State of the service

Organisational capability – An external insight (Part 1)

2014-15 State of the Service Report – Organisational capability

Previous State of the Service reports focused on two mechanisms for measuring organisational capability in the APS. One was the program of capability reviews and the other was agency self-assessments.

Capability reviews provided independent, forward-looking reviews of the leadership, strategic and delivery capabilities of agencies. Twenty-five have now been completed. Each review was led by three eminent senior reviewers, two external to the APS and one at deputy secretary level, or equivalent. The deputy secretaries were seconded from an agency outside of the one being reviewed. Insights from the reviews, along with an overview of the APS service delivery capability, are provided by two reviewers below. Similar to agency self-assessments, capability reviews found that the area where the greatest attention is required is talent management. This is followed by workforce planning and innovation.

The program of capability reviews has now been completed.

Excerpts of pieces written by two of the most experienced external reviewers involved in capability reviews were included in the 2014-15 State of the Service Report.

To shed further light on the findings and implications of the reviews, full-length versions of both pieces will be published. The first piece written by Ms Rachel Hunter is presented below. The second piece written by Ms Akiko Jackson will be published next week.

Ms Hunter is a highly experienced independent reviewer who has participated in four capability reviews and three follow up agency ‘health checks’ since 2013. During her public service career, Ms Hunter led a number of Queensland state government agencies including the Queensland Public Service Commission and the Queensland Department of Justice and Attorney-General. Ms Hunter has played a pivotal role in leading reform in public service policy and institutions.

A summary of findings from the capability reviews

A high performing public service is essential for good government. Effective public administration requires leadership, productive strategy, and efficient and innovative delivery capability. The practice of public administration has seen a paradigm shift of transformative dimensions. Public administration is facing changing expectations in an environment which is influenced by digital disruption; contestability (in terms of services and policy advice); increasing requirements for data and information transparency; rising levels of public expectation, scrutiny and cynicism; political disruption; and the need for authentic and purposeful engagement with diverse groups and interests.

While the values of public service have remained true and constant, the execution of public service has been fundamentally and irrevocably transformed by these changes. This will test the capability of the APS, which is firstly a product of its leadership. The new age of public administration calls for resilient leaders who are intellectually/emotionally intelligent; politically astute; and outcomes and people-focused.

These changes also call for new ways of thinking about the capability of the public service. Such thinking is well enabled by the invaluable insights provided by the 25 capability reviews led by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC). Following the model provided by the UK Civil Service, these reviews have revealed areas of consistency and inconsistency in terms of capability across the Australian Public Service (APS). The reviews should enable agencies to share practice and learn from each other, in order to deliver innovative, cost efficient outcomes which are attuned to the policies of the government of the day, and well-socialised with customers and stakeholders.

Analysis of the outcomes of the 25 capability reviews reveals agency strengths in the use of data to inform decisions; motivating people; ensuring a focus on innovative delivery; and on shared commitment and collaboration.

Areas for development included the development of outcomes focused strategy; development of people; management of organisational performance; and organisational planning, resourcing and prioritising.

While these are high level outcomes or observations arising from the reviews, a more thorough reading of the 25 reports reveals diverse capability and practice amongst agencies: some leading and some lagging.

Leading practices included an investment in ‘high powered’ analytical capability (including capability for ‘big data’ and risk-based analytics), co-design activities which engaged a broad audience in genuine ‘intractable problem’ solving; and ‘business’ strategy which encouraged innovation and a sensible appetite for risk.

Of concern is the finding from the capability reviews that no agency scored in the ‘Strong’ category for ‘People Development”; with 7 scoring ‘Well Placed”; 15 scoring ‘Development Area’; and 3 agencies scored a rating of ‘Serious Concern’.

An effective APS is dependent on the collective intellectual ability, performance and commitment of its people. Supported by systems and processes, people are the core essence of organisational capability. The APS now is in serious competition with other lead organisations in the public and private sectors for the ‘brightest and the best’. The APS reviews revealed a consistent need across agencies for more investment in attracting, developing, retaining, and rewarding high performers.

Going forward, the yield from investment in these reviews will be the focus agencies continue to place on organisational capability development. There is evidence from the various ‘health checks’ which have been undertaken, that agencies have seen the reviews as an opportunity for integrated organisational change and improvement, rather than as compliance obligations. The challenge and the opportunity for APS leadership is to continue this focus on ‘fit for purpose’ capability – an adaptive and high-performing system of public administration. Analysis of agency capability assessments demonstrates the area where the greatest improvement is required is talent management followed by workforce planning and innovation. The most mature capabilities, i.e., those requiring the least improvement, are project management and staff performance management. It is important to recognise that this data is at the whole of APS level and individual agencies will vary in their capability maturity needs.

Rachel Hunter
October 2015

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Read the State of the Service Report 2014–15 on the APSC website.