‘We need to do better’ to meet the people’s expectations

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What follows is the valedictory address by outgoing APS commissioner Peter Woolcott at the National Press Club, Canberra, presented this morning.

Let me begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and pay my respect to Elders past and present.

Thank you all for coming today.

Well, this is it for me. I leave government on May 10. I have done almost five years as the Australian Public Service commissioner and over 40 years in the public service, primarily in foreign policy and national security.

I will miss it. The opportunity to work in the service of the country and its people has been an enormous privilege. But it’s time and I am going to keep self-indulgence to a minimum and not meander back (at least too much) over my career.

I will come back to governance, the role of the commission and where I believe the Australian Public Service needs to go.

Lessons learned

But initially, I want to talk about how the lessons I learnt in the diplomatic space have underpinned my whole approach to the commissioner role.

The first is a deep appreciation of governance — and that it is the quality of governance and the quality of institutions that set apart the prosperity of countries and citizens.

It is not resources, not iron ore nor gold, but the ability to organise and deliver on the social contract between the government and its people.

The second is how to use soft power and influence. The Public Service Act places the APSC at the centre of this great institution and gives it considerable independent statutory powers, but genuine influence comes from the ability to persuade through the force of ideas and through the ability to marshal support.

I have always sought to work in the closest possible way with secretaries and other senior leaders in the Public Service to ensure that we meet the expectations of the Australian people.

And this has been one of the real pleasures of the job — the chance to work to a common purpose with the leadership across the APS. They are an extraordinarily talented and purpose-driven group and the scale and difficulty of their work is not well understood outside an inner circle.

The third is the importance of being joined up — of being ‘OneAPS’. The complexity and interconnectedness of issues leave little room for siloed structures and “my agency first” thinking.

As an ambassador or high commissioner, you represent all of Australia and DFAT is just one Agency in a rich mosaic of interests you need to represent.

Fourth, an appreciation of the law of unintended consequences and having a wary eye for how things might turn in unexpected directions. While I regard my career as, on balance, successful there have been more than enough of those moments.

And finally, while change is a constant — we need to understand what is enduring and that this comes down to our values and purpose.

I joined DFAT and the Australian Public Service in 1981. Reagan was president of the US and Fraser PM of Australia.

I had recently graduated from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where I had specialised in Nuclear Strategy and was proficient at using the Rand Bomb calculator to work out the single-shot kill capability of a particular nuclear weapons system. No desktop computers, no internet, no mobile phones, no ChatGPT.

I was posted quickly to Kingston, Jamaica as the third secretary — then one of the most violent countries on the planet. At one stage the Jamaican Telephone Company fell afoul of the local trade union movement and their central exchange was demolished in protest activity.

“We now live in utterly changed times”

We were cut off for a few months from all telecommunications contact with Australia. When we eventually came back online, our absence had barely been noticed.

We now live in utterly changed times. This flows from the acceleration of technology, the compression of distance, and the dramatic interaction of cultures.

And the management of these issues keeps running up against the stubbornness of human nature.

We are navigating the stalling of globalisation, and at the very least a period that is challenging the “rules-based” 20th-century post-war framework and driving regional competition and contest.

Moreover, the array of transnational issues that cannot be addressed without cohesive and widespread cooperation, inside government and internationally, are confronting: Climate Change, migration, refugees, terrorism, cyber, the oceans, pandemics, and food and water security.

The APS, like many institutions in Western Democracies, is under challenge. Never have expectations been higher from the public, while there is a wider question as to the extent the government and the APS control all the necessary levers given the global and fractured nature of issues and shifting power relativities.

These events are reshaping many aspects of our lives, and it follows that they will reshape many aspects of public governance.

All Australian governments want and need a strong public service — although there is always going to be debate about how much it needs to pay for it and what elements are better done by civil society or the private sector.

This is a time when we need to reinforce the value of a strong, trusted and effective public service.

