State of the service

Organisational capability – An external insight (Part 2)

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.

Last week, the full-length piece written by Ms Rachel Hunter was published. The full-length piece written by Ms Akiko Jackson is presented below.

Ms Jackson is a highly experienced independent reviewer who has participated in five capability reviews and one follow up agency ‘health check’ since 2012. Ms Jackson is a private sector senior executive with significant financial services experience and a background in management consulting specialising in strategy, product development, sales force management, and process and system management.

Service delivery capability of the APS

The Australian Public Service (APS) is facing unprecedented challenges on many fronts in recent years. The key challenges are in four areas.

  1. The government deficit requiring efficiency dividends to be paid by all Commonwealth agencies with an expectation to ‘achieve more with less’.
  2. Rapidly changing digital technology reducing the barriers of access to information and increasing the risk of data security.
  3. Social media creating opportunities for the general public to share negative (and positive) experiences widely and quickly, enabling everyone to be a commentator.
  4. An unclear vision of the future of the Australian economy and the uncertainties arising from globalization of goods and services, are driving increased expectation by the Australian public that the government should be providing better healthcare, welfare and security.

APS challenges from the capability reviews

With these challenges, developing capabilities among public servants to deliver more services to the Australian public in a quicker, easier and more cost efficient way is becoming more critical. Throughout a number of reviews that I participated in, I have been struck consistently by staff who are intrinsically motivated and work hard to do the right thing to serve the Australian public. In addition, the depth of knowledge and experience of staff where expertise is required is extraordinary. So, what capabilities are needed to optimise the APS?

There seems to be three key development opportunities that many of the departments could focus on to improve service delivery. They are not necessarily in the order of importance, but in the order of the gaps identified.

First, let’s create a performance-oriented culture where targets are set, both at the organisational and individual level, and performances are assessed objectively and communicated professionally. In some of the capability reviews, there were only a limited number of organisational performance metrics which would drive effective ‘outcomes’ for the organisation rather than sheer ‘outputs’.

There was a missing golden thread between top line strategy to individual performance targets. In some cases, individual performance targets were not set, were unclear (lacking objective measurements) or of lesser relevance to the organisational objectives. Combined with a shortage of structured training on ‘people management’, staff under-performance discussions were often avoided, undermining the motivation of high performing, capable and motivated staff.

In addition, risks (strategic, reputational or operational) are not necessarily regarded as something to be managed, but something to be avoided.

Second, let’s focus on a few top priority initiatives and deliver them well. The compliance nature of the planning exercise and its one-way top-down process has not helped staff in identifying and agreeing on the high priority initiatives. The picture of ‘what success look like’ has been difficult to draw and, if identified, often not shared or bought into by staff. Prioritisation was often seen as ‘adding’ new initiatives/projects as opposed to ‘trading off’ such as stopping/not starting, other initiatives, noting that sometimes it is subject to political decisions.

In order to achieve the best outcomes, the right level of resources with the right skills is essential. However, agency-wide taskforces were not necessarily a norm in agencies where silos were allowed to exist. The sharing of collective targets at the executive level was also not obvious.

Third, let’s unleash the power of collective knowledge and scale by working across agencies and leveraging each other’s strengths. Where policy agencies and operational agencies were separated, dialogue often seemed one way. Operational agencies were “put back in the box” if they tried to contribute to policy discussions. Where additional expertise could lie outside of a Commonwealth agency, there was a limited appetite to bring them ‘in the tent’ early for brainstorming exercises.

A concept of shared services is starting to take root, but the concept of ‘user focus’ has not necessarily been prevalent, ending up in less than ideal contractual relationships.

The way forward

The solutions are there. The APS has three resources, in its people, processes and systems. Yet, reform can only start with people implementing transformational change. Successful transformational change relies on three factors: executives who persistently buy-in and communicate; tackling challenges holistically and systematically rather than breaking them down in a piecemeal fashion and assigning them as tasks; and celebrating and recognising achievements.

It is a marathon, not a sprint.

Akiko Jackson
October 2015