IPAA/APSC End of Year event – Secretary's Address 2018

IPAA/APSC End of Year event – Secretary's Address 2018

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Image of Martin Parkinson

Acknowledgment of country

Many thanks for that warm welcome Carmel.

Let me start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. 

Dhawra nguna, dhawra Ngunawal.

Yanggu gulanyin ngalawiri, dhunayi, Ngunawal dhawra.

Wanggarali-ji-nyin mariny balan bugarabang

In the language of the traditional owners, this means:

This is Ngunnawal Country. Today we are all meeting together on this Ngunnawal Country. We acknowledge and pay our respects to the Elders.

Let me extend this respect to all other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues here today.


It is a great pleasure to be here with you this evening.

But, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say 2018 has been another big year!

I want to thank you – the Australian public service – at all levels and everywhere you serve Australia, here and abroad, for everything that you have delivered this year.  Year in, year out, you deliver notwithstanding what’s happening around us.

I am immensely proud of the work that the APS does. Public service is a vocation.

I know you might not hear this much, but trust me – the Government and the Australian public are fortunate to be served by such a capable and motivated group of people. Not just those of you in this room but all the nearly 160,000 people of the Australian public service.

Transformational reform

As most of this audience will know, David Thodey, recently announced the APS Review panel’s vision for the APS in 2030 and invited public submissions.

He called for big, bold ideas to make us as successful in the future as we have been in the past. But David was very clear in saying that the APS of 2018 is not broken, far from it, which is a point I have made repeatedly. 

Many of you in this room have spoken on this issue, put in submissions, talked informally and agreed – the service is not broken. But all of us share the same view that transformational change is needed if the APS is to be fit for purpose and ready to tackle the challenges that are coming.

So what does it take to transform an organisation?

Global forces, local changes

Over the last decade there has been a lot of talk about change – how the world has and is continuing to change.

We are at the intersection of a number of big global dynamics – some new and some previously seen but interacting now at a faster and more rapid pace:

  • We’re seeing the reshaping of the post-WWII global power balance, the re-emergence of strategic competition but this time in our region – and that is going to change the environment we confront.
  • We’re seeing rising nationalism and the emergence of illiberal democracies.
  • We’re seeing structural adjustments as a result of globalisation.
  • Seemingly ever more rapid technological advancement and an increasingly strident social media.
  • Demographic trends and changing patterns of global mobility, which can be enriching but are also stressing the social fabric of many countries.
  • A set of environmental pressures reflecting the impact of human activity on the planet.

In Australia, the effects of these changes are all around us.

  • Our region – where we do a significant amount of our business – is reshaping itself.
  • Our economy is undergoing adjustment, and some of it quite uncomfortable.
  • Our cities are amongst the fastest growing in the OECD – too fast for some – but this trend is not being seen in parts of regional Australia[10].

These global and local changes – their shape, pace and trajectory – are creating deep uncertainty. They are creating uncertainty for communities, politicians and, if we’re honest, they are creating uncertainty for the APS. 

And the way they are playing out can, and is, having disparate impacts – creating new opportunities, but also new pressures, some of which we can see and others that will only emerge in the fullness of time.

Understanding the impact and meaning of the changes is challenging enough, but the APS needs to respond to this rapidly changing environment in the context of declining trust in government and democracy more broadly.

Declining trust in government and democracy

The Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures changes in levels of trust around the world, shows that over the past five years trust in all four key societal pillars — businesses, government, non-government organisations and media — has fallen.[1]

Governments are now the least trusted institution in the world.

And Australia has recorded the lowest levels of trust in government and politicians since the introduction of time series data. If you take the data at face value, only Russians have lower trust in government than do Australians. When put like that, I have only one reaction, which is – really!

But rather than dismissing this out of hand, we should think of this as a wake-up call to the APS.

And don’t take this analysis the wrong way. This is not a party political phenomenon. The decline in trust is occurring across the globe and it is occurring in Australia and it is occurring irrespective of which side of politics happens to be leading any particularly Western democracy.  

