IPAA / APSC End-of-Year Event - Secretary’s Address

IPAA / APSC End-of-Year Event - Secretary’s Address

Monday, 11 December 2017

Dr Martin Parkinson AC PSM

Image of Martin Parkinson addressing the IPAA

Thanks, everyone. It’s a great pleasure to be here.  

I begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, Traditional Custodians of the land on which we gather today. I pay my respects to their Elders past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here today.

Well, let me start with an understatement: 2017 has certainly been a ‘busy’ and ‘interesting’ year.

And if it has been ‘interesting’ and ‘busy’ for me, it has been equally so for you.

So let me take this opportunity to thank you – the Australian Public Service at all levels and everywhere you serve Australia, here and abroad – for all you have done this year.

The Commonwealth Government, and by consequence the APS, is doing more than at any period since perhaps World War II.

We’re delivering major infrastructure, like the NBN, Inland Rail, the Western Sydney airport, while planning for Snowy 2.0, the largest pumped hydro scheme in the Southern Hemisphere.

We’re starting to build a sovereign national defence industry, which includes the largest naval recapitalisation since the Second World War.

And we’re rolling out the NDIS, one of the most ambitious social reforms in decades, while developing significant, data-driven reforms with the objective of delivering more targeted, tailored and efficient services to Australians in education, health and welfare, and beyond.

We’ve just delivered the first foreign policy white paper in 14 years, a true whole-of-government effort, and are supporting the Government to strengthen national security and pursue Australia’s interests overseas.

We’ve rolled out new reforms in Indigenous affairs – like the Indigenous Procurement Policy, which has exceeded all expectations.

We continue to support the government on important questions of constitutional law – for example, constitutional recognition of the First Australians, and the question of dual citizenship raised by Section 44.

But let me make a particular mention of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which has had some ups and downs in the last 18 months. If the Census was a concern, that needs to be set against the consummate job delivering the Australian marriage law postal survey. The high participation rate in that survey was an extraordinary thing, and is a credit to the ABS.

I am immensely proud of the work you do. Public service is a vocation, and I am gratified to lead an organisation dedicated to making Australia a better place for each and every citizen.

The Government, and the Australian public, are fortunate to be served by such a reliable, dedicated, diverse and motivated group of people.

We have only limited barometers of success – we do not know, for example, what citizens think of our delivery of services. But the partial data available is encouraging: the APS Employee Census for example, shows positive results about how we feel about our work and our agencies.

In a new international index of Civil Service Effectiveness, we’ve been ranked third in the world—behind Canada and New Zealand, and ahead of the UK, the US, Sweden, Norway and Finland, among others.

As an economist though, I can make two comments on this – New Zealand, yes; Canada – we need to look at the methodology!

That friendly dig at our cousins aside, we have a lot to be proud of, in our record and in our present scope of talent and responsibility. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The big challenge for you and me, though, is whether we’re fit-for-purpose for the next 25 years.

The Coombs Royal Commission, from 1974 to 1976, and subsequent enquiries, like the one led by Gordon Reid in 1982, helped shape the modern system of public administration that has served Australia well over the last three decades.

We now need to get ready for the next quarter century.

The next 25 years will be different from anything we’ve seen in the APS’s hundred-year history.

The world has changed – and more change is coming.

Verities like a stable rules-based international economic order are suddenly less certain. Trust, the glue of democracy, markets and social cohesion, is weak. Democratic political authority is weaker. We’ve experienced significant technological change in the last few years – yet this is a ripple compared to the wave that’s coming.

In short, if we do not disrupt ourselves, we will be disrupted by someone else.

In this spirit, I want to pose three questions to the Australian Public Service in 2018. These go to the heart of whether we are genuinely ready to meet the challenges of the next 25 years.

The first is this: How well do you know the public you serve?

Last year, many supposed experts and commentators in the UK and the US were utterly confounded by the results of national votes that did not go at all the way they expected.

In hindsight, there were signs that upheaval was coming, but whether because of bias or blindness, the signs were missed, and the results were a shock.

Many emerged from the Brexit vote in the UK, and the presidential vote in the US, with the disorienting feeling that they didn’t know their country or their compatriots at all – indeed, one famous book has the title, paraphrasing Robert Heinlein, of Strangers in their Own Land.

In the world we face today, when values seem to trump strategy, how confident are you that we know our fellow citizens?

For private sector organisations, success depends on knowing their customer base intimately; knowing what they want before they know it themselves.

Our clientele is the entire population of Australia. How well do we know what they want or think, how they engage and make decisions, what shapes and drives their daily interactions?

Do we understand their diversity – the challenges for communities in regional and remote Australia, the experience of minority groups, the perspective of big business, small business and innovators?

In 2018, I want you to get to know the public we serve better.

There are many ways we can do this. Improving our own diversity – so we better reflect the community we serve – will help. That means including and valuing the contribution of LGBTI, culturally and linguistically diverse people, Indigenous peoples, and women.

It also means welcoming and using the skills of those with a background in business, community and academic sectors, those with different professional skills, and those with different cognitive skills.

To state the obvious, indeed to restate what I’ve said to you before, we can also acquire diversity, get to know the people we serve, by reading more widely, being curious about others, and talking to more people in our professional lives – making ‘engagement’ genuinely meaningful.

