Australian Public Service Commission launches new workforce strategy

By on 18/03/2021 | Updated on 18/03/2021
The new strategy aims to improve APS delivery for the Australian government, parliament and the public. Credit: Daniel Morton/Unsplash

The Australian Public Service Commission published a five-year workforce development strategy today, which aims to strengthen the public service’s capacity to respond to short- and long-term challenges.

Delivering for tomorrow: APS Workforce Strategy 2025 responds to a review published in 2019, which concluded that the service was “ill-prepared to grasp the opportunities of the future”. It pointed to several reasons for this including the Australian Public Service (APS) being too hierarchical and too internally-focused, an under-investment in people and digital services, alongside running services that only three in 10 Australians trusted.

The new strategy takes a cross-boundary “one APS” approach to developing and upskilling the workforce, helping it to navigate a complex future. There are three main focuses: recruiting, retaining and developing talent; leading digital transformation and ensuring skills can move to where they are needed; and strengthening “integrity and purposeful leadership”.

It will also prioritise data-driven workforce planning to align agencies’ capabilities to business needs. As part of this, APS will establish a new Workforce Planning Centre for Excellence.

APS commissioner Peter Woolcott AO said: “The strategy outlines a one-APS approach to managing our workforce, with a focus on mobilising capability and developing the capabilities we need more of, for example data and digital skills.

“To be positioned to respond to complex challenges in the future, we need the APS workforce to be agile and collaborative. We must work as one enterprise, across traditional boundaries and jurisdictions – taking an outcomes-based approach to delivery.”

Work to be done

The 2019 independent review of the public service, commissioned a year earlier by then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, drew some stark conclusions about the APS.  

Some 28% of senior external recruits left the APS within two years, it found, while 70% of staff reported that the service was too hierarchical. The report also noted that APS lacked a “unified leadership” and instead operated like a “group of agencies” that was “not changing fast enough to deliver for Australians in a changing world”.

Indeed, 25% to 46% APS employees’ work would be automated by 2030.

One APS

In response, the new strategy will “position the APS to operate as one enterprise, working towards the same objectives” and create a “strong integrated brand across the APS”.

Practical steps to be taken include:

  • Establishing new professional streams “to build deep expertise in key professional capabilities”. Two – on HR and digital and data – are already running. The APS Academy will also support the recruitment, retention and development of specialist capabilities.
  • Setting up a new Australian Government Graduate Program to promote a clear “value proposition” to high quality candidates.
  • Providing APS reskilling guides and tools. These will “support agencies to reskill and upskill the workforce for the impact of digital technology and for emerging roles where there is a skill supply shortage on the wider Australian labour market.”
  • Establishing partnerships with educational institutions to connect their course curricula to future skills the APS will need, and build strong talent pipelines into the service.
  • Creating service-wide centres of excellence for various capabilities (e.g. behavioural insights, user-centred design, change management).

The outcomes will be monitored systematically to ensure that the expected benefits materialise.

Focus on digital skills

ICT and digital technology roles are predicted to see the strongest demand in the APS, and the strategy already notes stiff competition in the labour market for these skills. The APS does not want to be “overly reliant” on external recruitment to bring in such skills and will also develop capabilities internally through “focused programs”.

The APS has also noted that the strategy incorporates insights into workforce management drawn from the Covid-19 pandemic response, which it notes boosted the visibility of the APS and showcased its innovation and creativity in solving problems.

In a survey recapping employees’ experiences of 2020, 49% said their productivity had improved, 89% agreed that their team successfully adapted to new ways of working. Furthermore, 65% agreed their team had used the COVID-19 crisis to improve the way they worked.

During the pandemic, user adoption of digital technologies advanced five years in approximately eight weeks, according to the strategy.

Responding to the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, plus the 2019-20 bushfires, there is also a plan to create a “surge reserve” to help respond to future crises.

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