14 October 2022

Ambitious and enduring reform agenda for APS

| Chris Johnson
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Katy Gallagher

Senator Katy Gallagher addresses the IPAA national conference. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Integrity, transparency and respect are the hallmarks of an ambitious reform agenda Katy Gallagher has for the Australian Public Service.

The Public Service Minister wants the APS to have integrity in all it does, to put people and business at the centre of policy and services, and be a model employer with the capabilities to do its job well.

She promises to make it happen.

Addressing the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s national conference in Canberra, Senator Gallagher said Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had tasked her to reform the APS in an enduring way.

She said while millions of Australians interact with the APS every day, they don’t care which program belongs in what portfolio.

“They don’t care who the minister is, or the departmental secretary for that matter. What they want is a system that works,” she said.

“They want to be treated as human beings with respect, dignity and fairness. Whether someone is looking for work or starting a business, they want our system and its processes to be quick and uncomplicated. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be this way.”

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The minister outlined what she described as “years of neglect suffered by our public institutions” and a “decade of deliberate devaluing of the APS” that had led to a distrust of the public service.

That has to be repaired, she said.

“So what does good government look like, and how can we restore the trust of Australians in our government and its institutions?” she asked.

“This question cannot be answered without the Australian Public Service. Good government delivers effective policy; it is transparent and is accountable to the public.

“If we want to earn their trust, we have to have solid foundations in our institutions, and we also need to recognise the pace of change.”

The minister wants a fearless APS that will give frank advice to government and act with integrity at every level.

“It must be empowered to be honest and truly independent, to defend legality and due process and deliver advice that the government of the day might not want to hear, just as loudly as the advice that we do,” Senator Gallagher said.

She said every single public servant had a role to play in that mission, not just the senior leaders.

Repeating her aim to reduce the massive spend on public sector outsourcing, the minister said an in-house consultancy model was being developed in conjunction with the Australian Public Service Commission.

READ ALSO Government working on model to bring APS consulting in-house

She said the days of downgrading the public service and losing knowledge and skills were over.

“Too many resources flowed away from the APS towards contracting consultants and labour hire firms, decimating functions that should sit at the heart of a strong public service quite critical in creative thinking,” Senator Gallagher said.

“In some departments, the public service became more like an administrative service to ministers, with core work like policy development being shipped out to consultants.

“There was the public downplaying of policy development, the devaluing or disposal of years of experience and knowledge and a casualisation of the workforce.

“A lack of interest in investing, nurturing, planning for the public service as an institution in itself. This changes under the Albanese Government.”

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Starting this year, the capability of departments and agencies will become the subject of regular reviews – beginning with the APSC itself.

And all agencies will become more transparent by publicly sharing the results of such reviews and staff surveys.

“I would hope that in a few years when we look back, an increase to transparency and integrity is clear, that the sharing of information is habitual and deeply embedded as part of our culture,” she said.

“That the APS is recognised as a model employer and is attracting and retaining the best and brightest that Australia has to offer.

“To get there, each of you must accept the challenge laid out and the responsibility to help drive that change.”

IPAA’s national conference concludes today (14 October).

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A consultant is someone who borrows your watch so they can tell you the time. Having seen so much taxpayers money wasted on consultants who only ever deliver a power point slide deck at the end of their million dollar projects I can only applaud the new government’s approach. However it will take time to rebuild the technical and project skills the APS has lost over time. Defence and Infrastructure are two key APS capabilities that will need a significant reboot. Here’s hoping the government sticks to its word.

Building a relevant and skilled in-house consulting group means acknowledging that there is a range of technical skills that are necessary to inform the APS and the APS needs to compete with external employers for those with the relevant skills.

Those skill groups need to have an appropriate career path from graduate to senior adviser. If you are going to compete, that means paying a competitive wage beyond the current APS to EL2.2.

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