Democratic institutions themselves need to be cherished — yet global populism, the erosion of civil discourse and the outrage pipeline that is social media makes this harder.

Journey of reform

So how do we ensure the public service is fit for purpose in this rapidly changing environment?

Public sector reform is a never-ending journey — which always has to be grounded in pragmatism. And the big set pieces like the Coombs royal commission, and the Thodey review take time to take hold. But they do.

I have had the privilege to be engaged with David Thodey and the review since its inception. The panel was a remarkably talented group of individuals.

I was in the prime minister‘s office when the Thodey review was set up. And the APSC has played a significant role in pursuing the reform agenda since the report was published in September 2019. We have worked hand-in-glove with PM&C and the secretaries board in doing so.

You don’t always get the privilege to help reap what you helped sow.

I have worked with three very different, but fine leaders of Prime Minister and Cabinet in this undertaking.

Martin Parkinson was the brainchild of the review and much credit to him for setting it up so well.

Phil Gaetjens was the pragmatist and saw that the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated an accelerated response to the Thodey review and helped bring this about.

And Glyn Davis was one of the major forces behind the panel’s work in constructing the recommendations. Glyn, now of course, occupies a pivotal position in driving the government’s ambitious reform agenda. The symbolism of his appointment, along with that of Gordon de Brouwer, by the Albanese government, is striking and we essentially now have Thodey on steroids.

“You don’t always get the privilege to help reap what you helped sow.”

The review’s focus on the need for a more joined-up, people-facing, data-enabled, capable and trusted public service able to deliver effectively in a radically new operating context — is absolutely right.

The Morrison government inherited the review and gave the public service licence to implement significant aspects of it. The Albanese government for its part has sought to drive the Thodey recommendations hard and articulate a plan for the APS based around four pillars.

What has struck me in the job is the strong sense of confluence about what we need to do. The Thodey review is built on strong foundations. If you go back and look at Terry Moran’s Blueprint for Reform in 2010 it is striking how the panel has built on this work.

I see my role as essentially akin to a marathon runner in a continuous relay. I now pass on the baton to my successor. I hope I have done my bit in advancing the agenda. I believe we have a very clear sense of direction, but we are running over shifting ground.

So, let’s turn to what we are doing to address the issues.

Ensuring integrity

The current focus on public sector integrity and trust in government — underscored by the robodebt royal commission and the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission — illustrates a real risk to the reputation and brand of the public service. There is no doubt that integrity and trust must be marbled into our approach to managing change, and in every aspect of policy formulation, regulation and implementation.

We have not, of course, seen the royal commission’s final report so I will be circumspect. Its hearings have already given us cause to think about our governance, our leadership behaviours and our culture. We need to do much better, particularly for vulnerable Australians. It has provided a shock to the system and it will lead to further change.

An integrity taskforce has been established to start working through the issues raised and to prepare ourselves to respond fully to the findings.

Moreover, the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission is historic and important. A robust investigating agency to examine allegations of systemic corruption right across government is a powerful addition to the weaponry we have around integrity.

It has an equally important role around education and preventative measures. For we need to make sure that the business of government, particularly as it relates to procurement and grants, is best practice and risk aversion doesn’t slow down or freeze up these processes.

It will also place a premium on evidence-based, data-driven decisions and advice. This will push authority back to the public service.

This brings me to culture and how fundamental is the set of values and behaviours that underpin the APS. There is much you want to preserve in the APS culture, particularly around how purpose-driven it is, and around the principles of merit and political impartiality. But also a few things you would like to change.

“Culture can be quicksand for bold new ideas”

Culture can be quicksand for bold new ideas. The most important thing that leaders do is create and sustain culture, and if you are to move organisational culture you need to have a critical mass of APS leaders pushing that change.

It was noteworthy that the secretaries board endorsed the Sedgwick Review on Integrity that we commissioned and its focus on the notion of institutional integrity. All twelve of his recommendations are being implemented.

