political science and psychology. While this might be useful during induction or grad programs, it is probably more useful once people are a couple of years into their career as they will have more familiarity with the 'machine' which means the concepts and their relevance are likely to make more sense than when everything is new. This will give them something of a shared conceptual framework of the APS purpose and ethos and help them to orient themselves with in it.

In addition, finding ways to meaningfully develop positive networks with staff from other agencies will help to build a sense of common purpose, broaden their worldview and may help develop more genuinely collaborative and innovative policies and programs.

Peter May
23 Jan 2019

This is a really interesting question. It has been discussed in various contexts in my 30+ years in the APS and is just as relevant and as complex now as it was when first raised.

Many of my colleagues have been clearin their belief that their higher calling is to serve the Australian people 'by exercising their own judgment about what is in the best interests of the Australian people'. I generally give them a less diplomatic version of Michael Pezzullo's "If we have a different interpretation of the ‘public interest’, and feel strongly enough about it, we should resign our positions as public servants and run for elected office ourselves." That is, if you want to be a politician get elected.

There is a difference, perhaps semantic, between accountability and service. We are accountable to and serve the government of the day. We are accountable to Parliament, but only a few APS members serve it directly. There are rules about contact with Parliament that suggest that we are not all servants of Parliament.

All of this is even more complex in an agency, such as the one that I work in now, that is accountable to the state and territory governments and the government of another nation and whose work has only tenuous links with Commonwealth executive or legislative power. That might, of course, be an argument for removing the agency's staff from the APS.

it is also a difficult question in the other arm of government, unmentioned in your introduction, the judiciary. The APS staff in the courts serve the judiciary primarily and their purpose is quite different to that of APS staff working with the executive arm of goverment.

I have always thought that impartially serving the government of the day was a good guiding principle.

Anish-Babu Sathagopan Chellappan Pillai
23 Jan 2019

Over its history, the APS has been portrayed in many contexts by successive governments and various media channels.

The concerning bit about such portrayals has been the notion that the APS is a bunch of overpaid and incompetent people.

Sadly enough, this was reinforced by comments from at least one APS Commissioner with the support of the government of that day.

A service that is perceived as being against the people it serves faces significant resistance to making service improvements or obtaining funding for improvements to its strategy and operations.

One sad truth is that the politicisation of top-shelf APS executives i.e. Senior Executive Service (SES) staff and agency heads is an anti-pattern to the good work carried out by dedicated and underpaid public servants.

Politicisation and bad publicity adds to yet another problem rampant in the APS - third rate management, nepotism, back-stabbing and dark age behaviour from the leadership.

People with unacceptable management skills remain in various managerial roles demotivating staff, posing a serious threat to staff sanity and increasingly promoting un-deserving people into responsible positions of trust.

All of the above, and various other stories that various media have reported illustrate the disjoint nature and work culture in the APS today.

To create a common purpose, first the APS work culture has to be brought out of the dark ages. Second, bodies like the APS Board or its equivalent must be set up kick out political interests from the APS. Third, the media need to be seen as an ally, not an enemy - and treated as such. Fourth, politically motivated privatisation agendas must be avoided.

Finally, if Estonia can come out of the Soviet dark ages and lead the world in e-Government, so can we. Bring it on!

23 Jan 2019

There seems to be a threshold question here that has been overlooked.

The APS only needs a common purpose if, in fact, it actually has a common purpose. Does it?

It seems unlikely that it does at any level that isn't so vague as to be pointless.

What is the unifying purpose behind the work of people at the Bureau of Meteorology and those in the ACCC? A purpose, that is, that gives meaning and provides guidance on direction for those staff and those organisations?

Wouldn't it be better to be able to identify whether the public service is flexible and adaptable enough to meet all the different purposes to which its constituent organisations, and the people who run them, are put instead of worrying about whether we can come up with sufficiently vague words to describe everyone?

It seems to me the search for a common purpose is really a search for meaning in much of the work the APS does. The problem is, in many cases, there is no meaning. The purposes to which the APS are put, by senior staff and by ministers, are frequently linked to their own personal purposes right here and now instead of some grand vision.

The last question in the dot point list is actually worth answering before worrying about either of the first two. What exactly does creating a statement of common purpose achieve? If there already is a common purpose, stating it might firm it up but its hardly a key reform imperative. If there isn't one, having a statement of common purpose isn't going to create one out of thin air.

