APS commissioner outlines vision for more flexible civil service

By on 25/10/2018
Peter Woolcott: First speech by new Australian Public Service commissioner (Image courtesy: UN Geneva, flickr).

The new Australian Public Service (APS) commissioner has outlined a vision of a more “permeable” civil service in his first public speech.

Peter Woolcott was appointed by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in August after serving as head his office for a year.

Speaking at the APSwide conference in Canberra, he addressed how the public service should respond to changes in technologies and new working patterns.

He said: “The traditional view of mobility in the APS has been focused on the individual moving between departments or portfolios. This equates to about 2.5% of employees per year.

“Traditionally, we haven’t focused on mobility from an organisational or system perspective.
We know that mobility can foster diversity of thinking, contestability of ideas and assist in capability development – lifting the overall capability of the APS, not just the individual.”

Flexibility versus expertise

Woolcott said that the workforce of the future will be more mobile and engage in more short-term work.

“Younger people are not necessarily going to join the APS for life – they will move in and out. This should be encouraged by our processes not discouraged,” he said.

Changes to the shape of the civil service should allow more flexibility in the system to respond more quickly to emerging issues, he argued, although this should be balanced with retaining experts in particular policy areas.

He said: “Deep expertise is and will remain crucial to government and must be a core capability of the APS. This is particularly so in those specialised agencies, often sitting outside Departments, including those with specialised regulatory functions.

“We also need to ensure a skilled cohort of program and project managers. A core capability given that the APS is moving increasingly back into delivery.”

Porous boundaries

Such a system should have “porous boundaries” in and out of the public sector, and strong connections with the private sector, community groups, academia and state jurisdictions, Woolcott added.

The former diplomat said that the APS needs to ensure that changes in structure it makes in response to the “unprecedented” rate of technological change needs to “build trust and the social license from the public”.

He said: “We need to ensure that appropriate safeguards and community consultation occur when implementing major data and digital projects so as to avoid undermining our broader agenda of more effective policy implementation.”

About Colin Marrs

Colin Marrs is a journalist specialising in local and national government, as well as architecture and the built environment. Colin previously worked as digital content editor at Campaign, the advertising industry "bible".

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