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06 Feb 2020

Marathon service-wide transformation of the APS begins with a sprint – but there are many miles to go

By Jennifer Wyborn, Caroline Beasley and Ali McMaster

The majority of the APS is unlikely to break a sweat during the sprint period at the start of 2020, but will need to get ready for when the pace picks up.

The final Independent Review of the Australian Public Service report released late 2019 reached an "unequivocal finding" that the Australian Public Service (APS) needs to undergo a "service-wide transformation" to meet the challenges of the future and avoid becoming obsolete. The Review Panel, led by Mr David Thodey AO, made 40 recommendations to achieve this, 35 of which have been wholly or partly accepted by the Federal Government.

While many in the APS might have been bracing for a busy 2020 as they implemented the reforms, their marathon will only begin after a period of planning, with the Prime Minister committing $15.1 million to begin the early stages of reforming the APS, including a planning sprint. Although much of the detail of implementation is therefore yet to be settled, we do know that workplace issues will be very important, and Agencies and Departments can use this period to begin assessing the impact of the reforms upon their workplace processes and practices.

In case you missed it – an overview of the APS Review

In May 2018, the Turnbull Government commissioned the Review of the APS to make recommendations about what changes, if any, would be necessary to ensure that the APS was "fit-for-purpose" to efficiently deliver services to Australians into the future. Led by Mr David Thodey AO, the Review Panel considered the capability, culture and operating model of the APS in this light.

In March 2019, the Review Panel released its Interim Report, which contained diverse recommendations about how to ensure the APS was fit-for-purpose into the future, including placing senior bureaucrats in Minister's offices, introducing greater powers for the Secretaries Board, having common core digital platforms operating across the APS, developing a "professions" model for APS staff, and having annual external recruitment at executive and senior executive levels.

The Review built on the recommendations of the Interim Report, and provides greater detail on what key changes it considers are necessary for the APS to be "fit-for-purpose" for 2030. Its release also came at a time of significant flux within the APS, with Machinery of Government changes seeing the consolidation of 18 government departments into 14, and the dismissal of 5 departmental secretaries.

Given the changes to the APS in recent months, there is potential for the Review to result in broad-reaching change also. However, the timing of this change being implemented is less clear. While most of the APS will not have a role in implementing this change at the moment, we think there will be a clearer picture of what is to come in mid-2020 following the sprint. 

Prepare to sprint

A planning sprint is currently underway, to be completed by the end of March 2020. The Secretaries Board and the Australian Public Service Commissioner are responsible for completing the sprint. The Secretaries Board is a small group made up of the Secretaries of Commonwealth Departments which is responsible for setting the strategic direction of the APS. Essentially this sprint period will be used to plan how the accepted recommendations will be implemented and their success measured. The resourcing requirements of the implementation will also be considered.

While the terminology of a sprint may sound arduous, apart from the small number of individuals involved as part of the Secretaries Board, the majority of the APS will unlikely need to break a sweat during the sprint period. The next stage of implementation is likely to require more input from more of the APS when capability reviews will be conducted to further plan the implementation of the reforms.

Mid-2020 capability reviews

Conducting regular capability reviews was one of the recommendations from the Review, which has been accepted by the Federal Government. In its response, the Government committed to having the Secretaries Board commence these from mid-2020 as part of the planning for implementation.

What these capability reviews will look like is being determined by the Secretaries Board during the sprint. However, an early view suggests the reviews will be used to assess Agencies' and Departments' ability to perform their functions, and find any gaps in or obstacles to more efficient service delivery. Areas that may be examined in these reviews include performance management processes, in-house skills and expertise, digital maturity, diversity and inclusion, and management structures.

Using the extra time to get ready for the implementation of the Thodey reforms

In light of this implementation plan, while APS Departments and Agencies do not need to immediately act on the recommendations which have been accepted, the start of 2020 could be used to prepare for the upcoming capability reviews. This could involve considering the accepted recommendations from the Review, the impact these will have on existing systems and processes, and what adjustments will likely need to be made to their operations in light of these recommendations going forward. Current processes for recruitment, performance management and promotion will likely be a focus in the implementation of the Review recommendations.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.