Turnbull to APS: get smart, get creative, prosper

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[analysis + speech]

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has launched a pre-emptive strike on long-running industrial discontent in the Australian Public Service, albeit not a stated one.

Using an address to hundreds of bureaucrats summoned to Parliament House’s Great Hall under the auspices of the Institute for Public Administration Australia on 20th April, the PM sought to paint a conciliatory and positive picture of what’s expected under his current and potential future leadership.

As enterprise bargaining negotiations remain painfully deadlocked after two years, the vision now being pushed from the top is that substantial change and improvements are expected from the APS, they should come from public servants being more creative, open minded and smarter about how they work to achieve outcomes – rather than just working harder and longer.

While bargaining and APS industrial relations were glaringly absent from the PM’s speech, clearly a deliberate omission, the broader narrative being put forward is that improvements in service delivery, the quality of advice and policy development will now necessarily come from technological uplift rather than demanding the public service makes sacrifices on conditions.

“We must all commit to learn about the technology at our disposal. That is non-negotiable,” Mr Turnbull said before calling out the Digital Transformation Office as a catalyst for that change.

“Program analytics, decision-making times, application and processing times can all be improved,” Mr Turnbull said.

“These will deliver more accurate insights and, most importantly, better outcomes for the public. More accurate insights, more real time insights are much more useful for all of us to make the decisions that Australia depends upon, because after all that’s our core mission – to improve the lives of the people we serve – the Australian public.”

The conspicuous push for older senior public servants (apparently that’s now over 40) to start becoming much smarter consumers of technology – and that includes its internal development – is a marked change in tone, and one that matters.

At its core is a departure from the punitive rhetoric about comparatively low productivity rates, overly cushy or obstructive workplace conditions and an adversarial relationship between the broader APS workforce and ministers and senior management who feel a whip needs to be cracked to frighten unsackable employees into performing.

In its place is a direct appeal to the workforce to lose much of the baggage and resistance to new methods of working that although unfamiliar, will produce better, faster outcomes and logically take some of the traditional workload pressure off.

Implicit in that appeal is that these changes are, through external pressures, largely unavoidable and will flow with tide of generational change even if initially resisted.

“Plenty of course changing for the APS in 2016 – digital disruption; greater transparency in data and information; contestability of advice; and rising community expectations for fast and personalised government services, are just a few of the challenges you face,” Mr Turnbull said.

“These are not challenges to be avoided or regretted, they must be embraced.  In this new economy, we need Australians to be more innovative more entrepreneurial – and government should be the catalyst.”

The absence of any reference to bargaining or industrial relations will necessarily be interpreted by the Labor Opposition and the Community and Public Sector Union as a deliberate avoidance and wilful ignorance by Turnbull of a hardline workplace policy that sought to make the public service the exemplar for a broader industrial relations push to chase unions out of private sector workplaces.

In many respects it is, but the motivation for the omission of IR more likely comes from convenience rather than conspiracy; it’s simply more practical for Turnbull to ignore and blank the obvious mistakes of his predecessors and call his own tune, thereby avoiding rubbing salt into lingering internal animosities.

For Turnbull to publicly repudiate the government’s long running bargaining position, one largely constructed by a former minister removed from the front bench with the blessing of a former Prime Minister that scared his own side so much he was dumped, would merely hand a potent political bludgeon to Labor with no upside.

Far shrewder to let able and willing ministers like Michaelia Cash take the heat – and paint an alternative picture on the sideline.

If the disruptive workplace changes Turnbull is talking about take hold, they could fundamentally challenge the relevance of unions that have quite logically resisted the introduction of automation technologies – because they reduce the number people needed to do a job.

Former Employment and Public Service Minister Senator Eric Abetz was the biggest gift to Community and Public Sector Union recruiters in a decade.

Turnbull knows far better than to revive him through acknowledgement.

