In what could be the biggest shake-up of Commonwealth Government administration in a generation, the interim report of the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service (APS) has recommended placing senior bureaucrats in Minister's offices, introducing greater powers for the Secretaries Board, common core digital platforms operating across the APS, a "professions" model, and annual external recruitment at executive and senior executive levels – with significant effects on working conditions and management structures.

Consultation on the proposals closes on 2 May 2019, with the final report due in mid-2019.

Four key priorities for the APS

The current APS structure was largely developed as a response to the 1974-6 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration; noting this, the Innovation and Science Australia report, Australia 2030: prosperity through innovation, concluded that the APS needs to change to address digital transformation. The current Independent Review is a response to that conclusion, and is tasked with ensuring the APS is fit for purpose for 2030.

The interim report has identified four priorities for change within the APS:

  • Strengthening the culture, governance and leadership model of the APS;
  • Building a flexible APS operation model;
  • Investing in capability and talent development; and
  • Developing stronger internal and external partnerships.

Underpinning these priorities for change are 17 proposed initiatives to support and bring about the recommended changes, each of which is comprised of several smaller proposals.

Strengthening the culture, governance and leadership model of the APS

The first change priority seeks to create a shared purpose and set of values across the APS, including enhanced collaboration across agencies.

Initiatives to support this change include:

  • a "legislative requirement to develop an inspiring purpose and vision" which links to the current APS Values;
  • building on the role of the Secretaries Board including giving them decision-making rights and a requirement to prepare a national outlook published after each election;
  • a defined "head of service" role for the Secretary of PM&C and "head of people and professions" role for the APS Commissioner;
  • greater clarity and confidence in the appointment and performance expectations of Secretaries, including published criteria for the Prime Minister's recommendations to the Governor General for appointment of Departmental Secretaries; and
  • enhanced transparency and accountability in delivering outcomes, including a new review power for the APS Commissioner in relation to employee census results and the reinstatement of regular independent reviews of Departments.

Building a flexible APS operating model

The second change priority seeks to improve flexibility and dynamism across the APS. At the moment, realignments in government policies and priorities are generally reflected by Machinery of Government changes in the APS, and the Report notes there have been 200 MoGs in the last 20 years.

Initiatives proposed to support this priority include:

  • introducing structures which enhance collaboration, including an operating model with shared ways of working which can allow teams to come together on policy issues;
  • strategic allocation of funds, including a budgetary framework which enables faster resource allocation and an approach to departmental capital funding which enhances capacity to invest in long-term projects; and
  • better networked systems and common processes across APS agencies, including "a stable spine of common digital platforms and policy frameworks" in core areas such as HR, IT and finance.

Investing in capability and talent development

The third change priority seeks to improve retention and capability among the APS workforce, responding to perceptions that there are skills gaps emerging within the APS and barriers for entry.

Initiatives proposed to support this priority include:

  • professionalised functions across the service, introducing a new "professions model" incorporating delivery, regulation and policy, as well as corporate functions such as HR and procurement, to be overseen by the new "Head of Profession", the APS Commissioner;
  • management accountability for people and team development, achieved through enhanced performance management practices such as 360-degree feedback, linking performance outcomes with career opportunities and more focused performance management of the SES;
  • strategic recruitment to reduce barriers to entering the APS, including annual external recruitment at the EL and SES levels, targeted mobility in and out of the APS, and improved access to "career-defining" opportunities such as overseas postings and exchanges with State and Territory public services;
  • a new focus on research, analysis and evaluation capability and practices underpinning advice through the introduction of consistent methodologies; and
  • policy advice integrating social, economic, security and international perspectives as part of a commitment to taking a whole-of-government approach, achieved through regular whole-of-government exercises and professional and career development measures to break down cultural and structural silos.

Developing stronger internal and external partnerships

The fourth change priority is focused on enhancing the connections between the APS the Australian public, and one of its "most critical relationships": Ministers and their offices. Perhaps the most controversial of the initiatives is the proposed inclusion of senior APS staff in Ministers' offices.

Initiatives proposed to support this priority include:

  • improved access to the APS for Ministers, such as new positions for senior public servants within Ministerial offices and a higher proportion of ministerial staff with public service experience, training for parliamentarians on how to get the best out of the APS, and technological interfaces to allow Ministers to get up to date advice at any time or from any location.
  • a greater focus on seamless service delivery across Commonwealth portfolios and states and territories, where required, to ensure people can access services seamlessly regardless of which agency is responsible for the service provision;
  • enhanced transparency measures includes regular release of data and evaluations; and
  • service-wide procurement policies and centres of excellence, with specialist procurement capability using data analytics to identify efficiencies and future demand, underpinned by the professions model.

Making your views known

The proposed initiatives for change are wide-ranging, extending from aspirational goals to tangible changes to the management and structure of the APS. Of most practical impact across the APS will be the proposed link between performance assessment and career progression, and integration of senior APS staff with Ministerial offices. These changes are significant and are likely to affect working conditions and management structures for APS staff and, if implemented, will require careful planning and implementation.

The Review panel is seeking feedback on the proposed initiatives, which can be made on its website until 2 May 2019.