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  • Writer's pictureStratPlanTeam

Lessons from the Australian Public Service (APS) - a vision to transform

Updated: Jun 13


Canberra

Introduction - Review of the APS


The Australian Government initiated a comprehensive review of the Australian Public Service (APS) in May 2018 to ensure its readiness for future challenges. Engaging over 11,000 individuals and organizations, the review conducted extensive consultations, surveys, and literature reviews. This summary outlines the key findings and recommendations for transforming the APS to better serve the government, Parliament, and the Australian public.


The report also provides helpful insights for other countries considering or undertaking a review of their Public Service at a holistic level. Many of the challenges identified will resonate as will the proposed steps to address these and the longer term aspiration.


The need for transformation


Current state and challenges

The review found that although the APS exhibits areas of excellence, it is not performing optimally and is unprepared for the significant changes anticipated by 2030. Historical issues such as insufficient people management, outdated enabling systems, and a problematic culture hinder its effectiveness.


Past reviews and implementation

Despite numerous previous reviews highlighting similar problems, the APS has not effectively addressed these issues. This report advocates for a new approach to implementation, emphasizing a dedicated and sustained effort for successful transformation.


Vision for the APS of 2030


Trusted and united service

The review envisions the APS of 2030 as a trusted entity, united in serving all Australians. This requires delivering outstanding services, embracing data and digital advancements, reducing hierarchical barriers, and strengthening leadership and governance across the service.


Key goals

To achieve this vision, the APS needs to:

  • Provide exceptional services utilizing digital and data analytics.

  • Be dynamic, adaptive, and resilient.

  • Become an employer of choice with a highly skilled workforce.

  • Foster partnerships with various stakeholders.

  • Operate efficiently as a unified APS.

  • Uphold APS values with integrity daily.


Detailed recommendations


Clear purpose and vision

The review stresses the importance of a unified purpose and vision for the APS, emphasizing integrity and trust. It suggests revising the Public Service Act 1999 to clearly define APS principles and values, promoting a culture of accountability and transparency.


Building partnerships

The APS must enhance its external focus, collaborating effectively with communities, businesses, and other governments. A proposed Charter of Partnerships aims to foster meaningful interactions and co-design solutions to complex problems.


Leveraging technology

The APS needs to catch up with technological advancements to meet public expectations. This includes conducting a comprehensive ICT audit, creating a whole-of-government ICT blueprint, and significantly building digital capabilities across the service.


Strengthening capability

Investing in the APS workforce is crucial. The review recommends a coordinated workforce strategy, improved recruitment processes, and enhanced learning and development opportunities. It also proposes establishing an APS professions model to deepen expertise and standardize performance management.


Dynamic and responsive organization

The APS must adopt flexible structures and reduce hierarchical barriers to respond swiftly to government priorities. This involves portfolio clustering, agile teams, and common core conditions and pay scales to improve efficiency and support employees.


Empowered leadership and governance

Effective governance and leadership are essential for successful transformation. The review suggests clarifying roles and responsibilities, strengthening the accountability of Secretaries Board, and formalizing the roles of the PM&C Secretary and the APS Commissioner.


Factors for successful change:


  1. Effective leadership and coordination: A senior transformation leader should drive reform, with trust from the government and the ability to remove obstacles. The Secretaries Board must be accountable and agree on an implementation plan with measurable targets.

  2. Building capability and measuring progress: The APS should simultaneously build long-term capability while delivering results. Regular measurement of performance and capability indicators is essential, and ambitious service-wide targets should be set for transparency and accountability.

  3. Sufficient and sustained investment: Adequate funding is crucial. This can come from reallocating existing resources or new investments. There is a need for prioritizing investment in physical and digital capital to address under-funding and technology deficits.

  4. Cultural change: A high-performing culture of openness, innovation, and collaboration is vital. Leaders at all levels must foster this culture and ensure transformation is integrated into daily work.


The investment required


The transformation requires strong leadership, clear accountability, and continuous investment, supported by successive governments. The review stresses that investment, particularly in digital transformation and public capital, should be prioritized and could yield long-term benefits. At least $100 million annually is needed initially, with potential total investment reaching $1 billion per year.


