6 April 2023

The value of stewardship and the APS

| Chris Johnson
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Stewardship is a core value of the APS. Photo: File.

The word ‘stewardship’ is being bandied around the Australian Public Service right now as though it has great relevance to the sector and the work public servants do.

And it just might.

While some commentary is suggesting it is a hollow term with little depth and one that risks losing all meaning by trying to be everything to everyone, the buzz on the ground seems to be telling a different story.

Staff at various levels across the APS are finding significant meaning in the word, and a meaning that applies directly to them.

“What better way to describe what we are doing,” one executive-level employee told Region.

“Every day we wade through a labyrinth of policies, regulations, rules and standards to try and deliver sensible outcomes.

“That’s a difficult task and can sometimes be frustrating. I’m often wondering, why so much regulation and hurdle-jumping?

“But suddenly, we’re hearing a lot more about stewardship and for me, it’s putting it all in some better form of context.

“We are stewards in a very real sense – over what taxpayers’ money is used for and over our roles in the journey of the nation.

“I think stewardship should very much be a value that we focus on.”

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An APS6 suggested the term should be stressed and quantified all the way to the top of the APS hierarchy.

“If we’re not stewards, then what are we?” they asked.

“I think it’s important that our work is described that way. But it can’t just be something for the regular, more junior, workforce.

“The SES (Senior Executive Service) should have it as a KPI. How they execute their stewardship should be even more vital to monitor than it is for the rest of us.”

Stewardship is already listed as an obligation on secretaries and has been since the Public Service Act 1999 was revised in 2013.

Public Service Minister Katy Gallagher wants it stressed far deeper and much wider than that.

The Federal Government has made clear its plans to enshrine the responsibility of stewardship in the Act.

Consultation is currently underway, with submissions closing soon (April 12) on what people think about stewardship as a key element of the government’s APS Reform push.

The Minister wants stewardship to be officially listed as a core value of the APS.

“As referenced in the Thodey review, stewardship can encompass building a service that is committed to the public interest and sustains genuine partnerships and is the holder of institutional knowledge, throughout changes in government and societal shifts,” Senator Gallagher said when outlining her reform agenda.

“As servants of the public, we are all responsible and accountable for leaving the APS in better shape than we found it.”

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The State of the Service Report lists the overarching stewardship role as being central to the success of a high-functioning APS.

“Stewardship goes well beyond effective planning and resource management to ensure high performance and sustainability into the future,” the report states.

“It takes on the mantle of ensuring the long-term interests of the Australian community, through fit-for-purpose and innovative policy advice, regulation and services to meet changing priorities and circumstances.

“Trust is central to the role of stewardship. The integrity of advice and the ability of the APS to deliver policies and programs that respond to community needs not only builds government trust in the APS, most importantly it builds the Australian community’s trust in government itself.

“To be effective stewards, public servants must reach beyond institutional barriers to work collectively to harness experience, diversity and resources and to deliver common objectives.”

And one SES put it quite simply when asked: “Stewardship is about the most meaningful value we can have – both service-wide and also individually.”

It seems the naysayers might have it wrong – stewardship does in fact appear to hold significant meaning to the very people this reform is directed towards.

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