Here’s the transcript of Prime Minister’s speech in full to the APS in full:


PRIME MINISTER: Well thank you very much Martin, I am delighted to be here today to share with you all, and as Glenys Beauchamp just advised me, the three and a half thousand watching this event on the internet, I want to share with you my vision for a twenty first century Public Service. And there are so many great Public Servants here today. But I just want to acknowledge one, in particular, who has been of enormous assistance and support to me and the Government, since I became Prime Minister, and that is of course the former Secretary of the Department of Communications, Drew Clarke, who is my Chief of Staff. I want to thank Drew for his great support in providing the benefit of years of experience and wisdom in providing a very keen understanding, and a strong link to the Australian Public Service so that the Prime Minister’s office and the APS work together each I trust getting the best out of the other in the national interest.

Now there is no doubt that we live in a time of rapid transformation.

The world, let alone the APS, is in uncharted territory in many respects. Just like the economy, the Australian Public Service is disrupted by forces which it cannot control.  One might say therefore that there has never been a more exciting time to be a member of the Australian Public Service.

The challenges of these circumstances are many and complex.  The best tools we have in times like this, in times of volatility, are resilience, agility and adaptability.

At the most fundamental level, our democracy depends on a reliable, dedicated and responsive bureaucracy.  A robust political environment, and a well-functioning Public Service, can, and indeed must, co-exist.

Now, the meaning of ‘responsive’ of course may have changed for the Public Service from a century ago.  My own Department’s role has changed significantly, from that which managed the sale of wool to Britain and, on Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce’s directive, supplied ships at sea, and I quote, each day with “…full reports of the important cricket matches’.

Those of you who are not involved in central agencies may have wondered what they do, well there you go, there’s an important central agency responsibility.

One hundred years ago, no-one could have foreseen the breadth that the Australian Public Service now encompasses. Now, more than 150,000 professionals with experience in areas as diverse as foreign policy, climate change, aged care, cybersecurity, digital transformation, advise on and implement public policy. The reality is, the Government could not formulate or implement any policy of substance without our Public Service. And I can tell you that my Government knows and respects the true value of the Australian Public Service.

We know that we are fortunate to have at our disposal the knowledge, the experience the passion of people who have chosen to serve the government of the day and, in turn, the Australian community who put them there.  And we want to hear your advice. We want you to tell us what you believe is best for Australia, not what you think the adviser in your minister’s office wants to hear.

You work for the Australian people and if you have that at the heart of all policy development, we will get the frank and fearless, apolitical advice that has been the hallmark of the APS over its lifetime. And in the midst of rapid change, that attribute should remain a constant. And plenty of course changing for the APS in 2016 – digital disruption; greater transparency in data and information; contestability of advice; and rising community expectations for fast and personalised government services, are just a few of the challenges you face.

These are not challenges to be avoided or regretted, they must be embraced.  In this new economy, we need Australians to be more innovative more entrepreneurial – and government should be the catalyst.

For those who want an insight into just how government can stymie innovation and entrepreneurship, I recommend Marcus Westbury’s book, Creating Cities. Marcus Westbury was the brains behind the highly successful ‘Renew Newcastle’ project, which used the ideas and imaginations of the city’s residents to revitalise the city’s abandoned CBD. But the success of the project was in spite of government, not because of it.

Westbury said that finding answers to simple questions about zoning and leasing of empty shops and offices was virtually impossible. For any doubters, he challenged them to call a government switchboard and find the right person to give you both a definitive and comprehensible answer.

Government has to do better. The new economy, our future depends on it. The prosperity of our nation depends on it. We are already of course seeing instances of government transforming the way we do business.

My own department, for example, not traditionally known for cutting-edge, risk-taking behaviour, has begun to explore a new approach to IT projects.  My department is collaborating with the Department of Social Services, using a small, low-cost project to improve the management of grants.  It’s a ‘learn fast, keep moving’ approach, modelled on good private sector practice.  It uses off-the-shelf products that are configured rather than coded.  This saves development time and cost; enables the latest internet-based business processes; and improves both user and provider experience.

Now that’s why I have placed the Digital Transformation Office in my Portfolio, and appointed an Assistant Minister to focus on the task.  I want digital transformation. Digital transformation must be at the heart of government, and therefore it must be whole-of-government.

Program analytics, decision-making times, application and processing times can all be improved.  These will deliver more accurate insights and, most importantly, better outcomes for the public. More accurate insights, more real time insights are much more useful for all of us to make the decisions that Australia depends upon, because after all that’s our core mission – to improve the lives of the people we serve – the Australian public.