The most worrying aspect of this trend is declining confidence in democracy itself.

The Pew Research Centre’s online survey found that in the US there is broad support for making sweeping changes to the political system: 61 per cent say “significant changes” are needed in the fundamental “design and structure” of American government to make it work for current times.[2]

This trend – this decline in public confidence in democracy – is also seen here.

This year, a Lowy Institute poll found that slightly less than half of Australians aged under 45 agreed that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”.[3]

So think of that – it means more than half of the population under 45 do NOT think that democracy is the form of government they want to live under.

I don’t know what they think is the preferred alternative, but I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s statement that “democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

Causes of the decline

So what’s driving this decline?

One hypothesis is that it’s a response to economic conditions, particularly stagnating income growth and growing income inequality.

This might explain low levels of trust in the US and the UK, where the effects of the global financial crisis have been felt deeply and over a long period of time.

But it does not explain declining trust in Australia, which has had a record 27-years of continuous economic growth.

And there’s no evidence so far that we’ve experienced marked rises in income inequality – after taxes and transfers – unlike other comparable economies.

Over the past 30 years, income growth has been broadly similar across all household quintiles, in contrast to the United States where it has barely grown, except for those at the very top.

And yet, even while wealth inequality (which is different to income inequality) has not changed that much in Australia over the last decade, we do know there are areas where disadvantaged is entrenched.   

But that seems insufficient to explain why just five per cent of Australians believe they have personally gained a lot from our record stretch of economic growth.[4]

So, 27 years of economic growth and only 5 per cent of Australians say they have gained a lot from it.

Francis Fukuyama believes that democratic discontent relates in some way to the economic and technological changes brought about by globalisation. But, he argues, it’s also rooted in the rise of identity politics.[5]

Across Western democracies, the social cohesion that was once the foundation of political consensus is fragmenting and giving way to a cultural and ideological diversity so robust that it thwarts a common sense of belonging.[6]

Australians themselves say their lack of trust in democracy is being driven by eroding social values, immigration and globalisation.[7]

And disengagement increases the further you move away from CBDs.

In recent years, the majority of our population growth has been driven by our migration program, particularly skilled and temporary migration, and most of this growth has been in the major urban centres.

Our biggest cities have become younger, more multi-ethnic and more skilled.

But areas that have not experienced the same type of population growth have become older and typically have lower household incomes[8] – although admittedly housing costs in those areas are also cheaper.

But that isn’t just a cities/regions divide. It is also occurring within cities. Within cities there are complex issues at play, particularly for those in outer metro areas where there are higher concentrations of lower income households that are heavily reliant on government services.

When others doubt us, we doubt ourselves.

When our partners and the public doubt our capability and integrity, it is not surprising that we’ve come to doubt ourselves.

The public mistrust our beneficial intent – they doubt that we in fact intend to do the right thing. And they mistrust our competence.

David Thodey and Peter Shergold both report a ‘crisis of confidence’ in the APS[9].

And this has been a clear theme in submissions to the APS review and recent surveys of IPAA members – largely current and former public servants.

According to a recent survey, disquiet about the future of the APS and anxiety over the retreat of liberal democratic traditions now plague more than two-thirds of the public sector’s most motivated employees.

For those of us who are secretaries and agency heads this should be really, really concerning. But it should concern us all as public servants. For those of us who are leading, we really need to ask ourselves - what is going on here?

This pessimism could not come at a worse possible time – when confidence in liberal democracy is at an all-time low and disillusioned voters are increasingly attracted to simplistic responses to complex public policy conundrums.

Confident in our values and clear in our purpose

So what do we do? How do we go from where we are today to become, as David Thodey suggests, create a cohesive and capable APS – one that is confident in its values, clear in its purpose and proud of its culture – and which is going to continue to evolve to meet the challenges that confront us?

As every management consultant will tell you, transformational change is not possible without a compelling vision and powerful narrative.

For the APS, this has to be grounded in our contribution to Australia’s democratic processes and, more than that, in a deep confidence in the profound worth of liberal democratic values. 

