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Citizens, culture and leadership

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Institute of Public Administration Australia (ACT) Wednesday 8 December 2010

Guest Speaker Mr Terry Moran AO

Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Citizens, culture and leadership

I commend IPAA for organising this event. IPAA plays an invaluable role promoting debate and sharing information on policy, innovation and reform in public administration.

I’d also like to congratulate Andrew Metcalfe on his election as president of the ACT division of IPAA. Unfortunately he has another commitment and couldn’t be here. I know he’ll be energetic in his new role, and that he’ll encourage us all to think and talk critically about the public service and how to make it better. Andrew is an excellent choice; he exemplifies the finest qualities of public service.

I think you will agree this has been an extraordinary year.

At the top of our minds is the new political world we’re in. None of us was quite sure what to expect when the public delivered the first hung Parliament since World War II. We had a long wait after the election to find out who would form a government. The Australian Public Service performed admirably during the hiatus as the custodian of the processes of government.

Now, three months on, we are settling in well to the new order. We have established some more robust routines for supporting the Government. Working with the Prime Minister, we’ve revised and reinforced Cabinet processes to ensure we provide ministers with timely and useful advice to help them make well-informed decisions.

But it’s not just the routines we need to worry about, we also need to be at the top of our game in dealing with the unexpected.

The hung parliament was one example of the unexpected. Our biggest recent surprise of course was the Global Financial Crisis - a surprise at least in its severity, although I should note the prescience of Treasury colleagues who warned of storms ahead.

Our response to the GFC highlighted the real strengths of the public service - our ability to find creative, proactive, effective solutions to difficult and potentially extremely serious problems. Let’s not forget - as some are apt to do - that this was the biggest global economic crisis since the Depression.

But although our response to the GFC was positive in many ways, it also gave us lessons about aspects of our work that we need to do better, especially the hard grind of converting our big ideas into practical programs. We have had plenty of good advice about the home insulation and school halls programs, and we’re taking it all seriously. But the biggest reason those programs had problems was the imperative to move quickly.

The demand for haste was particularly acute at the time of the GFC, but it’s also a symptom of the times. Our citizens have higher expectations of us than in the past. So do their elected representatives. And they’re right to do so. We’re in a world where peoples’ lives move at a faster pace. In the social sphere, people are less respectful of rank and less rusted-on to employers or political parties. In the public service we need to respond faster and adapt to the changes.

The communications revolution is a key aspect of the new world. This is not just a change at the margin of peoples’ lives, it’s at the centre. The internet came into wide use used just 15 years ago; today it is evolving in radically new directions. How many of you remember the first Netscape browser, and the amazing promise it held? It’s gone, like the dodo. Today a whole new generation of technologies such as Facebook and Twitter, iPads and smartphones, are transforming everyday communication.

The transformations in communications and in the social sphere have increased citizens’ expectations of government, and increased governments’ awareness of those expectations. In a circular process, this further elevates citizens’ expectations.

So we have to make sure that we move quickly - but we also have to deliver the goods; we have to ensure that our response is effective. As the problems with some of our GFC programs showed, just responding faster isn’t enough. We have to respond better. We have to embrace the challenges of this changing world.

Citizens first

There are broadly two kinds of work we do as public servants. One of them is advising government on policy.

There’s a tendency in PM&C to focus on high policy - it’s the Prime Minister and Cabinet, after all, who are our masters. One of my chief missions in this job is to compensate for this urge. That is, we need to fight the urge to make serving the Prime Minister and Cabinet the whole of our purpose.

Do I hear cries of ‘heresy’? What else should the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet be doing but serving the Prime Minister and the Cabinet?

That of course remains a critical role. And it is the Prime Minister and Cabinet who make the decisions on policy. My point is that, as public servants, we need to remember that the policy side of our business has a higher goal, and that is serving citizens. To succeed in responding to this changing environment, we must, above all, put citizens at the centre of our policy advice and our thinking. Sometimes our focus will be on meeting the needs of individual citizens; at other times meeting their collective needs, through the community and the nation.

