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Karin Fisher


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I am a retired senior executive of the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) and currently employed there on a temporary and part-time basis. I was Group Manager of the Ethics, Employment Policy and Corporate Groups at various times from 2006 to 2016. The views expressed in this submission are my own.

My comments relate to three priority areas:

strengthening the culture, governance and leadership model—largely in relation to the APS Values

developing stronger internal and external partnerships—specifically the relationship with Ministerial advisers; and

investing in capability and talent development.

Strengthening the culture, governance and leadership model

Common vision and the APS Values

In his first submission to the Review, Andrew Podger made the point that it is the Australian Public Service Values that define the institution that is the APS and its ‘collective endeavour’. I support that view, although more accurately it is the APS Values together with the APS Employment Principles that define its collective endeavour, given the amendments to the Public Service Act in 2013.

Having said that, there may be some merit in the development of a succinct common purpose and vision for the Australian Public Service which builds on the objects of the Public Service Act in section 3 (a) and extends it to include the concept of stewardship. This would help to focus and ground staff in their work.

The APS Values were legislated in the late 1990s, first by regulation and later in the Public Service Act 1999. The Values were substantially amended in 2013. Together with the APS Employment Principles they provide a basis for consistent management decisions over the long term, even in turbulent environments. They are the foundation for relationships with stakeholders and establish trust. However, this requires leaders, credible to staff, who embed them thoroughly in their own agencies and when working together in the APS.

Values need to be inspiring. The APS Values are legislated and enforceable through their link to the Code of Conduct. They are also partly aspirational. They need to be simple and easy to understand so that staff can be motivated by them. This was largely why the Values were amended in 2013 so they could be more effective in practice. Overcomplicating them to fit more precisely a theoretical model, such as that indicated by Nikolas Kirby and Simone Webb, is likely to diminish their usefulness.

Moreover, if the Values change too often, their credibility is likely to diminish in the eyes of stakeholders, including employees. Given the substantial amendment to the Values made only six years ago, which followed stakeholder consultation, changes should be approached with caution and only if the perceived benefits are significant enough to counter the downside of a perception of shifting principles. Shifting principles that change at the whim of whoever is currently in charge will not have the confidence of staff or other stakeholders.

Marginal adjustments to their focus could be achieved through amendments to the Commissioner’s Directions.

My perception over recent years is of a lack of senior leadership attention to communicating the importance of public service values or to embedding them, including rewarding behaviour consistent with those values.

This may have contributed to public servants telling the APS Review team that they are grappling with a lack of confidence, and that working relationships can be fragile and distrustful. It may also have contributed to the results in successive employee surveys about the types of corruption staff believe they have witnessed. In the 2018 APS employee census, for example, 4,395 employees (4.6 per cent) reported witnessing corruption. The most commonly witnessed form of perceived corruption was cronyism, followed by nepotism.

If changes are to be made, I suggest that both the APS Values and the APS Employment Principles are considered together. Comments against the proposals suggested by Nikolas Kirby and Simone Webbe are at Attachment A.

The APSC has put a good deal of effort into research on embedding values for institutional integrity, particularly under Andrew Podger’s leadership. The current model is based on research, including within the APS, and work done by the OECD. It is available on the APSC website (Strengthening a values based culture: A plan for integrating the APS Values into the way we work).

When working within the model, the approaches used need to be varied and updated regularly to appeal to the widest audience and to remain fresh. The model itself, however, remains sound.

As well, Andrew Podger, when Commissioner, developed a program of evaluations, including into several integrity related matters, consistent with the Commissioner’s functions:

To evaluate the extent to which agencies incorporate and uphold the APS Values and APS Employment Principles

To evaluate the adequacy of systems and procedures in agencies for ensuring compliance with the Code of Conduct.

The work was separate to the surveys conducted for the State of Service Report. It may be timely to undertake something similar.

Finally, my experience in several projects aimed at ensuring an ethical APS is that they have worked best when public servants lead the work, informed and assisted by academics and/or consultants, not the other way round. It is public servants who understand how the bureaucracy works and have the knowledge to implement practical solutions that are meaningful to all stakeholders.

Develop stronger internal and external relationships

Ministerial Advisers

The relationship between the APS and the Government is important. Ministerial advisers are often the conduit for that relationship. There is little point in building infrastructure and culture to support the integrity and performance of the APS if that is undermined by a weak infrastructure and culture in the working environment of ministerial advisers.

In effect, ministerial advisers operate in a parallel public service. But it is a public service governed by the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 which has few of the checks and balances protecting integrity and demanding performance that are found in the Public Service Act. For example, there is a separate Statement of Standards for Ministerial Staff but it is not legally binding. The processes for making complaints of breaches of the Standards are unclear, as are the possible outcomes of any complaint. There is nothing about requirements for performance in respect of collaboration across Government.

The accountability of ministerial advisers has been the subject of much academic research. The argument that they are only an extension of their Ministers and have no separate constitutional existence is no longer sustainable.

Measures to train ministerial advisers needs to be accompanied by an overhaul of their employment arrangements to ensure sound, legally binding, integrity and performance standards that are transparent to the public they serve.

There may also be merit in extending the Standards of Conduct to all staff employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act.

