31 January 2023

Some unsolicited counsel for fresh starters at the APS

| Chris Johnson
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Aillustration of standing out from the crowd

Don’t be another brick in the wall; shine on, you crazy diamond … Image: Andrii Zastrozhnov.

Graduates for this year’s public service intake are commencing their professional journeys across the sector and just about everyone they bump into is giving them advice.

So here’s some more.

The Australian Public Service needs bright and talented people to keep it alive, vibrant and relevant.

That’s obviously you, otherwise, you wouldn’t be part of the graduate intake. It’s not at all easy to get accepted into the program.

But you were accepted, so you’ve got something that has been recognised as potential.

Hopefully, the fact you have chosen a career in the public service means you want to contribute to the greater good and make a difference in the lives of many.

Don’t let that desire get knocked out of you by the tired and cynical or those who have merely found a seat to keep warm for far too many years.

READ MORE APS Commission seeking employee views directly

The Australian Public Service is bursting with dedicated and extremely capable people – leaders who are as inspiring or more so than any to be found in the private sector.

Seek them out. Observe them and learn from them.

As institutions go, the public service is a unique animal.

There to serve the government of the day but in a way that is not at all political.

History (some quite recent) shows that such a task can, at times, be extremely difficult.

Political parties of certain persuasions might despise the public service.

Ministers within governments of any persuasion can be found who will stress the ‘servant’ over the ‘public’.

READ MORE Lawyers scared of department boss, Robodebt royal commission told

To offer ‘frank and fearless advice’ sounds all well and good, but some people and situations will create an environment where that ethos is frowned upon, mocked, disregarded.

I would suggest that offering frank advice should never be devoid of a sense of fear and trepidation.

Speaking truth to power is scary.

Some department bosses and political masters can deliberately aim to strike fear at the very core of their underlings.

That’s how some people get off.

No doubt you will have to deal with your fair share of such supervisors throughout your professional life.

Find ways to work with these people and deliver to them what is expected of you.

But gravitate towards those who build up rather than tear down.

READ MORE A new year for the public service will hear much more about APS reform

Surround yourself with the positive, can-do types who find satisfaction in achievement, in teamwork and in mentoring.

Make it a goal early in your career to work yourself to positions of influence and then use that influence for positive change.

Avoid the ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’ crowd. Find better ways of doing things and encourage their adoption.

Value experience. Some of those old hands have great wisdom to share and can help you dodge numerous pitfalls and hazards.

But keep your fresh young approach alive.

Seeking to improve systems, processes and tasks that will enhance service delivery should be the mission of every true public servant.

Oh, and please try to avoid adopting nonsensical, bureaucratic, weasel words. Language is a powerful tool. Don’t bury its impact beneath a mountain of made-up words that really make no sense at all.

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A well-written article with useful guidance for the naive and enthusiastic people who may be too conscientious for their own good. Survival in the APS requires careful strategic action, with good mentors and supporters in the tough times as well as in the good times.

Brilliant and empowering advice. Not just for APS grads but indeed any grad entering a profession (in both private and public sectors) with high hopes and values to make a difference and untarnished experiences.
It’s heartbreaking to see the stuffing get knocked out of bright minds due to “the tired and cynical or those who have merely found a seat to keep warm for far too many years”. Indeed it’s the fear of those bottoms stuck to the chairs that are in fear of those who challenge a new way forward and tomorrow. Indeed run Forest run whenever you hear the ‘we have always done it this way’ trope.

I had nearly 40 years in the APS, leaving at an SES level. The advice is a bit motherhood. The temptation is to jump on the most current “buzzword/fad” that comes from the most senior managers. I am pretty sure Robodebt was seen as a brave new inovation. The key to change is timing, and you need to be able to address the “losers” and the “winners”. Hence you need formal management education, experts on tap and not on top.

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