In a recent article in the Financial Review, Verona Burgess quoted an unnamed official who had moved from a service delivery agency to work in a high level policy department. ‘Hello, there are people out there,’ the official said.

While I deplore anonymous leaks, I endorse the sentiment. We need to remember the ‘people out there’ all the time.

There are bigger leaks than Verona’s in the news today, of course. The recent ‘WikiLeaks’ of US Government cables and directives are remarkable in their scale, and are especially deplorable for the damage they will inflict to the proper practice of diplomacy, which, for any nation, relies on frankness, trust and confidentiality.

But the ‘WikiLeaks’ are also a sign of the times. A generation ago, even the possibility that such a vast cache could be leaked would have been inconceivable. Today, there’s a universal technology that allows an enterprising thief, or fence, to distribute stolen diplomatic cables around the world in an instant.

Responding to change

How should we respond to these changes?

For six months from late 2009 I chaired a committee that consulted with many public servants and others on the need to revitalise the Australian Public Service. The fruit of those labours was a report entitled

Ahead of the Game, Blueprint for Reform of Australian Government Administration, which sets out an ambitious and wide-ranging agenda for change.

It sets out a program of reforms to improve the way we deliver programs, and to ensure that all our programs meet the needs of citizens and respond to the policy priorities of government. It’s not a one-off set of changes that we can set and forget. We need to embed a new approach and continuously develop and extend our citizen focus.

How do we go about that? There are many parts to a change agenda. I want to focus on one of them: and that is culture.

Agility, vocation and vision

There are three cultural traits that will help deliver the change we need - agility, vocation and vision. We need to harness these traits to overcome the powerful forces of inertia and conservatism that exist in any organisation.

Agility means quick-moving and nimble. It means identifying opportunities and threats before they occur. An agile culture is flexible. Agility helps us respond to new and unexpected challenges and problems. It is a close cousin of innovation - the ability to create something new.

The second cultural trait that will support change is vocation. A sense of vocation is a key motivator for public servants - a sense that their work has intrinsic worth, that they can make a difference for the whole community. In that sense, public service is a calling - to be a public servant is to be committed to ‘public service’; to be a servant of democracy even. A key component of vocation is professionalism. For public service leaders, that means giving frank and honest advice, while at the same time recognising that they are accountable to their ministers, and through them to the Parliament and the nation.

The third aspect of public service culture that I want to highlight is vision - the ability to look beyond the immediate, to set long-term goals. Vision means taking a strategic, forward-looking approach, and making hard choices between alternative paths. An effective strategy has to involve trade-offs between choices. Just as important as deciding what to do is deciding what not to do.

Agility and vision need collaboration; we need to think of the APS as a whole, not an agglomeration of individual parts. And we need to lift the capabilities of the individuals and organisations that make up the APS.

The cultural traits of agility, vocation and vision have been present throughout our history. They provide the foundation for the changes we need to make.

Generations of public servants from the earliest days have contributed vision to meet the big challenges of their times. The Commonwealth Public Service created at Federation was much smaller than today. But it rose to the challenge of creating the public infrastructure for a new nation. Among its achievements were building the transcontinental railway - a huge project in its day requiring vision and state of the art technology - and creating the Royal Australian Navy, with a significant fleet of warships.

In the post-World War Two years, Nugget Coombs and the other public service leaders nicknamed the ‘seven dwarfs’ faced the challenge of creating a new, expanded role for government in a modern mixed economy. Small in stature, the ‘seven dwarfs’ were the towering figures of the public service in this period.[1] Working in sympathy with political leaders from both sides of politics, they helped build a framework that took government into a host of new and different activities. It was a revolution in Australian public service. The Snowy Mountains Scheme was a key achievement of this period. But we shouldn’t underestimate the scale and complexity of many less tangible reforms. The nation of home-owners that we take for granted today was created in large part by visionary policies in the post-war era. It supported the large immigration program that has done so much to create today’s Australia.