These values inform our constitution and are given expression through our governing conventions, our legal frameworks and through our national institutions – our parliament, our judiciary and our public service. They are variously described but basically they include:

  • Freedom of speech, assembly and political participation.
  • Rule of law.
  • Respect for dissent and for the views of others.
  • Mutual tolerance and acceptance of diversity and difference.
  • Equality of the sexes and before the law
  • Respect for the individual rights and private property, and
  • That uniquely Australian commitment to a ‘fair go’ for all.

These are the values that underpin Australia as one of the world’s leading liberal democracies and multicultural countries.

Many of our core values are actually about managing differences. They are the norms, habits of mind and day to day practices that – over and above whatever differences may lie – keep us together, allow us to work through challenges, set boundaries for what is and is not okay.

And, significantly, they forge a shared interest in the prospects and fate of our nation.

Having shared values is not the same though as having a singular national identity.

With almost half the country born overseas or having a parent who was born overseas, there is no one simple picture that represents all Australians.

In my mind, our national identity is open, tolerant and nourished by an undiminished confidence in the value of liberal democratic principles and institutions and, as such, it’s a source of great strength and unity. 

It creates competitive advantages – for our prosperity, our cohesiveness, and our ability to knuckle down as a nation to tackle challenges together. 

Diversity is undoubtedly a source of social and economic dynamism, but too much diversity on basic issues regarding commitment to the nation’s underlying values becomes problematic.

As Peter Shergold has put to us: [10]

“We need to proclaim that our commitment to a multicultural future is firmly grounded on distinctive liberal values…

These are the values of reason not dogmatism. They liberate knowledge. They are the foundation of human freedom, personal liberty and political pluralism.”

Confidence in our values – as a public service, as Australians – brings clarity of purpose.

An apolitical public service is, to my mind, one of the key institutions in our Westminster system. Like so many of the governing conventions, it’s a core part of our constitutional order though its role is not itself set out in the constitution.

The APS is the custodian of continuity in administration. It’s a repository of knowledge, administrative competence and policy capability. It ensures that newly elected governments have at their disposal an effective administration and policy apparatus that is immediately ready and able to implement its policies and spending commitments.  

The APS contributes to the health of our democracy by supporting inclusive, reasoned and transparent public debate of policy issues, and it does that through strong engagement with our partners and the public. And we should not be shy about that.

Better evidence and greater transparency helps mitigate the power of vested interests, and makes it easier for Government to listen to the full range of voices in our community and make decisions in the public interest.

This is why we, the public service, should be champions of evidence based policy making. But as Gary Banks has urged, that requires both supply and demand for evidence-based policy making – we can provide the supply but others have to be willing to provide the demand!

The APS also has to contribute to the health of our democracy by guarding our independence and providing advice without fear or favour.

This means maintaining an equal commitment to all Australians – to making economic opportunities and government services available to Australians, whenever and wherever they may reside, to build fulfilling and self-reliant lives.

And we must help ensure the integrity of our electoral process by upholding caretaker conventions, through our independent electoral commission, and by the work of security agencies in countering foreign interference.

In short, I want you to walk out of here thinking and believing, as I do, that a rigorous and apolitical public service is part of the bedrock of democratic governance.

Training for ministers and their advisers

While confidence in the integrity of our electoral process remains high, there are aspects of our democratic system where we, the APS, I believe have done too little to support.

Our politicians and their staffers, whose actions and decisions have such important consequences for Australia, receive no prior training before taking up positions that are central to democracy. Think about it – no training on the operation of government, their personal roles and responsibilities, or the separation between the apolitical public service and their own, correctly, political roles.

As a former senior minister once remarked to me, you can learn a lot about social and economic policy by being a parliamentarian and representing constituents – but beyond that it gets harder.

Many of the issues that ministers must deal with in the defence, international affairs and particularly the national security-related portfolios are necessarily opaque to outsiders – even those in the parliament. And it can be hard for staffers and new parliamentarians to know how to work properly and most effectively with the public service to implement their agenda.