Invest in capability and talent development

My experience in various roles involved in reviewing recruitment and performance management decisions across the APS, has a led to a view that agencies may have relied too heavily on the Integrated Leadership System (ILS) to recruit and manage the performance of non-SES staff. The ILS properly used is great tool. However, it deals with leadership behaviours, and there is little in it about technical or professional competence. If technical and professional competence is not assessed well on recruitment, and not rewarded, then it will inevitably diminish in importance and leave the Service reliant on outsiders.

The proposed ‘professions model’ may solve this problem to some extent. There is a need for new APS-wide recruitment and performance models that value technical and professional expertise for non-SES staff which agencies can adapt to their business.

In relation to high performers, when working in the UK in the 1980/90s I had the opportunity to see how a ‘fast stream’ worked in practice. That is, high performing staff identified on recruitment as having the potential to reach senior executive/Secretary level who skipped promotion levels to get them to the equivalent of EL2 quickly. The UK fast stream was costly, involving high investment in service wide recruitment and training. I believe it worked well because it was seen by all employees as effective and fair in selecting and accelerating the best and the brightest.

Australian public servants have often pointed to a fast stream as not sitting well with Australian mores and a dislike for elitism.

It is important for any talent management program implemented in the APS to ensure that those chosen are truly selected on merit and that, if participants are assessed as not continuing to meet requirements, they are moved off the program. It is particularly important, given current levels of perception of nepotism and favouritism across the APS, that program participants are demonstrably the best and the brightest.

Karin Fisher

April 2019

Attachment A

ANZSOG Proposal


Amend description of Committed to Service Value to read:

The APS demonstrates leadership, is professional, objective, innovative and efficient, and works collaboratively to achieve the purposes set by Government to serve the Australian Community

Having leadership of the highest quality is important to recognise as a Value. It works well with a Commitment to Service.

The current formulation of service

…to achieve the best results for the Australian community and the Government is simple and inspiring to individuals to do a good job for the people they serve day-by-day.

The proposed amendment adds an unnecessary over complication and detracts from the main message.

Amend description of Ethical Values to read:

Trustworthy The APS keeps its commitments, is honest and reliable.

It is possible to view all of the APS Values and Employment Principles as defining what is ethical for the APS.

It is also possible to view them as containing (i) ethically based values/principles (such Ethical and Impartial) and (ii) performance-based values/principles (such as Committed to Service; and Requires Effective Performance).

Having the highest ethical standards is an aspirational statement that I have used many times in values/code training of staff at all levels and have found that employees relate well to it. It would be a pity not to be explicit in any revised APS Values statement that the APS must be ethical.

‘Keeping commitments’ is currently part of the Commissioner’s Directions on the Ethical Value and there does not appear to be any strong reason to change it.

Amend description of Impartial Value to

The APS appoints officers based on merit, is apolitical and provides the Government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence.

Whether merit is a Value or an Employment Principle was a contentious issue in 2013.

Given apparent levels of perceptions of patronage and favouritism in the APS, moving the merit principle into the APS Values could help in shifting the culture. However, if amendments are made, I suggest it is a separate sixth Value in its own right.

The concept of impartiality is too important to confuse with processes to ensure merit.

(On a point of detail, the concept of ‘office’ was abolished by the Public Service Act 1999.)

I also suggest that the Employment Principle of providing ‘workplaces that are free from… patronage and favouritism’ be amended back to a separate provision of the Act. This is moving back to the position before the 2013 amendments which were made in order to simplify the legislation and assist understanding. However, the prohibition is important and has been seen by employees responding to the State of the Service census as under threat. With hindsight the 2013 amendment was a mistake which is best rectified.

New Value of:

Stewardship The APS is supported by the stewardship of its employees, who are collectively responsible for its integrity.

I suggest this is unnecessary. I accept that stewardship is a collective responsibility, but it is critical to leadership. Employees can understand their collective responsibility to support leaders in this without a specific value being necessary to inspire and guide them in their day to day decision-making.

A separate Value may diminish the prominence and hence the effectiveness of the other Values.

If necessary, the concept of all employees having responsibility for the stewardship of the APS could be added to the Direction on the Ethical Value.

New element of Code of Conduct:

An APS employee must work collaboratively to ensure that the APS can be relied upon to fulfil its commitments.

I suggest this is unnecessary. The main purpose of the Code of Conduct is not aspirational, but is a set of behavioural standards with which APS employees must comply. Failure to comply can result in termination of employment.

The proposed new element requires an employee to work collaboratively for a particular purpose. If there is evidence that an employee has not worked collaboratively so that the APS can be relied upon to fulfil its commitments, the current elements of the Code in sections 13(2) and (11) of the Public Service Act would be able to deal with this behaviour. The ‘Committed to Service’ Value could be cited for the purposes of section 13(11).

New element of Code of Conduct:

An APS employee must either act, if it is within the proper scope of their own responsibilities to address evidence of breaches of the APS Code of Conduct and risks to APS integrity, or report them to an appropriate officer who can.

This proposed element is also unnecessary. The Public Interest Disclosure Act deals with serious matters. Section 13(11) of the Public Service Act, through the binding Directions on the Ethical Value, also deals with failures to report and address misconduct. And section 13(2) of the Public Service Act deals with a lack of care and diligence in addressing risks to integrity.

The current Code, which has been tested over many years, is sufficient in my experience to deal with any unacceptable behaviour an agency may wish to address.