The key problem here is simply that, if a common purpose has benefit and doesn't already exist, then it needs to be created by giving the APS an actual common purpose - not by giving it an aspirational statement of what it would be nice if its common purpose was.

Ken Dobinson
23 Jan 2019

The clear purpose of the APS is to serve the community, or more directly its Australian citizens - not its political masters at the time which seems to be what it actually does today. However this is a collective or 'motherhood' statement for the whole service whereas each separate body of the service needs to enunciate its specific purpose in simple clear measurable terms. This seems to have arisen due to political interference in appointments of senior officers especially CEOs, who thence simply become 'Yes Minister' to their respective Ministers. CEOs and the bodies they head should advise and act according to their conscience for Australia's benefit irrespective of the personal outcome - they should stand above Ministerial wishes and direction. A wise response to a Minister pushing his own or his political barrow was "In all conscience Minster I cannot agree with what you propose, but if you direct me accordingly in writing, I will proceed as you direct" - I never found a Minister who was prepared to put his unsubstantiated direction in writing.

Nancy Crowe
10 Dec 2018

We work as one united organisation especially those serving the community such as ATO, DHS, ASIC etc. We need to work together with a system that reads records across the APS to best serve the community and give a fair open judgement to perpetrators.

10 Dec 2018


Michael Francis
10 Dec 2018

I like the discussion about increasing mobility, whether through secondments or ongoing appointments. Helping to increase an individuals breadth of experience across the APS will help promote better understand of the role of each agency and also contribute to the development of a more consistent and inclusive APS Culture.

Secondly is it worth exploring the role that variance in remuneration for comparable roles plays in creating fragmentating and tension across the sector. The Classification System, Work Level Standards and Bargaining Frameworks should ensure relatively consistent remuneration for comparable roles but the reality is this is often not the case.

This can contribute to the view, rightly or wrongly, that some agencies are inherently more valuable or doing work of greater importance than others

Catherine McCulloch
4 Dec 2018

Individual agency identites - Good point. I was under the impression that this had been addressed when the Commonweath Style Guidelines were realeased in 2013. Why Departments have been allowed to continue with individual branding should be clarified especially with regard to use of public monies.

3 Dec 2018

How to embed a common purpose across the service will be difficult since each department has a different purpose and structure and as a result a different culture - and thats really what the question is about.

This isn't entirely the result of APS Board removal or the independent and the nature of the appointment of secretaries.

The depth of knowledge required to accurately and competently fulfill the purpose of individual departments, means that a reasonable proportion of the individuals must remain within the department, and this alone with generate an individual culture.

Culture starts at the top, and if the senior and very senior executives are seen to be working together, standing together, and pulling together it would go along way.

Even small things like the legislative requirements which silo data to a particular purpose (and department or even part of a department), only able to be shared at particular times doesn't help with the culture of a shared purpose.

3 Dec 2018

The clear differential branding is understandable for some, but not for others. Organisations which provide customer service direct to Australians, need to be clear to those Australians about the service provided and the easiest way to do so is differential branding.

28 Nov 2018

'United in a collective endeavor' is a nice idea. To get there I would start by unwinding the incentives that drive us apart and reinforce siloed behaviors. This includes:

  1. Individual agency identities - it is unclear to me why we need agencies with individual brand identities? Surely this serves to reinforce an agency-first mentality. The Commonwealth is a single legal entity so why pretend that we are each 'special flowers' free to choose our own adventure (and not work together)?

  2. Outdated organisational structures - why do our organisational structures need to reflect the allocation of cabinet responsibilities. Never ending machinery of government changes have decimated the productivity of the APS by repeatedly pitting agencies/SES against each other in a fight for resources and status. Could we simply work as flexible teams in theme-based 'directorates' that serve whoever this weeks minister is? Could more decisions be made by a reinvigorated Secretaries Board, rather than left to highly autonomous Secretaries?

  3. Outdated funding models - similar to the previous. We talk about outcomes but then we allocate funding annually according to agency-owned outputs and wonder why it drives perverse behavior. Could rolling, outcome-based funding encourage more united efforts, with funding allocated by cross-agency boards?

People may object to the above on the basis of 'accountability'. 'Straight-line accountability from parliament to a specific agency output is a nice idea in theory but it doesn't exist in practice. The APS is tasked with tackling complex social and economic problems. This requires more sophisticated structures and funding models... and dare I say it... a degree of trust in the professionals that it employs.

