Australian Public Service prepares for “rapid phase of reform” as government responds to landmark review

By on 15/12/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
David Thodey
Businessman David Thodey has returned after leading an influential review of APS to chair an audit of the government's flagship digital service platform

The Australian government has rejected recommendations that it introduce common pay scales across the civil service, do away with staffing caps and establish a code of conduct for ministerial advisors, in its response to the Thodey review of the Australian Public Service (APS).

However, of the 40 recommendations set out in the report, the government has agreed fully to 15 of them and in part to 20, including improving digital functions and undertaking regular capability reviews. Two recommendations have been “noted”, and the remaining three will be ignored.

Prime minister Scott Morrison has tasked the Secretaries Board and the Public Service Commission with developing an integrated set of reforms to implement the adopted recommendations; a three-month “detailed planning sprint” is to commence in early 2020. The government has set aside AUS$15.1m (US$10.4m) to kick-start the reforms.   

The landmark independent review, led by Australian businessman David Thodey, culminated in a 385-page report. It was published on 13 December, almost four months after it was delivered to government, along with the government’s response.

The review, which was commissioned by former PM Malcolm Turnbull and began in May 2018, is the most significant review of the APS in 40 years.

The report finds that while there are “many examples of excellence across the service”, the APS is not performing at its best. It says the service is “ill-prepared to grasp the opportunities of the future” and not ready for the big changes and challenges that Australia will face between now and 2030.

The report argues that the APS “lacks a clear unified purpose, and is too internally focused,” and says that leaders “do not always act as a unified team”. It adds that there has been “long-running underinvestment in the APS’s people, capital and digital capability, while siloed approaches, rigid hierarchies and bureaucratic rules create barriers to effective delivery,” and says the “findings are unequivocal – the APS needs a service-wide transformation to achieve better outcomes”.

The APS of the future, it says, needs to be open, citizen-centric and technology-enabled, or its “current weaknesses will turn into critical failures”.

Recommendations rebuffed

The report also calls for civil servants doing the same jobs in different departments to be paid the same – a recommendation the government rejected, arguing that employees and agencies “are agreeing to new enterprise agreements or productivity-based pay rises on existing terms and conditions, in an efficient and effective manner”. The government also refused to abolish the controversial staffing cap once the APS Workforce Strategy is released in 2020, and said that the public service commissioner will not be given powers to initiate investigations and reviews – another of the report’s recommendations.

The government argued that the commissioner – currently Peter Woolcott – “has adequate powers to investigate and seek integrity information,” and will not be given additional powers in this area.

It also rebuffed a recommendation that it establish a legislated code of conduct for ministerial advisers.

The report references debates in recent years that ministerial advisers should be made more accountable through parliamentary scrutiny, in the same way public servants are held to account by committees.

The government argued the current expectation is that “all ministerial staff uphold the highest standards of integrity,” saying that it does not consider it necessary to amend the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984.

Building capacity and accountability

One of the 35 adopted recommendations tasks officials with conducting regular capability reviews to “build organisational capacity and accountability”.

The Secretaries Board will commence a series of targeted reviews from mid-2020, which will include “thematic, cross-portfolio reviews of the delivery of functions and of particular services or policies”. Portfolio-level reviews and stocktakes of functions and bodies will be undertaken while “prioritised and future-focused” reviews of agency capability will commence in 2021, supported by Peter Woolcott.

“The priority in undertaking these reviews will be to ensure the APS is operating productively and delivering the best collective outcomes possible,” the government said. “These assessments will help target development, guide career paths, and identify under-performers.”

The review panel also suggested that government consider introducing a requirement that experience in two or more portfolios or sectors be a pre-requisite for appointment to the senior executive service (SES). The government said that it would not enforce any mandatory requirements, but that a new “mobility framework” will make it clear that broad experience including in different portfolios is a highly desirable attribute for appointment to the SES.

Central digital transformation agency?

Recommendations relating to technology include improving the funding, structure and management of digital functions across the APS. As part of this work, the government said it may consider making the Digital Transformation Agency a stand-alone central department; conducting an ICT audit and developing a whole-of-government ICT blueprint; building data and digital expertise across the service by applying the professions model; and making data open by default.

Workforce related adopted recommendations include developing a whole-of-workforce strategy to build and sustain the way APS attracts, develops and utilises its people; streamlining management; recruiting, developing and promoting more people with diverse views and backgrounds; standardising performance management to drive a culture of high achievement; and identifying and nurturing staff with potential to become future APS leaders.

The government also agreed that the APS should address intergenerational and multi-dimensional disadvantage through “place-based approaches”; work in “genuine partnership” with Aboriginal and Torres Strait people; provide robust advice to government that integrates and balances the social, economic and security pressures facing Australians; embed a culture of innovation and experimentation to underpin evidence-based policy and delivery; and adopt common enabling tools and service to support efficiency, mobility and collaboration.

The review estimates that at least AUS$100m (US$69m) a year in dedicated funding is required to kick-start transformation and deliver uplifts in service-wide capability, and that investment of at least AUS$1bn (US$687m) a year will be required “to support better services and outcomes through digital transformation and to sustainably fund other public capital”.

Putting citizens “at the heart”

PM Scott Morrison said in response to the Thodey panel’s report that the government is embarking on a significant APS reform agenda “to put the Australian people at the heart of what the APS does”.

This focus is reinforced in his six primary expectations, which include “genuinely understanding the needs of all Australians through external hires, better engagement, openness to different viewpoints and using data to find out what’s really going on”.

In an open letter, Woolcott and Phil Gaetjens, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet chief and head of the civil service, wrote that the review highlights the strengths of the APS but also the “need for us to adapt to meet the rising expectations of Australians and emerging opportunities and challenges – economic, social, technological and geopolitical”.

The letter said the review provides the APS with a vehicle to take “ambitious and practical actions to lift our capability and strengthen our connections with the Australians we serve,” and confirmed that a team is being set up to support the delivery of the APS reform agenda. This agenda, it added, “will focus as much on our culture and purpose as on our systems, tools and processes”.  

The release of the Thodey review follows Morrison’s decision last week to abolish four federal departments in a public sector restructure, which also included the sacking of five departmental secretaries.

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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