I know that innovative thinking is not new to the Public Service.  Every year, for the past 14, the Prime Minister’s Awards for Excellence in the Public Sector have showcased exceptional innovation at every level of government. Last year’s awardees included my old Department of Communications, which completed the world’s largest free-to-air spectrum switch without disrupting broadcasters or viewers. And the Tasmanian Department of Education received the Gold award for a web portal that provides school leaders with real-time data about every single student in their school.

It takes a high standard of leadership, planning and governance to bring these ideas to fruition, but the results are outstanding and I want to see more of this within the APS.

Of course, innovation and technology go hand-in-hand.  An unwillingness to embrace technology is, to put it bluntly, is simply not acceptable. Cities expert and futurist, Dr Chris Luebkeman, who was in Australia, recently, spoke of a ‘clay layer’ in some businesses. This layer consists in some instances of managers – in the 40 plus age bracket – who did not grow up with the digital technology of today, do not fully understand it and, in some instances, fear it. And that fear, according to Dr Luebkeman, acts as a barrier to its implementation, and not only does a disservice to the managers, but inhibits the success of their business.

Dr Luebkeman suggested it’s time for some reverse mentoring; for baby boomers and Gen X to swallow their pride and call on the millennials to share their experience of the technology that is second nature to them. Now we may not all understand instantly new technology, but we can learn and we must, because technology and data will transform the way we work.  It will make our interactions with the public better, and it will help us to deliver services more efficiently.

We must all commit to learn about the technology at our disposal. That is non-negotiable. You have a fantastic service at your disposal, here in the APS, to support you on this journey – the Digital Transformation Office – and I encourage you all to familiarise yourselves with their work and engage with them directly. And as somebody who is well over forty, but also reasonably adaptive to technology, let me give you a key.

My old partner in OzEmail, Sean Howard, always used to say there was plenty of technology. But what was in short supply was technological imagination. This is a very important point.  So what that means is, understand the functionality of what is on offer and then open your mind and imagine what you can do with it. You can make a difference. Plenty of technology, plenty of imagination, not enough technological imagination. Open your minds and be bold.

Now when the Australian Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd, released the State of the Service Report last year, he said the APS is well positioned to meet the challenges of today but cannot be complacent. It must identify gaps in capability, performance and productivity and strive for improvement.

But some of those capability gaps will be found in the use of technology. Some will be in training. Some will be in leadership. Such is the rapid and exhaustive nature of the changes we face.

I encourage each of you to take stock of your leadership skills and see where you can improve – and I mean each and every member of the APS. Because I expect leadership to be shown at every level.

I also expect to see more leadership on gender equality in the Public Service.  While the number of women at all levels from APS 1 to EL 1 has now reached parity with or succeeded men, women still fall behind from EL 2 and into senior leadership.

Now last month my Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash – I should say later this month – Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash will release the APS Gender Equality Strategy, which will set out how we can create an APS where both men and women have the same opportunity to develop and lead. You have seen an example of the Government’s intentions and ambitions in this regard, with the way in which we have set out a clear goal of 50 per cent women for appointees to government boards. That should be the target. That should be the target, we won’t always reach it but that should clearly be the target. Gender equality is an important, a critical objective in the APS. This is an opportunity to drive lasting change to remove gender bias from recruitment, promotion and retention and to do away with practices that operate sight unseen, to steer women into certain public service roles and men into others. Reporting on gender equality at all levels in agencies, adopting flexible-by-default policies and measuring progress, are some elements that will see the APS lead again as a workplace of the future – for women and for men.

I know Martin Parkinson, as a Champion of Change, led the way with an “if not why not” approach to flexible work at Treasury.  I commend him for challenging accepted norms, and for introducing gender targets for the first time in the Treasury’s history. It is that sort of leadership we need by all Secretary’s, agency heads, managers and supervisors across the APS if we are going to drive further transformative change.