In the 1970s and 1980s a new generation of public service leaders faced up to the long-term challenge of economic decline, and a more immediate crisis of stagflation - low growth combined with persistent inflation. The reforms of that period helped create the longest economic boom in our history: tariff reform, the float of the dollar, the big privatisations, competition policy, and the move away from centralised wage-setting to an enterprise-based system. These deep structural reforms all had champions in the public service, who applied vision and a strategic approach to the really big problems. They transformed the country.

As much as vision, the great public servant reformers had a deep sense of vocation. Sir Frederick Wheeler, one of the great public service leaders, chose not to use his formal job title when identifying himself for parliamentary and court proceedings. Historian Ian Hancock tells us Wheeler would simply designate himself as ‘public servant’ or, in one case, ‘superannuated public servant’. Wheeler and the other great and agile reformist leaders took the view that serving citizens was a vocation.

The challenge of cultural change that we face is large, but these examples show that others before us have faced big challenges. Time and again they have reinvented the institutions in which they served to meet the challenges, changing culture as they did so.

Those examples of the three cultural traits of agility, vocation and vision were built on respect for the processes of government, along with an assumption that the lives of public servants should be driven by a commitment to improvement and betterment. We need to find the virtuous balance between process and betterment - although too often we are dominated by the former at the expense of the latter.

Billy Joel, in a famous song, said ’just surviving is a noble fight’. This isn’t and shouldn’t be the test for public servants to satisfy.

Culture and change

I want to say some more about why culture is so important. I’ve talked about three cultural traits. Let’s look more closely at what culture is.

Culture refers to our habitual ways of seeing and thinking about the world; it’s an ‘automatic pilot’, rarely thought about, but that influences almost everything people do. Culture is deep-seated and often persists when formal arrangements have changed.

Culture has three components - practices, attitudes and values. Of those three components, practices are the easiest to identify because they can be observed. Practices are the outward manifestation of culture; practices are the ways people behave and the things they do, whether on a daily, routine basis, or in response to a challenge or crisis.

Practices are underpinned by attitudes and values, the psychological dimensions of culture. Attitudes and values are closely related. The distinction I’m making is that values are more explicit; they have an ethical dimension, a sense of what is right and what is wrong, a set of beliefs about how one should act in a certain situation. Attitudes are more basic; they are a disposition to act in certain ways, and are often not explicitly articulated or even conscious.

Because many elements of practices, attitudes and values are deep-seated and unconscious, culture is not easy to change.

Experts on change management such as John Kotter argue there are several steps to achieving lasting organisational change. Lasting change requires an organisation’s leaders to have a clear sense of purpose, a roadmap that sets out a new way of doing things. They need to articulate that purpose, and reinforce the messages about their purpose and path throughout the change process. The messages should be reinforced by some early successes. Leaders need to reflect on progress towards their goals, and adjust course if necessary. All these steps affect an organisation’s culture and so contribute to cultural change. But lasting changes in culture usually don’t become embedded until the end of the process. It’s

when changes in practice become a habit that the changes in values and attitudes can become anchored and entrenched.

Along with the cultural traits that support change, there are some conservative traits in public service culture. The need for accountability is entirely proper, but sometimes leads to undue risk aversion which is often expressed as a pre-occupation with administrative process. In any organisation there is a tendency to inertia, and a propensity to default to the status quo when under stress.

But that said, our traditions and culture have strong positive elements that provide the foundation from which we can adapt and tackle new challenges. The feature of strong vibrant cultures is that they’re open to change.

I’ll give you some examples.

With new technology come new expectations from citizens about the quality of government services. We need agility to respond to the biggest social changes over recent decades that I mentioned earlier - in the way people use technology to communicate.

More than ever we need to encourage a sense of vocation that puts service to our citizens and the community at the centre of our work. We want to help our staff develop the range of skills they need, and we want them to conceive of careers across the whole public service, not in a single agency, potentially for a large part of their working lives.

We will encourage public servants to value long term strategic vision as much as responsiveness to immediate priorities. The Prime Minister has set an ambitious reform agenda that includes health, education, carbon, water, and the National Broadband Network. To tackle these we need to encourage innovation; we want public servants to explore new ideas, and to find new ways of delivering services and tackling problems. We want to encourage new ways of asking questions.

