Australian Public Service ‘consistently struggles’ with reform, staff survey finds

By on 04/12/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison (centre) and recently retired head of the APS, Martin Parkinson (right) – seen here with deputy PM Michael McCormack – have both pushed for major reform.

As the Australian Public Service (APS) gears up for major reforms following an independent review into its performance, an official workforce survey has revealed civil servants’ concerns over the APS’s ability to manage change effectively. The survey results, the APS report says, “could suggest that the APS consistently struggles to manage even routine, transactional change effectively”.

The 2018-19 State of the Service Report, published last week, found that only 39% of government employees believe that change is managed well at their agency, with 37% agreeing that organisational change tends to improve efficiency. Half of respondents found organisational change to be a positive process, while 62% said that people in their team are happy to implement change when required.

These figures are a slight improvement on past years: for example, the proportion of employees believing that change is managed well within their agency has risen by one percentage point since 2018 and four points since 2015. The APS also fares better than some other countries’ civil services when it comes to perceptions of change management capabilities. For example, in the UK’s 2018 Civil Service People Survey, only 33% felt that change was managed well in their organisation.

According to the APS survey report, “Transformational reform will require more significant changes in mindset and culture with more complex and interconnected challenges to navigate. There is clearly much work to be done to ensure APS agencies can navigate the change the future requires.”

A number of other questions about change elicited lukewarm responses. Just under 60% of respondents agreed that their senior executive service (SES) manager effectively leads and manages change. And just under two-thirds of respondents (65%) reported they had experienced major workplace change in their immediate workgroup in the last 12 months – a decrease of 9% from 2014.

In addition, the 2019 APS employee census data – which helped to inform the State of the Service Report – was analysed to explore the relationship between respondents’ experience of change and their level of interest in leaving their agency. The analysis revealed that negative experiences of change and negative perceptions of change management were both significantly associated with increased intention to leave. 

Capabilities gap and shrinking workforce

As well as testing perceptions on change management, the State of the Service Report also assessed capability.  

Just over half of federal public servants and 70% of senior executives reported capability gaps in their work groups. Of the respondents, 43% reported gaps in people management and leadership, 38% in data-related skills, and 37% in written communication.   

The report said that as the Secretaries Board leads the APS through change over the years ahead, a whole-of-service perspective on organisational capability will become increasingly important. Organisational capability reviews are a useful mechanism for highlighting organisational strengths and challenges at system level, it said, and an APS-wide workforce strategy currently under development “will play an important part in driving a system-wide approach to a number of individual and organisational capability areas”. 

“The APS is grappling with increasingly complex and inter-related policy, regulatory and service delivery issues that require system-wide perspectives, and this trend will continue,” it continued. “In this environment, a robust engagement with organisational capability across the service will be a critical factor in the ability of the APS to fulfil its serving responsibilities to the government and the people of Australia.”

The survey also noted that the number of federal public service bureaucrats has dipped below 150,000 for the first time in 13 years. 

In other fields, the report elicited overwhelmingly positive responses. For example, 91% of respondents said they are happy to go the ‘extras mile’ at work; 84% suggest ideas to improve ways of doing things; 82% believe strongly in the purpose and objectives of their agency; and 79% are committed to their agency’s goals.

Thodey review

The report’s findings are particularly pertinent at a time when the government is pushing for major civil service reform, and considering which of the recommendations set out in a recent review of the APS to implement.

The Independent Review of the APS, led by businessman David Thodey, presented its final report to the government on 20 September, with an explicit focus on ensuring that the APS remains effective in the longer term. This formed the first comprehensive review of the APS in more than 30 years and, the State of the Service report notes, “is likely to have a long-term impact and influence on the institution”.

The final recommendations of the panel now considering the review are expected to be ambitious in nature and transformational in scope. Several broad themes are already clear, including the need for more effective collaboration within and outside the APS; a greater focus on technology as an enabler of service delivery; investment in workforce capability; responsiveness to changing priorities; and improvements to leadership and governance.

In an interview with Global Government Forum in October, Martin Parkinson, the recently-retired head of the APS, said the civil service “isn’t broken”, but added that past performance is not a guarantee of future performance. During his time in government, he said, he asked himself: “Is the APS going to be fit for purpose in 10-20 years’ time? The answer I kept coming back to was ‘no’. We were changing too slowly.”

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison set out his vision for the APS in a speech in August. He said the APS needs to evolve and adapt, and that “old ways of doing things need to be challenged and, if necessary, disrupted”.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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