‘Radical incrementalism’: new APS commissioner details 10-year reform agenda

By on 03/07/2023 | Updated on 03/07/2023
A screenshot pf Gordon de Brouwer giving his speech at the IPAA on 16 June
A screenshot of Gordon de Brouwer. Photo courtesy of the IPAA

Priorities for reform of the Australian Public Service (APS) will include a focus on people, behaviours and strengthening laws and institutions to ensure that the APS can sustain delivering and achieving outcomes for the Australian government.

In his first public speech in the role, recently appointed APS commissioner, Gordon de Brouwer, stated that “everything in government and public administration is about people” and that the APS will not be able to deliver and achieve outcomes unless “behaviours match our values”.

He added that the rule of law and institutions “are under challenge” and that the laws and practices that are the foundations of democracy and society needed to be reinforced.

Addressing an event at the IPAA on 16 June, de Brouwer said that reform will be a “decade long process” through a structured approach to learning from the school of “radical incrementalism”. According to de Brouwer changes to the service have to be completed through a sequence of steps if it is to succeed, rather than “jumping ahead”.

However, he said some developments are being introduced in the short term that are designed to make working in the APS more effective and enjoyable, including changes to bargaining on workplace conditions and pay that is “well underway”.

Read more: Australian Public Service staff get 3% wage rise as government pledges end to ‘pay bargaining Hunger Games’

De Brouwer said that the Integrated Leadership System (ILS), which provides leadership training and development across the public service, was being updated to include a “whole-of-service best practice approach” to assessing both outcomes achieved by an individual and the behaviour exhibited by an individual “with equal weight on both elements”. The system is also being used for secretary performance leadership and to inform approaches to performance of both staff at the executive level grade as well as across the six APS staff bands.

An in-house APS consulting function through the opening of the Australian Centre for Evaluation (ACE) will start from July and additional evaluation projects are being funded under the APS Capability Reinvestment Fund.

“The data, digital and HR professions are continuing to grow and mature with the evaluation profession underway and thinking on how to strengthen procurement project and contract management capability within the service,” de Brouwer said.

But his next major concern is ensuring that the APS can “make changes stick”. To this end, he said the government is exploring where it needs to “hardwire a change in legislation” to make sure the commitments and promises made through the APS reform agenda are followed through.

Read more: Australian PM wants to use insight from public servants to drive government reforms

On 14 June, assistant minister for the public service, Patrick Gorman, introduced an amendment to the Public Service Act 1999 that included seven changes.

De Brouwer said the first element, adding an APS ‘Value of Stewardship’, “captures the notion of responsibility for an institution both in how it performs and how it remains effective in the future”. He explained that currently, stewardship was only the responsibility of secretaries and the secretaries board, but “we each have a responsibility for our bit of the system”.

The second change in legislation requires a public service statement laying out the vision for the APS over the next five years. The ‘first purpose’ statement is underway with a deliberative committee of staff from around Australia working as a public service citizen jury that de Brouwer said was looking at eight options that are now “testing with staff and the public” and available for feedback. Three final options will be made public and go to a staff vote in August and then become part of the toolkit that guides departments and agencies.

“We’ve seen the incredible things that we can achieve when we work together toward a common goal as one APS and we saw it in the pandemic,” de Brouwer said.

Other changes relate to governance, accountability and transparency. These include ensuring that ministers cannot direct agency chiefs on individual staffing decisions – as a way of affirming APS political neutrality – and tasking agencies to publish action plans to increase transparency and encourage accountability and continuous improvement processes. There is also a new requirement that decision-making should be devolved to employees at the lowest possible classification level in an organisation to improve risk management.

De Brouwer said that this is about “reducing unnecessary hierarchy and empowering staff to do their job” adding: “It is not about forcing work down to lower levels in the hierarchy without proper remuneration”.

The sixth and seventh legislative changes relate to capability and expertise in the APS.

Regular independent and transparent capability reviews will now be required in every department by law. “Forward looking strengths-based reviews with action plans are significant in how they inform and motivate improvement,” de Brouwer said.

The Australian Public Service Commission is the first to undergo this process with a capability review due to be released shortly. The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications and the Department for Health and Aged Care will follow in a few months.

“[Capability reviews] are a device by which public servants can see and contribute to… how their workplaces modernise, and how they improve – it’s participatory,” de Brouwer said.

Finally, the seventh change is for the Secretaries Board to commission regular Long-Term Insights Briefings to explore medium- and long-term issues, trends and risks and opportunities. On 14 June the Secretaries Board approved a pilot briefing entitled ‘Building trust in public institutions – How might AI affect the trustworthiness of public service delivery’, to be delivered later this year.

“[The Long-Term Insights Briefings are] a tool to build up our forward-looking strategic insight and one of a series of devices to strengthen public services outreach and understanding of the community,” de Brouwer said.

Meanwhile, de Brouwer dismissed reform of the appointment and tenure of departmental secretaries. He said that though the importance of this issue does matter, “it can be exaggerated” and is not “the fulcrum of an effective service”. He added that he had “never seen it as a core driver” of driving improvements or standards.

Read more: Australia to launch policy evaluation centre to ‘build a better feedback loop in government’

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About Tim Fish

Tim Fish is a government and defence journalist with experience in politics and global travel. With a MA degree in War Studies and work as reporter on public service publications, Tim has expertise and has written extensively on government and international security.

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