Now let me say something further about workplace flexibility. We have the ability to be very flexible in 2016. Now the technology of course enables that. I can tell you from my own experience, through Lucy and my experience, through all the different businesses we’ve run and been responsible for over the years. We’ve always focussed on workplace flexibility, because we know that it enables gender equality and it enables workers, men and women to have a much better family-work balance. This is absolutely critical. As Jack Fergusson the old deputy-premier of New South Wales and father of Mark and Laurie, and the rest of the Fergusson clan said to me in 1976 when I was a young political journalist; he said “Malcolm. Young Malcolm”, he said – he always used to called young Malcolm and I suppose I was then – “young Malcolm,” he said, “peace on the home front is worth ten percent on the basic wage.”


It was a very wise insight and its one that stuck with me ever, it’s one that stuck with me ever since. It is a really important priority – as a leader, as a manager of a business, of a Department, of an agency, of a unit of a section – part of your job is as far as you can, to make sure that the people that you are responsible for are able to get the right balance between home and work. Of course you can’t make people happy if they’re not happy and so forth. But it’s really, it is a very important criterion, it’s a very important objective. It’s one I’ve always taken very seriously and I know that it results in better teams, more successful teams, better productivity, better output. It’s not a worthy objective, in the sense of being idealistic, and just some kind of ideal objective. It is worthy of course but it is also a very practical one and I encourage you to think about it. Just keep that in your mind.

Now we’ve also got to study and understand what has worked and what has failed in public policy around the world.  That should be a core competence of policy-makers – to learn from the experience of others.

This leads me to collaboration. One area of public policy where collaboration and learning from others is critical, is our cities agenda. In our quest to build more liveable, accessible, productive cities – smart cities if you will- the centrepiece of the agenda will be the concept of the ‘city deal’.

The city deal approach used in the United Kingdom has been instrumental in the renaissance of Manchester and Glasgow, and we believe there are many elements that can be applied in Australia.

But it requires a firm commitment to collaboration.  Success is dependent on federal, state and local governments agreeing on a set of long-term goals for cities, and the investments, policies and regulatory settings to achieve them. In this way we can leverage our infrastructure and services to drive national priorities, such as job creation and affordable housing.

And the private sector, which also stands to benefit from city deals, must see itself as a partner.

What this all amounts to is, we simply cannot do business the way we used to.  Government can’t, industry can’t and the Public Service can’t.

I talk a lot about people being this country’s greatest asset. Because the next boom is the ideas boom. It is one limited only by our imagination and our enterprise. So it is the one boom that can go forever.

Now I want the APS to be part of that boom.  That is why one of the pillars of the Government’s Innovation Agenda is ‘government as an exemplar’. I want you to be bold in your thinking.  I want you to lead by example.

The APS and, likewise, the Government and the public, must accept that we may not get policy right the first time.  We may have to rethink a policy or program if it is not getting the desired result. The world is changing too rapidly for policy to be ‘set and forget’.

Adaptive government encourages experimentation on a small scale so that, in the case of a policy not working, the losses are also small in scale. There is no shame in adjusting a policy. There is shame in ignoring the fact it is not working, knowing we are wasting taxpayers’ money, and doing nothing about it.

Certainly, innovative thinking must be grounded in robust evidence and we must not be restricted by the way things were done in the past. This is a new era for the Public Service and, if I may paraphrase Robert Browning, your reach, our reach should exceed our grasp. This is a time for ambitious leadership and that is my wish for the APS. I want to see Commonwealth Public Servants who are filled with a curiosity and a true desire to make a difference.

My expectations for you, the APS are high because I know what it is you’re capable of doing. While efficiency will always be important, in the long run, it will be quality that makes the difference. And experience is one of the foundations of quality.  Just as it is important for the long-serving managers to listen to the ideas of younger tech-savvy staff, the newer APS officers have much to learn from those who hold the institutional memory and have experience of the policy creation and implementation process.

Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia, highlighted the hazards of the APS losing the power of the anecdote when trying to influence a minister and the ability to remember what Tacitus called the “dangerous past” –  that which gives us a conscious and unconscious context for our understanding of contemporary events.

I cannot stress enough the importance I place on mentoring and on being mentored.

It is through that process that knowledge is transferred, talent identified, and that is critical because talent is the real asset of the APS. The APS’s asset is you. It’s the human capital just like Australia’s greatest asset, the 24 million Australians, not the rocks under the ground.