We are yet to really grapple with the opportunity to genuinely engage people online – rather than simply using online platforms as a way of pushing out information.

Data also offers a tremendously powerful way to understand the Australian people.

Much of the data on Indigenous development and wellbeing, for example, is presented at a national level.

This is a useful barometer – but entirely misses the rich diversity, and differing aspirations, across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We need to break this data down to regional levels, and open it up to Indigenous leaders in those regions so we can really start working with local leaders on their priorities and on real place-based solutions.

There is a tremendous amount of work underway across the Commonwealth, through the Data Integration Partnership for Australia, to integrate our existing data holdings and explore their insights.

We need to get this work right, and to earn the public’s trust in our use of their data.

But, to my mind, even that is not enough.

I think a case can be made for the APS to conduct a regular, non-partisan citizens’ survey, as recommended by Terry Moran’s 2010 public sector reform blueprint, Ahead of the Game.

If it’s non-political, and focused on citizens’ experience of, and engagement with, the APS, I think this would both help us frame policy better and alert us to where programs or other interventions are failing.

Now, I’m not underestimating the challenges here, or the criticism likely to come my way if we did this.

But to support the idea that the APS could undertake such regular surveys, while remaining non-partisan, I think it would be important to make the survey results publicly available, albeit perhaps with a lag.

Anyway, I throw that out simply as an idea.

My second question for you in 2018 is this: are you ready for disruption?

In a way, that question is already too late. Disruption is here – has been for some time. So the question becomes, how aware are you of what disruption means for societies and economies, and especially what it means for us? Do you see it as something happening ‘out there’? Or something with genuine ramifications for our whole endeavour, and for the work in your patch?

The kind of disruption I’m talking about is revolutionary. The digital revolution changed the tools and massively expanded the capabilities we had at our disposal, but we’re now in the next phase of that revolution – what some call the fourth industrial revolution: the phase in which new technology interacts with and fundamentally reframes human lives and systems.

Klaus Schwab, founder and chair of the World Economic Forum in Davos, describes this exponential change as “disrupting almost every industry in every country” and transforming “entire systems of production, management and governance.”

Wherever we look in the world, we observe disruption – to industries, to communities, to government.

Disruption is not just technological – it’s also reflected in the international strategic order, in political debate and in our societies and communities.

Disruption provides both challenges and opportunities. As I have said in recent public comments, we are on the cusp of an extraordinary technological revolution. Done right, we can harness this revolution to drive the next wave of jobs and productivity growth, and deliver transformed public services.

The challenge for you, and indeed governments, businesses and the community, is to harness this revolution and to do it on our terms, making sure it doesn’t leave people behind.

That begins by understanding what is actually happening.

So let me come back to my mantra.

Any good public servant should be well-read and well-informed, able to situate current policy and future trends in a longer timescale.

In my address last year, I talked about ‘the fatal combination of ignorance and arrogance.’

The best defence against this malady is to inform yourself, and understand the larger context in which your contribution will take place.

Now, I don't want any of this to sound alarmist or disheartening. On the contrary, I think it should be inspiring. It should embolden you to think big, aim high, innovate and experiment – but also be ruthless – if what we’re doing isn’t working, ask the simple question, can it be fixed or do I need to junk it and try something else?

Let’s be frank: much of what we try risks failing, so being prepared to ‘fail fast’ and ‘pivot’ needs to be a core attribute of a successful APS.

The challenge for the political class – and the ANAO – is to recognise this and help us experiment, pilot, learn lessons, and get better.

‘Gotcha’ games, including at Senate Estimates, may give everyone a thrill, but they fail miserably at improving the quality of public service; instead they encourage inertia and mass risk aversion.

That leads me to the third and final question I want to pose today. What’s your big idea?

What big policy idea or program could you achieve for Australia?

I often ask my own staff, what did you come here to do? What would you want your legacy to be? What would success look like in your area?

I have a lot of messages for the public service, but if had to pick just one, it would be this. I want us to be bold. I want us to be ambitious. I want our institutional integrity and pride to be the source of strident, creative, ambitious thinking—not of self-satisfied inertia or crippling risk aversion.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating thinks it’s unlikely the next big idea will drop from a public service printer.

That should be a call to action for all of us to prove him wrong.

Why shouldn’t we be generating big ideas and ambitions for Australia?

That’s core to our jobs; we deal in ideas – their development, delivery and regulation!

So I want to ask you what your big idea will be, and, when your moment arrives, will you be ready for it?


To sum up – you’ve done a great job this year. We’re a high-performing public service with a great record. We have a lot to offer and a great deal to be proud of.

Nevertheless, there is a steep challenge ahead of us if we’re going to keep pace with social, cultural, economic, technological and strategic change; if we’re going to remain relevant and attuned to the Australian public; if we’re going to be the source of bold and imaginative thinking to respond to the demands of changing times.

I have great faith we’ll rise to meet that challenge, but it is not for the faint of heart.

And finally, if you will forgive me, I would like to add one more challenge, an enduring one that is close to my heart. All of us are custodians of a great institution, the heart of which is its people.

In 2018, I urge you to do more to make the Australian Public Service a stronger institution. Develop your people and support your colleagues; call out what is wrong; include others and welcome their voices. This is the mark of stewardship.

On that note, let me wish you a safe, refreshing and restorative Christmas break. And let me urge you to come back to work in the new year fully charged and ready to make your mark.