Thank you for the opportunity given to APS employees to comment on this important review.
My comments here are in the context of a 30 year APS career as a middle manager combined with private sector work experience. I am very proud to be in the APS and have worked in a number of agencies providing administrative and technical services. It is a world class professional public service yet being a ‘big ship’ it has its challenges. I note the panel consists of mainly industry leaders and 1 APS leader. The reason I raise this is simply that government administration is a knowledge domain in its own right. I feel that Dr Gordon de Brouwer has his hands full.
WHAT WE SHOULD KEEP –
The APS has a strong and trusted mission, to protect the things we value in Australia – our people, our finances, our natural resources and our culture. The challenge is to retain and strengthen its core by:
A) Retaining a strong and sound bureaucracy core in the APS. The word bureaucracy generally has negative connotations, yet it is the administrative processes, legislation, regulations, red tape and even green tape, that safeguards our citizens from random commercial and criminal influences. When things go belly up and someone abuses the system we look to the government for answers. The public generally wakes up to corruption before Industry or the APS. Politicians feel the pressure from their constituents and Industry gets a slap on the wrist and the APS is then forced to clean up the mess. With a strong APS the country has a good solid ‘broom’ hence good administration must be protected.
B) Retaining strong regulations. My observation is that our appetite for regulation is cyclical. When things are ticking away ok we want less of it, and when something goes wrong we want more of it. A respected person said with regards to regulations, ‘no one wants regulations until your family gets food poisoning’. It is such a wise statement that applies to whole of society experiences – financial advice, use of chemicals, building code, health and aged care, transport, telecommunications, media, migration and so on. Protecting our citizens, our culture, our way of life, and our environment from unethical and criminal practices is exactly what the APS needs to do and do well. There may be a cost associated with regulation but the damage that can be done through lack of is far more costly.
C) Keeping strong agency powers and resources to match. The APS needs full backing when it is administering legislation. We have seen with water theft in the Murray/Darling basin, banking corruption through the Banking Royal Commission, scandals in our Age Care facilities and the poor treatment of Children in Detention that self-regulation falls short of expectations. As a result I think the public is now asking government agencies to be more assertive when enforcing the law, warnings and minor fines are not enough. There is an expectation of real accountability and criminal prosecutions not just promises of improved behaviour. These tougher actions from regulators require more skilled resources not less, so downsizing and cost cutting undermines an agency’s ability to administer laws.
WHAT WE SHOULD DO BETTER -
I don’t blindly defend the APS since it is often slow to respond at all levels. In my view the key is the APS employees – the workers and the team leaders and here is where I believe the APS can do better by learning from the leading employers.
Step 1) Become a better employer. Our main asset the people are, under-rewarded with medium and stagnant wages, conditions of service eroded at every opportunity and hours/workload constantly increasing. The remuneration packages barely entice an intelligent and educated person to apply for work in the APS let alone be driven and innovative. Let me give you a real and personal case study. I had worked in the APS for 10 years when I was made redundant in the late 1990s. Soon after I gained employment with a major consulting firm in the early 2000s, and there were marked differences: a) my APS knowledge was suddenly valued; b) my salary doubled; c) I negotiated a package with 50% of my wages going to superannuation; d) I was sent to Philadelphia USA for extensive technology training; and e) I was part of a world-wide network of consultants. That firm was streets ahead when it comes to attracting and retaining talented people.
Step 2) Address the mundane and thankless tasks. Once in the APS the shine soon comes off the role very quickly. They are repetitive jobs where we struggle with out-dated technologies, poorly trained people managers, and we are locked in without opportunity to move up, down or across. Senior managers often talk about the benefits of rotation but no one implements a rotation program. We hold onto employees in small teams year after year until the program dissolves, or they leave disillusioned. The talented and lucky ones may get a promotion but many just move sideways. The concept of rotation and ease of movement must be addressed APS wide. I would appreciate being tapped on the shoulder and told to go help Health with their CRM implementation. I feel that we are too politically correct about movement and don’t want to upset anyone by asking them to shift. Also why can’t we apply for a lower level transfer when the work is interesting or our health and personal needs require it?
Step 3) Recruit better, smarter and faster. In the APS our recruitment processes are slow and drawn out. When the successful applicant is offered the job months have passed and it is quite likely that they are no longer available. I support merit based recruitment but snail-pace recruitment based on a misused/misguided selection criteria, is frustrating for the job owners and job-seeker. By contrast when I applied for the contracting role, I received three short and precise interviews – the team leader checked my skills and knowledge, then the HR department called to check citizenship etc., followed by a conversation with the senior manager/partner. If you pass all three interviews you are in. In addition, the Australasian business had 1 role coordinator who monitored all vacancies and allocated people to new jobs. You had to be proactive and discuss your preferences with her. She would then transfer you from one manager to another based on your skills and needs. Funding your position was negotiated between the two managers. If you were in training then the costs may be shared, if you were fully effective the new manager absorbed all your costs. A far different experience to APS recruitment.
We have a world class APS that can adopt innovation quickly and is open to change. There are many aspects of the APS that we need to keep and enhance to best protect and serve our citizens. Let’s create a vibrant and exciting employer and in turn a driven and motivated workforce will look after the work.