The proposal to further embed stewardship in the Public Service Act is welcome and important. It is fundamental to that wider sense of institutional integrity and a strong signal to APS leaders, that their responsibilities are to the whole system and the concept of OneAPS.

The consultation process around stewardship as a sixth value applicable to all public servants will need to be thorough as questions around how you operationalise it in terms of the code of conduct are not straightforward.

SES and band classifications

Let me stay focused on leadership. I have sat on a great many panels for Band 3 and Agency Head positions over the past five years. The Talent keeps rolling through. It is marked by a deep commitment to service, a focus on outcomes and an ability to manage complexity and the grey zones.

It is also marked by resilience. You have got there pretty much by yourselves.

We have tried to change this through the work of the Talent Councils. Five years on the Secretaries Talent Council has assessed all our longer-term Band 3s and many of our agency heads to support their development and career planning.

This data provides an evidence base to understand the health of the succession pipeline for each secretary and major agency head role and supports consideration of enterprise-wide talent deployment and mobility. Half of the current secretaries board has been through that work.

In addition, at the Band 1 and 2 classifications, we now have insight into the potential of 250 high performers from across the service. The Deputy Secretaries Talent Council has worked with many of them to support their development. Around 20% of the core SES Band 3 cohort are alumni of this work.

Many of them are now acting as coaches and mentors to develop the next group of talent.

Our external benchmarking suggests that our approach is leading practice in both the public and private sectors.

I have reflected on recent events which have crystallised exactly why the way in which we deliver — the how — matters so much.

Firstly, while we have a strong, outcomes-focused culture, we have not given sufficient weight to how we achieve those outcomes. In this regard, secretaries and the COO committee are looking at ways our performance assessment system can provide proper weight to behaviours as well as outcomes.

“The courage to tell ministers they have it wrong or to tell bosses to widen their view”

Secondly, the need for courage. The courage to tell ministers they have it wrong or to tell bosses to widen their view. It is a crucial part of the environment that good public service leaders need to create.

That said, contrary to what critics say, my general experience is that it’s not often APS leaders shy away from that responsibility. I say this from seeing both sides of the fence, as a prime minister’s chief of staff and in my dealings with Agency Head colleagues. It is, however, about doing so using street smarts, influence and about offering appropriate alternatives.

But earning trust from the Australian people is not just about the right behaviours. It is also about competence and delivery.

We need to ensure that within our culture there are engrained patterns of working with the Australian people to develop and deliver services. It is here that they interact with us and here that we largely earn and maintain their trust.

Thodey gave weight to the concept of an APS working in partnership with citizens and key stakeholders. From First Nations people, other disadvantaged groups, industry and peaks, through to ministers and their offices.

The concept of genuine partnership is a crucial one. While the skills and techniques will vary depending upon whom you are engaging with — it does require a different mindset.

Concurrently we need to recognise that there has been a shift in the nature of power. That, as a result of new communications technologies, power is moving to coalitions and networks. As a consequence, the APS has to engage ever more actively with civil society and business. They have always had a stake in the outcomes, but they are now players in shaping them.

The APS is no longer the monopoly it once was. While we have institutional authority we are working in a much more contested environment. Our advice has to be persuasive and is open to challenge by political advisors, think tanks, lobby groups and NGOs. There is no room for nostalgia. Civil society is often mobile, well-funded and adept at utilising social media to influence government.

“The APS is no longer the monopoly it once was”

It is the APS that brings the wider lens to any issue and ensures that ministers have all the relevant data and analysis that they need to make a decision. As such, we have to get better at engaging in policy discussions with civil society to ensure a full understanding and testing of the views of stakeholders.

This is a work in progress. The Secretaries Sub-committee on Partnerships has been established and work is well underway on a Charter of Partnership and Engagement. The APS Academy and its teaching of craft is a further reflection of this.