We want to expand the concept of strategic vision to always take account of the central importance of delivering and implementing policies. It should become automatic that policy development includes policy delivery.


At the broadest level, those are the goals of the Blueprint. I’m pleased to say the Rudd Government quickly agreed to the Blueprint recommendations, and Prime Minister Gillard has since reaffirmed that commitment.

For the Blueprint to succeed we will have to strengthen the culture of the Australian Public Service, by building on the three traits of agility, vocation and vision. All these traits will help us achieve our purpose of meeting citizen’s needs. Our sense of vocation will keep us focused on citizens as the ultimate goals of policy; our vision will alert us to challenges and threats before they emerge; with agility we will respond quickly to those new challenges and to others we do not foresee.

Achieving cultural change is not separate from the Blueprint, it is integral in the Blueprint reforms. Many elements of the Blueprint will reinforce the kinds of cultural change we need to achieve.

It’s a virtuous circle. Our culture supports the changes required by the Blueprint, and the changes required by the Blueprint will strengthen our culture.

The first goal of the Blueprint is to improve the way we deliver services to citizens. Many of the proposals in the Blueprint are directly focused on this goal, both by improving services, and by finding new ways to collaborate with citizens both before and after decisions are made. In a world where citizens are more demanding than ever, we need to bolster the relationship between government and the community. A fully effective public service will engage with citizens in a wide range of ways that reflect changing needs and

new technologies. To engage more effectively we need to make full use of new communications technologies.

The Blueprint also recognises that the path to better service delivery is to work better: by building our capabilities, and by building better networks within the public service and beyond it. The APS is a network of people. The Blueprint reforms will boost and support the public service workforce, encourage greater collaboration, and embed new forms of behaviour in public service culture.

The Blueprint measures will also strengthen the strategic policy making process. They will improve the capability of public servants and leaders, and help ensure all our work is more efficient and effective, and focused on the overarching goal of serving citizens. The Blueprint will improve workforce capability through improvements to performance management and workforce planning, learning and development, and recruitment.

Achievements to date

I’d like to mention some of the achievements we’ve already made arising from the Blueprint, and the way they all create and reinforce a culture focused on meeting citizens’ needs. Then I’ll outline our plans for the future.

The senior leaders of the APS now meet monthly as the Secretaries Board, to consider progress on important whole-of-government issues. The board has commissioned four cross-agency projects through the new APS200 group of senior officials. The projects cover mental health, vulnerable youth, public sector innovation, and improvements to geographic information to help government decisions.

We have established the Strategic Policy Network. Senior policy officers from across the public service meet every two months to share skills and information to improve strategic policy-making. The network seeks to overcome organisational barriers that inhibit development of good policy, and is developing an online toolkit for sharing information on policy-making. A prototype of the toolkit will be launched by the end of this year. It will use new govspace internet platform recommended by the Government 2.0 Taskforce. The network is also contributing to other reforms such as the methodology for a new process of capability reviews, and the policy topics to be addressed by the HC Coombs Policy Forum at the ANU.

The Australian Public Service Commission and my department are developing the methodology for the new capability reviews. The externally-led reviews will collect data on agency performance in areas such as delivery, leadership, and strategy. Agency heads will then develop capability improvement plans in partnership with the APSC. Progress will be factored into the Secretary's performance agreement. A pilot review is due to begin early next year.

Work on the Secretaries Performance Agreements is well advanced, and they have been discussed by the Secretaries Board. We have begun scoping a Citizen Survey that that captures citizens’ views on government services, programs and laws. The aim is to help us improve front-line service delivery by

discovering what does and doesn’t work and adjusting our services and programs accordingly. To help citizens most effectively, we need to more detail about what they expect, want and value from government services. To improve collaboration with academia we have created three new bodies: the Australian National Institute for Public Policy, the China Centre and the National Security College. The HC Coombs Policy Forum created as part of the Australian National Institute for Public Policy is working with government to foster interaction between the bureaucracy and academia. The forum is developing some exciting initiatives to link disciplines at the ANU to provide useful information to government. It is also running a series of workshops and seminars to inform the policy debate. One key benefit is that by working together, the relationships between public servants and researchers will improve.

