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Speech to the Australian Government Leadership Network, Western Australia Burswood Entertainment Centre, Perth

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Speech Address by The Hon Gary Gray, AO MP Special Minister of State

Australian Government Leadership Network, Western Australia Burswood Entertainment Centre, Perth 3 August 2011

I acknowledge Nyoongar people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.

The Australian Public Service is fundamental to the successes of our country and society.

I do not say that lightly. The successful nations of the 20th century are few in number. A distinguishing feature of these nations is a successful and capable public sector. This is indeed the golden thread holding successful nations like our own, together.

The APS - and at times the whole notion of public service - doesn't get the recognition it deserves. It often goes unnoticed that at its core is the commitment to serve the Australian community.

Without the commitment and expertise of the public servants of the past, of you and your colleagues, and on many occasions your families, the ongoing job of building our nation would have faltered.

The APS is world leading in its policy, practice and methods.

Leaders within the APS are accountable for identifying and developing the capability to anticipate and respond to emerging issues in the most appropriate, effective and efficient way.

The lives of our citizens are fundamentally impacted by our performance. Our leaders have to have the resilience to cope with the challenges of the future.

And the only way to do that will be to configure our capacity in the light of our challenges - not by seeking to respond by way of some fixed institutional template.

The SES is the leadership level of the APS; it is the group that we look to as champions and role models for the new practices and culture that will carry the future of the APS.

The make-up of the SES highlights some interesting characteristics of the APS’ leadership group:

At December 2010 the SES consisted of 2,750 employees. •

Almost three-quarters (74.5%) of this number were aged 45 or over, with one-fifth (21.7%) aged 55 or over. As you expect, the SES is getting older. •

Diversity is essential amongst the SES and representation of women has increased at all levels within the group - up from 19.3% in 1996 to 37.4% by December 2010. •

Diversity in the public sector is about more than gender, it’s about the background, experience and qualifications that different people bring with them.

The depth of experience of the SES, particularly from those now entering the SES adds to its diversity.

Just under one in ten employees promoted to the SES in 2009-10 had worked in five or more agencies.

However, the proportion of SES recruited from outside the APS is growing - of the 77 SES recruited in 2009-10 just over 50% had come from a background outside of the APS.

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The context within which the APS operates today is different to the context of yesterday and the APS needs to continue reforming its practices to stay ahead of a changing world.

Reform is, in essence, about leadership.

The Senior Executive Service itself is the product of public administration reform that began in the 1970s.

So, with that background, I’d like to reflect on APS reform since the 1970s.

Reform in the APS

Reform is a reality of the service - indeed it is the weave in the fabric that is the APS.

It is hardly surprising that a period of social, economic and technological transformation has meant that the APS has changed.

That change has been brought about by a combination of public administration evolution; considered strategic reform; lessons learnt through times of pressure; and sometimes simply trial and error.

In 1976 the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration led by Dr H.C (Nugget) Coombs, identified areas for reform, including:

increased responsiveness to government; •

improved efficiency and effectiveness; and •

greater community participation in government. •

Successive reform efforts responded to these recommendations by gradually decentralising control of the APS - the operating principle of Australian public management became one of “letting the managers manage".

The empowering legislation of the Public Service Reform Act 1984 and the Public Service Act 1999 gave Secretaries increasingly more responsibility for managing under the direction of Ministers.

Just over 10 years after Coombs’ work the Block Report in 1987 provided a review of the Public Service Board.

It recognised the Board’s value in the development of a professional, efficient, merit-based, non-partisan public service.....

..... but went on to recommend the decentralisation of key functions.

And the themes identified by Coombs in the 1970s didn’t only resonate through the 80s, 90s - they resonate today and are reflected in the Blueprint for Reform.

It is too easy to make a distinction between the 'old' and the 'new' APS, but what we can say is that we have moved away from the notion that 'Canberra' (or Sydney or Melbourne for that matter) "knows best" and that "one size fits all."

Canberra knows a lot, Sydney gets Sydney and Perth knows Perth.

Importantly, the APS gets those things it does and it does them well.

Just a few examples of major reforms which responded to the need for service delivery reform and responsiveness of the APS are Medicare, and the establishment of the Job Network and Centrelink.

Medicare stands as a global leader in public administration and healthcare service delivery.

The Job Network was an innovative reform which tailored services towards individual needs, to provide an element of choice for individuals over their service provider.

The establishment of Centrelink in 1997 allowed the creation of a customer-focused service delivering integrated programmes tailored to individual circumstances regardless of locality.

Yet we still make mistakes, we get things wrong.

Errors of policy and public administration occur when Canberra reaches out of its known environment into the unknown. This especially happens when Canberra tries to do those things best and traditionally done by the States.

