‘Urgent’ need to streamline Australian Public Service, review finds

By on 31/08/2022 | Updated on 31/08/2022
An illustration of an organisational hierarchy
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A review of hierarchies within the Australian Public Service (APS) has recommended that its senior structures be modernised and that investment be made into the capability of future leaders “urgently”.

The review – conducted by an independent panel last year – aimed to conceive of ways to streamline management in the APS, improve decision-making and bring together expertise and resources.

In its report released last Friday, the panel made a total of eight recommendations. Suggestions included reducing the number of public service job ranks, known as classifications, from 13 to eight; limiting the number of people reporting directly to senior managers; and mandating training for all staff with supervisory responsibility.

It also advised enabling employees’ progression through the ranks “through fair and transparent assessment driven by proficiency, skills development and workforce planning”, and adopting a leadership charter “to promote collaborative and team-based behaviours”.

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

The report was launched by APS commissioner Peter Woolcott. “I strongly support the aspiration to modernise the way we operate in the APS, to better position ourselves to meet future challenges and provide more rewarding careers for our people,” he said.

“As we rise to the opportunities ahead, our APS culture must continue to evolve – to better value people for their contribution regardless of rank, to actively grow great leaders, and to embrace flexible and modern ways of working.”

Reform work ‘already underway’

The Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) said work was “already underway”. It said, for example, that a Charter of Leadership Behaviours had been drawn up setting out the behaviours expected of senior APS leaders. “It emphasises collaboration, integrity, respecting and valuing others and empowering people – key behaviours modern APS leaders need to succeed,” Woolcott said.

He added that the APS Academy – the public service’s central learning hub – was co-designing an approach to bolster managers’ capability development, with a focus on supporting them as they respond to changing technology and more flexible ways of working.

“The review makes important points around how to attract and retain talent, particularly those staff with specialist skills, and we’ll be looking at that as part of our focus on capability,” Woolcott said.

However, he said that while the panel “makes a good case” for classification reform, that the “timing and viability of such complex reform needs to be carefully weighed”. He said the APSC is not looking to make changes to classifications “at this stage” and that any decision to do so in future would require “consultation with staff and stakeholders”.

“My priority is updating our guidance on Optimal Management Structures. This will go a long way to deliver the aims of the review, while allowing agencies to adjust their structures flexibly over time,” he said.

Read more: ‘The war for talent’: APS assistant commissioner warns of challenges in attracting staff

The review into APS hierarchy and classification was itself a recommendation of the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service – also known as the Thodey Review – released in 2019.

The landmark review was the most significant review of the APS in 40 years and culminated in a 385-page report. It found that while there were “many examples of excellence across the service”, it was “ill-prepared to grasp the opportunities of the future” and that if it didn’t become a more open, citizen-centric and technology-enabled organisation, its weaknesses would “turn into critical failures”.

Successfully implementing public sector reform: lessons from New Zealand

The hierarchy and classification report comes shortly after Gordon de Brouwer, Australia’s secretary for public sector reform, visited New Zealand to learn about how its public service had successfully implemented reform.  

In a LinkedIn post, de Brouwer said it was a pleasure to meet New Zealand’s public sector commissioner Peter Hughes and that he “learnt a lot”.

“My thanks also go out to the leaders and teams from the Treasury, Inland Revenue, NZ customs, and ministries of environment, social development and justice who met with me to talk about their recent reform initiatives,” he said.

Hughes said New Zealand’s Public Service Act 2020 was “modernising the way we work” and enabling the service to operate with a common purpose, principles and values. “We are already seeing some significant gains from the reforms, and I was happy to share our journey with Dr de Bouwer,” he said.

De Brouwer is a long-time proponent of public service reform, including serving as a member of the Thodey Review. In 2017, when he was environment department secretary, he said public servants needed to be more empowered, bureaucratic thinking should be broadened, and trust in public institutions increased.

Read more: Australian government urged to produce long-awaited digital capability review

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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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