This transformation is viewed as a crucial and timely opportunity to ensure the APS is fit for purpose, capable of delivering high-quality advice to the government and outstanding services to Australians. The report provides evidence-based recommendations for both short-term changes and long-term reforms, advocating for a united and well-supported workforce committed to achieving real outcomes for Australia.


Four factors for transformation of the APS

Pathway to transformation
Pathway for Australian Public Service
APS
Australian PS

Observations for other countries


Every country has its own context with unique risks and challenges as well as opportunities which requires a tailored response. That said, most countries have similar aspirations over the long term and will have identified many of the same priorities that the APS review highlighted.


Having a clear purpose and vision is an obvious starting point - however, many federal level governments do not have a coherent overall vision or articulated macro level purpose. This should be a priority for every country. The focus for many strategies also tends to centre around single agency functions and only connect with an immediate sector and no further. Having a unified overall purpose to and vision for 'government' can be extremely useful and will have different levels of significance and impact [for each country] depending on a number of political, economic, social and other reasons. It should be a given that there is a shared understanding of the principles and values, and a culture of accountability and transparency.


Building partnerships with communities, non-government, businesses, and other governments is crucial for the implementation of the strategy. Meaningful co-design of solutions to complex problems will require early, deep, and trusted work that may not be the instinctive starting position for governments. This effort to partner is worth persisting with in order to nurture robust and enduring solutions.


The reflection that the APS needs to adopt technological advancements to meet the expectations of the public is something most governments will identify with. The private sector will frequently be ahead of government with its innovative offerings so it will be a matter of prioritising where government invests its technological capabilities. To help calibrate this effort, a good understanding of status quo (i.e. comprehensive ICT audit), a clear understanding of the direction government would like to take (i.e. a whole-of-government ICT blueprint), and a pragmatic understanding of how it will get there (i.e. building digital capabilities across the Public Service).


Capability will be crucial. Just as the review recommends a coordinated workforce strategy for the APS, other countries will also need a planned approach. This needs to be top down with the most senior government leaders (political and official level) exemplifying the 'direction of travel'. In some areas it may be appropriate to professionalise, standardise, and operate the new capability 'horizontally' across the Public Service rather than only within agencies.


The review proposes that the APS adopt 'flexible structures and reduces hierarchical barriers to respond swiftly to government priorities'. It also describes the use of portfolio clustering, and the use of agile teams. While elements of these ideas have merit, there are enduring reasons why 'agile' continues to struggle to be applied at scale across public services. Other countries are advised to do their own research around the application of agile to determine the specific areas of public service that could apply the method. Nurturing a responsive 'flexible' culture that prioritises stakeholders and customers however, should be an embedded characteristic.


The importance of empowered governance structures that enables leadership at all levels is noted as essential for transformation. For many jurisdictions this will resonate for different reasons. For some these structures will provide the parameters for better government, whereas for others it will empower leaders to have the confidence to innovate.


The factors identified for successful change in the APS are helpful for reference for other governments. They include effective leadership and coordination: building capability and measuring progress; sufficient and sustained investment; and cultural change. Notably, taking a cross government approach will take a new style of aspirational and horizontal leadership that fosters the supporting (cross agency) culture and capability.


The APS review makes it very clear that such a transformational vision will require long term bi-partisan support and enduring investment. A focus on digital transformation is called out for ongoing focus because it can be such a strategic enabler and this is likely to be the case in most countries.


Conclusion


The APS review notes the challenges the Australian Federal Government will need to navigate if it is to transform into the Public Service Australia aspires for itself. This will require deep commitment from its leaders and strong bi-partisan support from the government. The review's 40 recommendations highlight the focus required to drive sustained, far-reaching change, positioning the APS to deliver better outcomes for Australians. Successful implementation will depend on coordinated efforts, robust leadership, and a clear focus on long-term capability building and performance measurement.


The review raises a number of helpful ideas and suggestions that will be useful for other countries assessing the characteristics and impact of their Public Service. Undertaking a review of this nature can provide a good starting point for change and cut through some of the opacity of government. This can lead to frank conversations and quite possibly the momentum for change.





References



#Australian Public Service #APS transformation



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