Many of these achievements of 2010 have collaboration as a central theme. If the APS is to meet the challenges I have spoken about today - challenges arising from growing citizen expectations, technological change, and unexpected problems such as the GFC - then collaboration must become second nature. It must become a stronger, more valued part of our culture. I believe the well-proven agility of the APS - its capacity to change and evolve - will ensure this occurs.

Next steps for reform

Those are the changes already underway, and there’s more to come. Prime Minister Gillard said recently one of her aims for 2011 was that it would be a ‘year of delivery’. Major projects such as the National Broadband Network and health and hospital reforms will be key priorities. The APS must be prepared to support this agenda, and the Blueprint reforms will do that.

We will improve delivery of services by simplifying access and increasing useability for citizens. This will draw on, and reinforce, the agility of the public service. Steps to achieve this include creating a single point of entry for human services, including a new web interface, and a trial of needs-based care coordination for disadvantaged Australians. The recent collocation by the end of this year of 32 Centrelink and Medicare Australia offices is one example of this approach. By the end of 2014 all Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support offices will be collocated. This will allow customers to talk with a number of services at the same location, who could, for example, give help in tackling issues such as homelessness, poor literacy and numeracy, poor health, and drug and alcohol dependency.

A new statement of Australian Public Service Values will be embedded in legislation. Our aim is to create a small and memorable set of values, smaller than the current list of 15 - I suspect not all of you remember all of them. We received many submissions and comments during the consultation process that wound up in November. A formal statement of values will be important in setting out the kind of culture we want to create in the APS.

Public servants who feel fulfilled in their jobs will be committed to delivering the highest quality services and policy advice. This will reinforce the sense of public service vocation. It will help create a more efficient, accountable APS. To achieve this the Blueprint proposes a major effort to expand and improve learning and development. Secretaries will be required to reaffirm the right and obligation of every APS employee to undertake learning and development every year. We need a diversity of skills and capabilities among our managers; we need people who understand and value project management, business case development, and other key skills in which business often excels. To support this effort, an APS-wide workforce planning framework will identify skills gaps and steps to fill them.

We are taking several steps to improve the capability of agencies in delivering services. A new APS Implementation Network will share best practice on delivering and implementing policy; Delivery boards will be established for specific high risk programs to improve oversight; and the work already begun on capability reviews will be expanded.

Finally, the Blueprint has several measures to improve efficiency in the APS. The APSC will report to the Government in the new year on its review of the appropriate size and role of the Senior Executive Service. The Department of Finance and Administration is leading efforts to minimise red tape in the APS, review measures of agency efficiency, and improve guidance on agency governance.


All these changes will help make the Australian Public Service better at meeting the needs of our citizens, and providing policy advice to government.

The cultural traits of agility, vocation and vision provide the foundation for the public service reform agenda. They have served us well through our history and will support the Blueprint goals. They have always been present, and this is a crucial reason change can succeed. They show that in the past we’ve risen to the biggest challenges. We need to build on those traits and reinforce them.

The traditions and culture of the APS are a strength that will enable further change. The Blueprint seeks to embed cultural changes, by promoting a focus on citizens in delivering services and policy and through better collaboration. The result of the Blueprint reform program will be that our culture has evolved into something stronger, in which agility, vocation and vision are even more highly valued than they are today.

[1] The exact identify of the ‘seven dwarves’ is a matter of debate. The term was originally applied by Jack Lang in his newspaper The Century. Some argue there were actually eight such prominent figures who fitted the bill: Coombs, Frederick Shedden, John Crawford, Roland Wilson, Richard Randall, Allen Brown and Henry Bland. Kenneth Bailey and Stan Carver have also been nominated. See‐dwarfs‐article.


Last Updated: 8 December 2010