APS Review
28 Nov 2018

Thanks for your insightful comments @Tanya, @Peter Garton and @BTG. The review panel has been grappling with many of these concepts, including working across organisational boundaries and subject areas; and boosting openness, transparency, ethics and the pursuit of the public interest.

Drawing from international examples, New Zealand is looking at how it can unify its public service around a common purpose, principles and values; and, in more recent times, has taken more of a stewardship approach to its public service whereby it exists to improve the intergenerational well-being of New Zealanders.

Do you think the Australian Public Service could benefit from taking a similar approach to New Zealand? How could this deliver benefits to the broader community?

(More information about New Zealand's reform process can be found here:

27 Nov 2018

I think the principles of user centred thinking are key here. Often policies are created to suit a political purpose and don't have the end user in mind. It's up to the APS to establish that link and ensure that the community is getting the benefits from any initiatives. It's simple, but the common purpose is to serve the Australian public and the benefit would be less silos and more user centred focus - so better services, better delivered.

26 Nov 2018

In order for the APS to have a unified purpose there needs to be a unified APS. The APS is, in actuality, extremely segmented into it's composite organisations and agencies. I think it's more important that the APS become fundamentally more unified than to be able to say we have a single common purpose.

Currently there is very little interaction (apart from formalised MOUs) and information flow between APS entities, especially at the 'lower', coal face levels of the various organisations. Most APS employees don't know the names and functions of more than a handful of APS entities outside their own employing organisation and don't truly identify as belonging to the APS, rather to their own organisation.

I propose the adoption of unifying measures such as:

  • an APS intranet homepage. The homepage could feature articles about the APS as well as it's composite bodies and individual APS employee roles. Also general APS info/articles. Charts showing APS organisations, their roles and contact persons.
  • Far greater secondment opportunities between agencies. Perhaps these could be advertised on the APS intranet
  • working groups/taskforces (that meet and communicate regularly) across organisations to address shared issues eg phoenixing of companies (ATO, ASIC, Registered Organisations, FW Ombudsman, etc)
  • more collective and consistent employment conditions/agreements between organisations
Peter Garton
26 Nov 2018

There is a simple and indisputable common purpose that, if it were adopted, would lead to a truly effective public service. That common purpose is to "serve the public".

There are several barriers to this goal, the principle one being that public service employees enjoy superior working conditions through their EBAs. They are a class apart from the rest of the workforce, protected from accountability and have an unseemly discretion in what they do and what they choose not to do in performance of their role. There should be an open and thorough review of these workplace conditions. The public expectation is that a person is engaged and paid to do a particular task. Having accepted that job and the pay, they should not then have the discretion whether to do that job or not.

The second most important issue is accountability. There is a serious lack of published performance measurement. In there appears to be a trend towards removing measurement altogether. One Public service entity I have been monitoring for a number of years is publishing less and less data and changing the units of measurement to make it difficult to follow trends. Those Departmental reports that I have looked at rely on self congratulatory qualitative narrative rather than quantitative analysis.

26 Nov 2018

Our goals as an APS have been heavily diluted since the abolition of the APS board where recruitment at the most senior levels was apolitical. These times will not return, however the need for each very senior executive cohort to avoid the embarrassment of ministers, and a resolute vision of their organisaiton means that the APS vision is heavily diluted with tokenistic platitudes.

I would venture that (almost) none of the APS agencies have anything in their vision statement to contribute to public administration - it is all about serving ministers and the government of the day - which is part of being a goo public administrator.

Other parts are elements of providing robust and defendable advice - regardless if it meets the whims of the political hour. It should be noted here that the public institutions have endured (in many cases) for over 100 years... no government has lasted more than 19 years!

I recent times, the national leadership of the APS has ben lacking in times of political turmoil. Stand up and be counted, politicians do political things, APS still pays benefits, defends the nation, arrests bad people, and collects taxes - nothing to see here... trust US with the country while others fight over who wants to be in charge!

To create a common purpose, movement between agencies should be seen as a right, not a punishment. Conditions should be largely consistent across the APS, managers (particularly in the IT space) should be better qualified to manage, and not just draw a wage based on market demand for skill - plenty of high paid bad managers with good knowledge!

Great a management stream, just like a legal stream, and possibly a technology stream so that pays can be adjusted based on market forces. people with subject expertise are not always managers!

This discussion is closed