We need an APS that believes in continuous improvement – staffed by intelligent, motivated officers – as much in touch with the local community as they are with the global community.

My Government is determined to grasp the enormous opportunities presented by this time of rapid change and I expect nothing less from the Australian Public Service.

The key to success for a 21st century APS is to embrace innovation and technology – to think big and bold and to be committed to learning and leadership at every level.

I want to thank you all, every one of you, for your role in good government and I thank you too for your dedication, often in a whole lifetime’s career, to serving the Australian people. Thank you.


DR MARTIN PARKINSON: Prime Minister, thank you for those thoughtful words and especially encouragement for us to be bold and imagining a better future. Two things that are probably worth noting in that respect is the Secretaries Board at its last meeting agreed to establish a diversity council. Of all of the secretaries and some external members, in part as we have agreed as a group on the importance of us stepping forward as leaders to lead the policies that Minister Cash will announce on behalf of your Government. And we also agreed to establish a talent council to be led by Finn Pratt, to seek out and build the leadership capability that we think will be needed in this new environment. These are two initiatives that the board has agreed in the last month and are evidence I think of the recognition on our behalf that we need to do things differently. The world has changed and you are spot on.

We’ve now got time for some questions from the audience. Given the time constraints, IPAA has asked for questions to be submitted in advance and our questioners are ready to go and the first question is from Chris Legg from Treasury. Chris.

CHRIS LEGG: Thank you. Prime Minister, thank you very much for a very impressive presentation. As an ageing baby boomer I’m especially challenged on the boldness on the imagination front but I feel there is a very strong message I want to take on.

Compared to many of your predecessors and all that I can think of, you bring a much wider range of professional experience to this role from outside of politics and I would be interested in knowing what you think that broader range of experience brings to the way you approach the job. Although I’d also be interested in if there are insights that you bring from the role itself that surprised you about the public policy process and whether you can share those with us as well.

PRIME MINISTER: Well thank you very much Chris. Yes I’ve had a diverse career; I’ve done a lot of things, different things over the years. The Press Gallery of course, feel that I started off with a thoroughly reputable profession as a journalist and it’s just been a slide downhill ever since. [laughter]

Let me make a couple of observations. I think one important point that some of you may have heard me make before is that public policy and you can make the same point about politics, is much more parochial than business is in the 21st century. Many businesses are of course global firms, in fact, increasingly that is the case, if you have a manufacturing business in Australia, most, many services, business, professional businesses, you are inevitably going to be dealing one way or another internationally.

I think in terms of our development of public policy, we pay insufficient attention to what is happening in other jurisdictions. I have been surprised, for example, over the years, how little is known or how little attention is paid, particularly by previous, I’m obviously talking about previous Labor governments naturally [laughter] to previous, how little attention is paid to what has worked and what hasn’t worked in other places including somewhere as close as New Zealand, for example. Often not enough attention is paid to what is going on in the States and I say the Australian States let alone the United States. I think there is a very important and this is not an invitation for you know mass exodus on fact finding missions because [laughter] there are, you know there is the internet and even the telephone for those that are frightened by the internet [laughter]. But we do, it is really important to examine policy experiences in other places, because most countries, certainly all developed countries are grappling with pretty much the same policy challenges and everyone has got different responses from which we can learn.

So I think there is a need to be very, to be more open minded. The other thing I would say as you know – and I said this at the time I became PM and it is something I’m very committed to – I am a very strong believer in the Cabinet process, in the traditional Westminster Cabinet process. It can be very fleet of foot, obviously and again, 21st century technology, but our tradition of collective decision making is a very valuable one. There are very few propositions that are not improved by discussion and debate.

DR MARTIN PARKINSON: Thanks PM. The next question is from Maree Bridger of Immigration and Border Protection.

MAREE BRIDGER: Good morning Prime Minister. I like you have also spent some time in the private sector and I think there is much the public sector and the private sector can learn from each other and given that, my question is; innovation and agile policy development relies on risk taking and occasional failure by departments and their ministers. So how can ministers best support this in a political and media landscape which relies on ‘gotcha’ moments and characterises any changes in policy direction as ‘backflips’?