Now I cannot conceive of any serious company or organisation, where its senior leadership or its board would require people to take on important roles without at least some form of prior training. Indeed, it would seem quite bizarre to suggest this anywhere else. Yet this is the position in which ministers and their advisers find themselves. This is an area where I think, the APS, if it took a sufficiently long perspective, could actually do better, and could help improve the functioning of our democracy.

And lest this be thought of as something quite radical – it’s actually done in other jurisdictions – but it’s something we in the APS shy away from offering our political leaders.

Capable and competent

Now as I alluded to earlier, the public mistrust our competence.

This mistrust arises because governments – and I by governments I don’t mean politicians, I mean bureaucratic government – have failed to bridge the worrying gap between the sorts of services, interactivity and engagement citizens want and those that they receive.

But all is not lost, we can build confidence and trust through sheer competence and self-evident capability. Increasingly, our technological aptitude will be the marker of competence.

The recently appointed Minister of Digital Government in Canada argues that if governments can’t serve citizens well using digital tools and technology, then citizens will lose faith in government generally.

Now I’ve said before, better use of data offers perhaps the most significant opportunity to transform policy development. Our national survey of citizens is just one example of us trying to approach data in a different way. We are running three waves of surveys to establish a sound baseline that will form the foundation for us to record, over time, citizens’ experiences and attitudes to the APS.

While data will drive better policy outcomes – if welcomed by the public and decision-makers – digital will drive better service delivery no matter what.

Digital technologies can enable services to be tailored to recognise and respond to individual circumstances and preferences. Better still, they can be tailored to anticipate citizens’ future needs, making the APS a true partner in their life journey.

Structure of departments

We could also improve our capability by structuring government departments according to a clear administrative logic – the alignment of functions and purpose to ensure ease of access for citizens – and then keeping them relatively stable.

Machinery of government changes – the movement of functions between departments – should be undertaken judiciously, in my view, following careful consideration of the costs and benefits. Organisational restructures take time and energy to bed down. And for a substantial period, they turn organisations inward.

Yet our experience is one of frequent restructuring – for reasons that are unclear to the restructured and unclear to those who are looking on. The result is disorienting for our partners and disruptive for our staff. And it is even more so if there is no compelling rationale for the change – for example, if the change is driven by a political logic, such as rewarding a minister, rather than improving the lot of the citizen.

Institutions and organisations take time and effort to build but are quickly weakened and damaged – if they deserve condemnation and reform, that should occur, but if not, I would urge caution and counsel against regarding the APS as a set of lego blocks to be painlessly re-created.

And unfortunately, I have got to say that we as public servants probably have not done a very good job of communicating to the broader community and our political masters some of the challenges that inevitably come about from restructuring.

I thought a really interesting thing with PM Morrison’s appointment was the decision to have no machinery of government changes. Yes, he wanted things done differently but what did we do? We simply allowed departments to report to more than one minister. We put in cross-portfolio reporting lines. So, the Office for Women in PM&C reports to the Minister for Women, rather than the Prime Minister. The Minister for Women is in her own role a full Cabinet minister. The APSC, again in the PM’s portfolio, reports to the Minister for Finance and the Public Service.

We didn’t have to slice and dice portfolios, we simply had to be constructive about how we thought about reporting lines.

Proud of its culture

Now I’ve talked a bit about the challenges we face, but we can’t talk about APS capability without talking about its people and its culture. 

When I came to Canberra in 1981, it was by accident not design. I joined by chance but I stayed by choice. I was captivated by the variety of the work and won over by the opportunity the APS gave me to improve the lives of my fellow Australians.

That spirit of service is something I see when I travel around the country talking to fellow public servants – whether they are in Canberra or in a capital, in a remote location or serving overseas – that spirit of service seems to animate almost all committed public servants. And it should because it’s a source of great pride for us. It should motivate everything we do and animate our engagement with our partners.

It’s should be the spirit that’s at the heart of APS culture and our appeal to new and potential recruits.