Much of this is about the capabilities of public servants. But it is also about the capability of some parts of civil society to work with us on these issues.

In addition, there is the question of strategic patience and how you square genuine partnership, and the time that can take to build, with the desire of government and ministers who often want expeditious outcomes.

We also need to be thinking imaginatively about how the working relationship between the APS and ministerial offices can be enhanced.

The APS needs to encourage its best to work in ministerial offices — to give them a deeper understanding of the speed with which things move and the pressures that quickly bear down on ministers. It will make them better public servants.

We also need to do better at assisting political staff to understand how to utilise and work with the APS.

Now this should never undermine the apolitical nature of the APS. The reality is that minister’s offices are an integral part of our system and it is their work that helps keep the APS impartial. Nevertheless, an understanding of the lines between their work and ours is crucial.

We set up the Strengthening Partnerships Reference Panel in 2021 to develop material and training to get the relationship working at its best. This was rolled out last year for SES and will be cranked up this year including for ministerial staff.

Sitting across all this is the complexity of our federal system. This similarly needs to be approached as a partnership. Greater mobility between our respective public services would help.

Usefully and quietly, public service commissioners from across jurisdictions are now meeting bi-annually to work on what are shared challenges.

OneAPS

Let me turn now to the concept of OneAPS. I have spent a lot of the last five years wrestling with how we make OneAPS work. We still don’t do whole-of-government as well as we need to — silos are a constant.

I recognise it is hard to set up horizontal structures when accountabilities and the Westminster system are geared around vertical structures. The reality is that differences at the APS level around issues often reflect differences at the political level.

That said, the ability to enable horizontal systems and quickly re-configure around a problem is crucial. We do this in a crisis and we do it well.

I think back to the way we handled the COVID-19 pandemic. We had no roadmap, no clear view of how long an effective vaccine would take and were staring at a pretty “cold bath view of nature” — to quote the biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

“We have much to be pleased with the way our governance stood up”

There were always going to be mistakes, but basically, we have much to be pleased with the way our governance stood up.

Critical to this was the manner in which we worked as a joined-up enterprise. People moved at unprecedented scale both within agencies and across the Service as priorities were adjusted. On an average day over half of the APS was working from home and productivity stayed strong.

The Chief Operating Officers Sub-Committee had been established to help manage reform and quickly pivoted to work with the APSC Taskforce to manage whole-of-service issues.

Data was integrated at scale from across jurisdictions and agencies as well as the private sector and overseas. It was an essential component in guiding decision-making.

Just think about the speed and scope of what the APS did: In 2020, Services Australia processed 2.5 million JobSeeker claims in 55 days (a volume normally processed in 2.5 years); Job Keeper was designed and 3.5 million people received payments; by early May the ATO had approved 1.3 million applications for the early release of superannuation; The National Coordination Mechanism was stood up to coordinate approaches to non-health sector planning; the national cabinet was established and supported; vaccines were rolled- out; and underpinning our response was the extraordinary work done by so many agencies, and let me single out Health, that allowed Australia to come out the other side in comparatively solid shape.

Now, the way we worked in addressing the pandemic needs to be more commonplace and part of a cultural shift in the APS.

The taskforce model for policy development and implementation is one established model and we are utilising others such as the sub-committees set up by the secretaries board.

This is one of the vehicles addressing the changing nature of work. Let me start with technology.

Technology underpinning public service

We know just how dynamic are the advances in computer power and data growth, and we are going to be further challenged by the advances in artificial intelligence and automation.

While everything we do in the APS is about people, increasingly it is about how people interact with technology — how you mix human capabilities with machine capabilities.

As technological advances continue, so will the expectations of citizens in the way they engage with government services. Data will be fundamental to managing expectations that policy and service delivery will be increasingly personalised.

We have to be careful to build trust and the social licence from the public. We need to ensure that appropriate safeguards and community consultation occur when implementing major data and digital projects.