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Knowing the boundaries of public administration in a changing world is a great challenge, it is not easy and failure causes great pain.

In a challenging world the Australia Public Service has a responsibility to lead -

In a challenging world the 'new' APS is increasingly about governance, and at its core that is about a partnership between state; economic imperatives and civil society.

Blueprint Recap

The Blueprint lays the foundations for an even more effective public service, one that will be better positioned to meet future challenges.

As I have already observed, today’s public servants, like their predecessors, need to face complex social, economic and policy challenges, whether that is Indigenous health and life expectancy, climate change, rapid economic change, location specific economic opportunities and challenges.

Today’s public servants need to respond to today’s issues using a whole-of-public service approach not just because the big problems are best addressed in that way; but principally because the people they serve expect as much.

The APS needs to be able to partner with the private sector.

Big ideas must be converted into practical programs.

And programs must be responsive to the needs of our citizens. These needs are fluid, and public sectors around the world are seeing change driven by the security environment, economic and environmental upheavals, public health crises such as avian influenza, restricted government finances, the GFC, its aftershocks and more.

The importance of taking a systematic approach to building organisational capability and governance is evident in a number of recent ANAO reports.

For instance in a number of cases; agencies were asked to assume functions, especially delivery functions, where there was limited portfolio experience or appropriately skilled resources upon which to draw.

In some cases this lead to speedier than desirable implementation, the risks of which may not have been fully appreciated at the time.

History suggests that various parts of the APS will experience the stress of over hasty implementation for which they are unprepared - as much was highlighted in the Comrie and Palmer inquiries into Immigration.

The APS will also suffer stress from implementing programs that are poorly thought through: such as Regional Partnerships, or in having to deal with the unexpected as in the case of OzCAr.

A big part of the solution means getting it right before we get to implementation and delivery. It means providing clear advice to Cabinet on delivery options and risk mitigation before policies and programs are approved.

It means thinking things through - not creating policy by opinion poll or for that matter creating policy by elite opinion only.

A range of measures have been put in place to achieve this, including a requirement for new policy proposals to contain detail on implementation options and risks.

Gateway Reviews are going to be expanded to cover full programs, three to four independent implementation readiness assessments will be conducted every year on programs, and an APS Implementation Network has been established.

Another core idea within the Blueprint is the notion of ‘one APS’ - we must continue to get better at working together, at working beyond agency boundaries to effectively develop responsive policy and citizen service.

Crucially though, 'one APS' isn't just about system architecture or hardware, it is about how we think and act.

It is about our mission, our vision and our values.

It is about establishing a culture in which the predations of departmentalism have no place.

Take pride in working for your department and in the achievements of working in departments in your past, but take equal if not greater pride in the fact that you are of the APS.

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The APS Values

Another area where there has been significant progress is in revising the APS Values.

The current APS Values and Code of Conduct were the product of reform efforts in the 90s.

The Blueprint recognises the power of effective and memorable values as a foundation for reform, and the APSC was tasked with leading this work.

As you know, agencies of every size are facing severe financial constraints. Natural disasters have impacted on agency budgets and the Efficiency Dividend has been increased for two years.

But the leadership of the APS must, and does, go on.

The Blueprint recommended strengthening learning and development, and improving talent management across the APS.

The case for taking action in this area is clear.

There are risks surrounding the APS’ future workforce, with nearly 50% of the SES eligible for retirement in the next five years.

We are experiencing generational change.

There is also evidence that our current approach isn’t filling our skills gaps.

The State of the Service Report has repeatedly identified skills gaps in areas such as strategic thinking, risk management and ability to implement change. These are challenges we face as a nation and we need to come up with effective policy and service delivery solutions.

In response, the Strategic Centre for Leadership,

Learning and Development has been set up in the APSC to implement a strategic approach to these matters.

The Strategic Centre will initially focus on leadership development, including designing more innovative learning approaches.

The Strategic Centre is about developing the ‘bench strength’ of future leaders; it is not about anointing successors. This is core to the business of the public service - we must be ready with the leaders of the future.


As I said earlier, the SES must continue to be responsive.

But it must also be the stewards of a set of enduring values that allow public policy to be world-leading.

We must continue the good progress that is being made to implement the APS Blueprint. These reforms do not become any less important as time goes on.

As I’ve said before without the commitment and expertise of you and your colleagues, and on many occasions your families, and those who came before you, the ongoing process of building our nation may well have faltered.

In ten, twenty, perhaps thirty years’ time; someone else will be giving a speech about the reforms that set the APS up for the challenges of the mid 21st century.

Let’s ensure future APS members will look back on this time as a worthy moment in the long term success of the Service.

Last Updated: 5 August, 2011

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