3 May 2023

Public service is being challenged so embrace it, says outgoing commissioner

| Chris Johnson
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APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott delivering his valedictory address. Photo: Region.

The Australian Public Service is under pressure like never before and must embrace bold new ideas to take it into the future, says its outgoing commissioner Peter Woolcott.

Delivering his valedictory address at the National Press Club on Wednesday morning (3 May), Mr Woolcott praised the hard work and achievements of the APS and touted the APS Reform agenda as much-needed progress.

But he warned the service that it risked severe reputational damage if it didn’t put integrity at the forefront of all it did.

“The APS, like many institutions in Western democracies, is under challenge,” he said.

“Never have expectations been higher from the public … This is a time when we need to reinforce the value of a strong, trusted and effective public service.

“Democratic institutions themselves need to be cherished – yet global populism, the erosion of civil discourse and the outrage pipeline that is social media make this harder.”

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Mr Woolcott said the current focus on public sector integrity and trust in government, which has been underscored by the Robodebt Royal Commission, illustrates a real risk to the reputation and brand of the public service.

“There is no doubt that integrity and trust must be marbled into our approach to managing change and in every aspect of policy formulation, regulation and implementation,” he said.

“We have not, of course, seen the Royal Commission’s final report, so I will be circumspect. Its hearings have already given us cause to think about our governance, our leadership behaviours and our culture.

“We need to do much better, particularly for vulnerable Australians. It has provided a shock to the system and it will lead to further change.”

In the Q&A that followed his speech, Mr Woolcott stressed that integrity was best maintained through a strong commitment to transparency.

During his speech, the commissioner said changing culture can be difficult, but some things within the APS needed fresh approaches.

The set of values and behaviours that underpin the APS is fundamental to its ability to function at its best.

“There is much you want to preserve in the APS culture, particularly around how purpose-driven it is and around the principles of merit and political impartiality. But also a few things you would like to change.” Mr Woolcott said.

“Culture can be quicksand for bold new ideas. The most important thing that leaders do is create and sustain culture, and if you are to move organisational culture, you need to have a critical mass of APS leaders pushing that change.”

The highly regarded career public servant has spent more than 40 years working for the government of the day and the last five as APS commissioner.

Much of his career was in the diplomatic service, having represented Australia in missions around the world.

He leaves the APS on 10 May and says the public service is a very different entity from what it used to be.

“APS is no longer the monopoly it once was,” Mr Woolcott said.

“While we have institutional authority, we are working in a much more contested environment.

“Our advice has to be persuasive and is open to challenge by political advisors, think tanks, lobby groups and NGOs.

“There is no room for nostalgia. Civil society is often mobile, well-funded and adept at utilising social media to influence government.

“It is the APS that brings the wider lens to any issue and ensures that ministers have all the relevant data and analysis that they need to make a decision.

“As such, we have to get better in engaging in policy discussions with civil society to ensure a full understanding and testing of the views of stakeholders.”

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The commissioner also stressed that APS leaders needed courage to tell ministers they have it wrong, and all APS employees needed the courage to encourage bosses to widen their view.

“It is a crucial part of the environment that good public service leaders need to create,” he said.

“That said, contrary to what critics say, my general experience is that it’s not often APS leaders shy away from that responsibility.”

And his experience includes the role of chief of staff to former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Mr Woolcott recommends that the best and brightest from the APS be encouraged to undertake stints working in ministerial offices to give them an understanding of how fast things move and the pressures those offices are under.

“It will make them better public servants,” he said.

Winding up his speech, the commissioner indulged his passion for poetry and for the environment – for which his career has involved numerous environmental envoy roles – by citing a powerful poem from Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet about cherishing the earth.

“I have always had a passion for poetry over annual reports,” Mr Woolcott said.

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