I stayed in the public service because it made space and provided opportunities I never expected would come to someone like me. And I know from talking to many of you, you feel the same way.

We’ve pushed hard, as a group, over the last couple of years, for greater diversity in our SES and for the APS to become more inclusive. The diversity of our workforce is a fact. Whether we leverage this diversity is a choice – it requires us to be more inclusive, and to recognise that with diversity can come greater disagreement and debate, and that this can be a very healthy and powerful outcome.

If we want to tackle the challenges of the future, we will need to take full advantage of the breadth of experiences, perspectives and backgrounds of our workforce.

If we value all Australians equally, a diverse and inclusive culture is axiomatic. And, again, should be another source of pride for the APS.

Australian Public Service Review

When Review Chair David Thodey presented on the APS Review last month, he outlined a few possible glimpses of the future that were being considered by the APS review team.

One scenario was a world where people have lost trust in big institutions and old established brands – we’re a big institution and an old established brand – preferring to connect only with their local communities, embracing place-based approaches, buying local and relying on tailored services.

This might sound idyllic but, in fact I think it’s a pretty bleak scenario. If it comes to pass, our national institutions will not have been successful in earning and retaining the trust of our citizens. And it’s unlikely that we will have been successful in stemming the erosion in social cohesion. 

So let me be clear on this – we absolutely need to deliver place-based approaches, but they need to be nested in coherent, cohesive national strategies and approaches.

I am personally optimistic we can do that as a service.

I am optimistic that Australia’s liberal democracy contains within it the seeds of renewal and innovation that have helped us face challenges in the past.

I am optimistic that liberal democracies encourage, nurture and reward innovation, respect and the contest of ideas – which are concepts that we will need more than ever in a changing world.

And I’m optimistic that transformational reform of the APS will occur, and will be compelling and powerful.

It will be grounded in Australian, liberal democratic values and our role in Australia’s democratic processes.

These are not matters which the APS should shy away from. We should not be tentative. We should not be apologetic. We should be proud, powerful and on the front foot.

A cohesive and capable APS – confident in its values, clear in its purpose and proud of its culture is my vision for the Australian public service.

Concluding remarks

So in summing up, I just want to thank you again for all your hard work, your professionalism, commitment and dedication to improving the lives of your fellow citizens.

Let me wish you a safe and relaxing Christmas break. I hope you enjoy the holiday season and come back to work in the new year fully charged and ready to make your mark.


[1] Edelman Trust Barometer survey (2018)  (https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2018-10/2018_Edelman_Trust_Barometer_Global_Report_FEB.pdf)  and Australian Values Study, ANU (2018) - https://www.srcentre.com.au/ausvalues

[2] Pew Research Centre Online survey -  http://www.people-press.org/2018/04/26/the-public-the-political-system-and-american-democracy

[3] Lowy Institute Poll 2018 - https://lowyinstitutepoll.lowyinstitute.org/democracy/

[4] Community Pulse survey by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, April 2018 -http://ceda.com.au/Research-and-policy/All-CEDA-research/Research-catalogue/Community-pulse-2018-the-economic-disconnect.

[5] Francis Fukuyama, (2018). Against Identity Politics, Foreign Affairs (September/October 2018 issue) - https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/americas/2018-08-14/against-identity-politics-tribalism-francis-fukuyama (Paywall)

[6] Gardels, Nathan (September 2018) - https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2018/09/18/identity-politics/

[7] Edelman Trust Barometer, 2018. https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2018-10/2018_Edelman_Trust_Barometer_Global_Report_FEB.pdf

[8] Kennedy, Steven (27 September, 2018) - https://infrastructure.gov.au/department/media/mr_270918.aspx

[9] David Thodey speech to IPAA Conference ACT 2018 and interview with Peter Shergold in: https://www.smh.com.au/national/the-policy-chaos-eroding-our-faith-in-democracy-20181115-p50g8l.html

[10] Shergold, Peter (December 14, 2018) - https://theconversation.com/australias-multicultural-future-is-a-story-in-three-parts-51041