The Australian Public Service Commission's Graduate Event: A Taste of Government

The Australian Public Service Commission's Graduate Event: A Taste of Government

PM&C Who We Are The Secretary
Wednesday, 02 March 2016

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Martin Parkinson
Secretary, The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

The role of the APS – now and in the future

Good morning everyone. It is a pleasure to be sharing the stage with Minister Cash for the second time today. We have just been speaking at an IPAA ACT celebration for International Women's Day. Seeing so many smart, new public servants here today, I feel we have yet another reason to celebrate.

You are all vital to the continued success of the public service. You will inject new thinking and perspectives into your work, you will inspire your colleagues to think differently about what they do. Who knows, you might be the one who comes up with the next Medicare or NDIS, changing the lives of so many people for the better.

Today I'm going to talk about a few things.

First, I want to talk about the role of the APS and why your contribution matters.

Second, I thought I'd share with you what I think it means to be a public servant. Correction, what it means to be a good and effective public servant.

Third, I'll talk about something very close to our Prime Minister's heart, and that's building a culture of innovation within the public service.

For anyone who doesn't know my background – I've spent seven years as a Secretary – three in Climate Change and four in Treasury; lived, studied and worked in the United State for eight years; and have had a stint in Parliament House as Deputy Chief of Staff to John Dawkins when he was Treasurer. My training is in economics, but please don't hold that against me.

I started my career in the public service as a Treasury graduate in 1981. Let's have a show of hands – how many people here were alive in 1981? My time as a graduate was a source of unforgettable experiences and opportunities. But if you had told me then that I would one day become Treasury Secretary, I would have been deeply sceptical. My becoming Secretary was not the result of any long-term planning, I just took jobs that I thought were interesting and in places where I thought I could make a contribution.

In my experience, the APSJobs motto of "one APS career, thousands of possibilities" rings pretty true. The APS is a vast network, where you will find opportunities in every possible direction.

The APS is important because it provides the government with the mental firepower to develop, test and implement ideas. That's what we're all doing, whether we're in policy, program, service delivery, regulatory or support roles – we're part of an ideas eco-system. And because we deal in the creation, implementation and assessment of ideas, we should be a natural home for innovation.

For me, an effective public servant is always asking, how can I do things better, what can be changed in ways that improve effectiveness, reduce risk, and deliver better outcomes for the people of Australia?

If you see the APS through that prism, you recognise we are not an organisation that can allow ourselves to be driven by fashion or by personal hobby horses.

A good public service, and by extension, good public servants, provide impartial evidence-based advice. It advocates for better outcomes, focusing on improving the wellbeing of Australians. And when Governments make decisions, whether they've adopted our proposals or not – we work faithfully to implement the decision to the best of our ability.

Of course, if the decision could be better, we store up the evidence and look for the opportunity to reprosecute.

So, getting sustained good outcomes requires good evidence, good data, good analytics on how things are working, good communication and a fair degree of judgment and courage! Easy really!

So, against that, how you can make a difference?

It's true that the APS is big, but let me tell you that any organisation is only as good as its individual components. We need every part to function well. Every part must want to be there, striving every day to provide better outcomes for Australia.

Sometimes making a contribution means being brave. You would all be aware of the home insulation program and the tragic deaths of four young people as a result of inadequacies in the program's design and delivery, including the regulatory framework for the sector. The APS has been reflecting deeply on what we could have done differently, and how we can do better in the future.

One day, you might be the person who sees that things are going off track, and you might need to be the person who does something about it. I urge you not to put that knowledge to the side, but instead to shoulder the responsibility of doing something, even if you feel that no one will pay attention and it might even put your career at risk. This is not just because everyone in the APS is expected to have the highest standards of behaviour, but because it is the right thing to do. Leadership comes in many forms, and the sooner you realise that leadership comes in a package that is exactly the same size and shape as you, the better.

II. Being a good and effective public servant

The next thing I want to talk about is being a good and effective public servant. When I started in the public service, the model of a good and effective public servant was pretty uniform. White, male, middle-aged, born in Australia. And who do you think was making that judgment? That's right, other white, middle-aged men born in Australia.

It took the public service far too long to accept that Australian society is much more interesting and diverse. Up until 1966 we had a marriage bar, which required married women to leave the APS in order to create space for others who could be primary breadwinners, ie. men – sometimes single but often married.

The first woman Secretary, Helen Williams, wasn't appointed until 1985, and then we had to wait 17 years for a second, current Finance Secretary Jane Halton. And we are still playing catch‑up: with gender, people with disability, racial and cultural diversity and in improving opportunities for First Australians. My department hasn't ever had a Secretary who isn't a white, middle-aged male, a fact I'm reminded of every single day as I walk past photos of the 18 former Secretaries of PM&C.

The reason I'm talking about this is because, in fact, there is no single model of a good and effective public servant. And the APS is a better place because of it. There are, however, some common things that good and effective public servants do. Integrity is essential and creativity is vital. But probably the most important thing is being someone that other people can work with. Your behaviour will dictate how others see you and your broader team. If you are open and responsive, rather than guarding your turf, you're much more likely to build the networks that will help to push your work along and get results. You will never regret helping someone who's in a jam, and you'll be grateful to have their help when you're in need.

III. Creating a culture of innovation

The last thing I want to talk about is creating a culture of innovation. We all know that the Prime Minister is very enthusiastic about innovation. One of the first things he did after being sworn in was to kick off the development of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, which was released in December of last year. But innovation isn't confined to a set of initiatives, it is a core part of everyone's work.

I mentioned earlier that you all play host to the fresh injection of perspectives that helps the public service renew itself. I want you to keep those perspectives that you bring with you today, but I also want you to be intellectually curious. It's that curiosity that allows you to keep injecting fresh perspectives and ideas throughout your career. Learn from others, inside and outside the APS, inside and outside your disciplinary areas, inside and outside Australia, and use what they share to make your ideas even stronger.

I often talk to my staff about blue-sky thinking. This is when you go out of your way to engage with creative ideas without limiting yourself by current thinking or beliefs. If you want my insider tip for making yourself indispensable in the public service, it's to be the person who has the ideas. And when you're running your own team, branch, division or department, be the person who creates a safe space for people to express ideas.

A safe space is a place where everyone feels free to advance ideas, knowing the value of collegiality, cooperation and creativity to achieve our collective objectives. Open, candid discussion winnows down ideas to find the best. Involving a wide group in blue sky thinking gives each person a stake in making the resulting policies work.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you go out of your way to become the person who is known for having "crazy" ideas. You have to be realistic about what is achievable. But if your ideas are rigorous, grounded in evidence and tested by those around you, you are adding immense value to the collective brainpower of your department, your minister and the APS more generally.


Well, that's it for me. When you think about your careers I encourage you not to plan too much, but make the most of everything you do. Even though you are newcomers to the public service, please know you have the capacity to create positive change, the challenge is in being confident enough to back yourselves.