The Secretaries Digital and Data sub-committee is wrestling currently with three big issues: Cyber security governance; maximising re-use of programs and smarter contracting across government; and establishing a longer-term view of major ICT investment to support better long-term investment planning for the government.

We are seeing better outcomes, but basically, the APS needs to be a smarter customer.

AI promises much, but we will need strong guardrails around its use centering on transparency, accountability and security.

How we integrate fully its potential is going to be quite a challenge. Look where the technology was five years ago and a good question for the tech giants, and all of us, is how are we going to steward this?

Let me swing back to people. A central role of the APSC is to help build the capability of the APS.

“APS excellence needs to be practical and practitioner-led, combining the experiences of our own experts”

Essentially our capability requirements can be summarised as requiring an increased demand for higher skills levels, including STEM, digital and data, and jobs ready skills such as critical thinking, leadership and communication.

We need to think about learning differently — not in chunks that we completed before entering the workforce, but as a continuum. We need to focus on training, and in particular re-training, for those in jobs which will be disrupted by technology.

Now we set up the academy with strong secretaries board support. I can’t say this enough, but it belongs to the APS, not the commission.

The academy was built off a solid base. We did the foundational work with the first APS Workforce Strategy and the supporting APS Learning and Development Strategy. What this provided was a forward-looking evidence base on the likely future demands for the APS and the capabilities and shape of the workforce.

The Academy is off to a strong start — but it now needs to be embedded in the broader APS system.

It needs to focus more specifically on the characteristics of excellence in public service — which essentially is about public service craft.

This needs to be practical and practitioner-led, combining the experiences of our own experts, within robust learning frameworks. At the moment a priority is on offerings in integrity and working in government craft domains, including with respect to procurement.

And the Academy must be networked through a partnership approach. It has to connect with existing expertise across the APS and with external experts, and support the broader learning ecosystem as a whole.

The governance of the academy has been designed to this end with the Learning Board and the APS Faculty.

In thinking through capability needs, we also set up the Heads of Profession Model. The aim was to provide specialist expertise in areas of identified high demand such as in strategic human resources, and the digital and data professional groups.

I want to commend the Heads of the three professions for their commitment to building pathways and capability. It has included an approach to recruiting at a range of different entry points and on behalf of the wider APS. They have done so often utilising the resources of their own agency for the benefit of the system. As this work matures, we are in the process of integrating their work further with the Academy.

Thought is now being given to expanding the Professions Model to include Evaluation and Procurement.

The future workplace

This all leads into what the changing nature of work means for our people.

The last three years have essentially shaped what comes next. We know we are in a fight for talent and we are dealing with changed expectations from the workforce about how and where they work.

These changes have created pressure on our employee value proposition.

We have established the Future of Work sub-committee of the secretaries board to look at these issues and our EVP. It is a coalition of the willing driven by secretaries and agency heads.

I really like the model whereby individual secretaries and agency heads have taken responsibility for driving particular aspects of this work. It has resulted already in the Charter of Leadership Behaviours and the new whole-of-service Principles of Flexible Work.

“Flexible work is about mutual benefit.”

As the secretaries board agreed, the concept of flexible work needs to balance considerations for the individual, the team and the organisation — it is about mutual benefit.

Flexibility also plays into location. The APS needs a workforce drawn from the national talent pool and from all communities, generations and professions. Work is well underway on a location strategy that will attract talent closer to their home.

The Future of Work sub-committee is also looking at recognising the unique value specialists bring to the service; at building the capability of managers to support dispersed and culturally diverse teams; and adopting hiring practices that are more outward looking and make the APS more porous.

We know that the future workforce will be more mobile and will have multiple careers. Younger people are not necessarily going to join the APS for life.

If we are going to obtain and develop the capabilities we require in the APS of the future we need to be imaginative about how we use leave without pay and how we stay connected with those who may have left.