PRIME MINISTER: Maree that’s an excellent question. Really you put your finger on a very important question, an important issue. Now this is and again I’ve addressed this before but I’ll repeat what I’ve said before. We have to be very up front and we’ve got, we being the Ministers, we’ve got to say when we produce a new policy, we’ve got to say that this is the best policy solution we have available to us today. This is our best solution, our best idea if you like and we’ve looked at it very carefully.

But if it turns out to be deficient in some respects then we will change it and if doesn’t work at all then we will dump it and if we find that somebody else is doing, addressing the same problem better and more cost effectively then we will happily plagiarise them. In other words you’ve got to ultimately, the obligation, is to do the right thing by the Australian people. Now what I’ve described and you may recall me making pretty much those remarks when we announced our Innovation & Science Agenda, I know some of the Press Gallery found that a bit shocking. The reality is this is how the real world operates.

Every business is constantly calibrating whether the measures they have are working and if they don’t work they change them because they’re driven by that strong KPI, that strong measure of the bottom line and of course the measure, the measures of success, in public policy are more complex and you’re dead right if you get yourself into a position as a politician where any change of policy, where you’re going to be putting yourself in a position where any change of policy is seen as a backflip then of course that means that you become completely inflexible. You may end up defending something not because it’s working but because it’s a proposal that you had in the past.

Agility and being very open about it is very important. What Australians need and demand from me as the Prime Minister and my Ministers and from the Government more broadly, including the APS, is that at any given time we are delivering the best policies we can put together and we can afford to meet the problems that we face. That’s our job. That is our job and that means that those policies will change and evolve in the light of experience. The alternative is you never take a risk, you never change anything and you know, organisms that are not changing are dead. So let’s be frank about that. So agility and responsiveness are absolutely critical and we should be very upfront about it. So thank you for that question.

DR MARTIN PARKINSON: Thanks PM. The next question is from Julia Landford at Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Julia Landford: Thank you very much. Good morning Prime Minister. This question relates to women in leadership. There are now six women in your cabinet and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is taking a proactive approach to engaging women in leadership roles and I’d like to ask you, including the appointment of women to boards for Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. What tangible strategies can be developed to further increase the number of women in leadership roles across the APS? And are you in favour of introducing targets to address this issue?

PRIME MINISTER: I certainly am in favour of targets. I think it’s very important and it’s important if you have a target then you have to report on it and then if you’re missing your target, then people have got to you know ask why. You’ve got to examine why you have missed it and what you can do to change. There are a whole range of issues in this regard. I think one of the most important ones is to recognise the importance of role models and leadership and mentoring. The role model is enormously important. We, as you know, as you’ve said we have six women in my Cabinet. We have Australia’s first woman as Foreign Minister, first women as Defence Minister.

Now without singling those two out, Julie and Marise, that is, they are very powerful role models. They really are. Right at the top of those very important portfolios, very, very important role models and if you look at the strength of the leadership for example that Michaelia Cash has shown in the very, in the very challenging area of employment policy, in particular with her advocacy over the RSRT and the ABCC over the last few weeks. Again that is great, that’s a great model, great leadership. So I think there are many measures, we talked earlier about flexibility in workplaces. I guess you’ve got to step back as a leader, as a manager and ask yourself this question – what are we trying to achieve?

Well our goal is to have as close as possible to 50 per cent men and women in leadership positions. That’s our target. Then you’ve got to say what are we doing that is either calculated to, or is having the effect of making the attainment of that target less likely? And then you make those changes and so you’ve got to start with your objective and then work through all of the measurers that are likely to create you know barriers. So I think it’s a broad range of I’d just say mentoring, role models, flexibility, are very, very important elements but there obviously many others and strong female leaders but also men have to be strong champions of change. That is absolutely critical too and lead by example.

DR MARTIN PARKINSON:Thank you PM that’s music to my ears. We have some more questions but I’m conscious of the time and the Prime Minister has to get to another engagement. So Prime Minister I’d like to thank you for your time today. You can see the Public Service has turned in droves both physically and through streaming to hear you speak and I think everybody will leave this session with much to consider.


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