The quality of the work in the APS and the ability to make an impact is still its most powerful attraction. This will always be the thing that draws people into government — but we cannot take it for granted.

There is also the question of the rigidity of structures in the APS. I commissioned the independent APS Hierarchy and Classification Review in 2021 to examine APS structure, culture and capability, and how we can best position ourselves for the future.

I would like to acknowledge the excellent work of the review panel.

While we have parked the classification changes the panel proposed, their findings have informed a range of practical reforms, with significant steps made on APS culture and capability development.

“Work is well underway to improve our approach to developing manager capability”

We have the Charter of Leadership Behaviours that they recommended. Work is well underway to improve our approach to developing manager capability in the APS, particularly in our vital EL2 cohort, and to develop specialist pathways. And we have done considerable foundational work to move towards flatter, more modern APS organisation structures, to support the evolution of the APS.

Together, these bodies of work will take us some way towards achieving the intent of the Hierarchy and Classification Review.

Now the government has also placed being a model employer as one of the central pillars of its reform program. We need to ensure that our terms and conditions are fair and in line with community expectations and that we create a workplace environment where people can be comfortable with who they are.

We are underway with a bargaining process to establish a set of common terms that will apply across all APS enterprise agreements. It will also begin to address the pay fragmentation that currently exists across the service. This is a major task and seeks to repair the consequences of decades of partially decentralised bargaining.

At its core, commonality builds greater equality. The impact of this equality across our service will be significant and varied, particularly supporting mobility and allowing employees to consider a job on its merit, rather than differences in pay and conditions.

A diverse APS

Finally, let me turn to diversity.

We need to reflect the Australian community, whether that be in regard to gender, indigenous people, people with disability and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. We need to redouble our commitment in this regard. The existing strategies we have are fine, but like everything it is in the implementation. We have made giant steps with women in leadership positions. If we bring the same drive and commitment from the top we will succeed with the other groups.

The biggest mistake we can make is not recruiting people because they are not like us, or rejecting people if we bring them in because they haven’t become like us.

So, we find ourselves in a challenging and more unforgiving environment. We have to be tough-minded and joined up in pursuing our national interests.

Statecraft in all its manifestations is going to be crucial if we are to secure the outcomes that reflect our values and promote the well-being of our citizens.

I will miss working on this with you. But in your heart you know when it is time to make way for others.

I am going to indulge myself at the end and drop the mask a bit before I walk out the door. I’ve always had a passion for the environment and for the oceans.

This goes right back to my work as a young DFAT officer on the UN driftnet resolutions and on the implementation of UNCLOSS in Australian law.

I feel very privileged to have led the Australian Delegation to the Paris Climate Change Conference and to have played a significant role, with a number of colleagues here, in developing the Cabinet Submission which committed Australia to the target of a 26-28% reduction in emissions by 2030 and the ratification of Kyoto.

I was also the Australian International Whaling Commissioner for a while and helped develop the Great Barrier Reef 2050 action plan as part of the successful campaign I helped lead to stop an in-danger listing of the Great Barrier Reef in 2015 by the World Heritage Committee. I also worked closely as Turnbull’s CoS on the not to be National Energy Guarantee.

So, I am going to finish with a poem. This poem is essentially a planetary elegy by Nazim Hikmet — a great Turkish poet who dwelled on human connections. I have always had a passion for poetry over annual reports. It reads:

 

This earth will grow cold,

a star among stars and one of the smallest — a gilded mote on the blue velvet, I mean, I mean this, our great earth.

This earth will grow cold one day,

not like a heap of ice

or a dead cloud even,

but like an empty walnut it will roll along in pitch black space …

You must grieve for this right now

you have to feel this sorrow right now, for the world must be loved this much If you’re going to say “I lived”…

 

It’s been an honour and a pleasure to work alongside you all and I look forward to staying in touch.


READ MORE:

Marathon man Peter Woolcott passes the baton to his successor: ‘Governance and public sector reform don’t stop’

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