In Brief | Fit for the Future: 2018 ACT Conference Readings

IPAA ACT hosted its annual conference Fit for the Future? on Wednesday 7 November 2018. The conference gave expert insights into what the future environment might look like and ideas for how the public sector needs to change.  This In Brief provides resources relevant to the major themes of the conference: external perspectives; future perspectives; the state of play; and where to next?

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Fit for the Future? is the 4th IPAA ACT Conference. As The Mandarin noted in 2015 the decision to hold the inaugural event "flowed on from the enthusiasm that remained after a very positive experience hosting the professional body’s national conference in 2013." The original aim was to host lively discussions between people of different backgrounds that “transcend jurisdiction”.

This raison d'être still applies, and is reflected in the 2018 program which organised its discussions around international reform practices; thinking about what lies ahead; and insights from the Independent Review of the APS. Videos, transcripts and photos from each of the four sessions can be found here.

The first Conference session was a panel discussion with three speakers from Canberra's diplomatic community - Her Excellency Erica Schouten (the Netherlands), His Excellency Chris Seed (New Zealand) and His Excellency Kwok Fook Seng (Singapore). These Heads of Mission spoke on how their public services are adapting, where change is occurring and what is working.

Erica Schouten's presentation on the use of blockchain technology in the Netherlands' noted that the Netherlands is the second ranked country in the world in the 2018 Global Innovation Index. The government there has recently launched government-supported blockchain pilot projects, and pushes for new prototypes, project implementation, and international partnerships. They have also announced a special blockchain unit focused on establishing if the trustless nature of blockchain is reliable, determining if blockchain is sustainable from the perspective of energy consumption, and discovering the best ways in which blockchain endeavors can be managed and governed.  The Mandarin reports on blockchain's potential for use by government in Australia, with its ability to act as the "honest bureaucrat".

Chris Seed spoke on on the drivers of economic transformation, public sector responsibilities and inclusivity in New Zealand, reminding us of the quality of the public service in both countries  - referring back to New Zealand's Better Public Services reform program and the more recent State Sector Act consultation process.  He focused on two elements of a more flexible public service: the "one stop shop" experience for citizens  and the idea of the "spirit of service" for employees, which looked to Australia for ideas on rewarding employees for excellent service. In August, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden announced a new medal recognising meritorious service in the public service, a first for the Royal Honours system.

Kwok Fook Seng gave us some insights into Singapore's economy, focusing on: network readiness, where Singapore takes 1st place in the World Economic Forum's Network Readiness Index; and job displacement, noting that one fifth of Singapore's workforce will have their jobs displaced by 2028 - the highest in South East Asia. A new study by technology company Cisco and economic forecasting agency Oxford Economics also found that Singapore will have to confront the biggest mismatch between skills and jobs created among countries in the region.

Session two centred on future perspectives,  with keynote addresses from Kerri Hartland, Secretary of the Department of Jobs and Small Business and Professor Elanor Huntington, Dean of the ANU College of Engeineering and Computer Science. This session considered what the world will be like in 2030, what international and domestic trends are shaping the public services of the future and how governments will need to adapt.

Kerri emphasised the importance of lifelong learning - continuous upskilling and reskilling of all sectors of the workforce, including the public sector. Go to the Department of Jobs and Small Business Future of Work page and Labour Market Information Portal for resources on work futures in Australia.  For other resources see IPAA ACT's In Brief The Future of Work and the September 2018 report from the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers Hope is Not a Strategy - our shared responsibility for the future of work and workers, The Conversation articles on future of work and digital disruption,  PWC's Future of Work site. Other useful resources are the Productivity Commission's 2017 report Shifting the Dial, Jeff Borland and Michael Coelli's article for the Australian Economic Review Are Robots Taking Our Jobs?  and The Centre for Future Work research. For a global perspective go to the OECD and  International Labour Organization's future of work sites.
Elanor's remarks centred on creativity and problem finding, observing that we will increasingly need creative problem finders (rather than problem solvers) in the 21st century. Characteristics of problem finders include motivation, deep expertise, divergent thinking and confidence. For more on creative problem finders read Why Problem Finders Are More Creative Than Problem Solvers by Saga Briggs.  Elanor also referred to a recent National Press Club address by BCA Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott A New Plan for a Skilled Australia. In 2017 Elanor presented at TEDx Sydney, arguing that now more than ever we need engineers, the ones who bring people, technology and society together, which complements her remarks to the future perspectives session.  You can also  watch her talking about the Australian National University's Reimagine Project, which aims to get us thinking about what our world will be like in 2050, when we are completely embedded in both a digital and physical environment, and to encourage us to take charge and shape a new intellectual agenda. 

The state of play session after lunch included a keynote address from David Thodey AO, the Chair of the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service.  Transcripts of David's speech 'A Vision for Australia's Public Service'  and the ensuing conversation  with Peter Woolcott AO, APS Commissioner and Renée Leon PSM, Secretary of the Department of Human Services focused on what is emerging from the Review. These themes can be grouped into: united in collective endeavour; world-class in policy regulation and delivery; an employer of choice; a trusted and respected partner; and dynamic, digital and adaptive systems and structures. Read the Canberra Times and the Mandarin's reports on this session. The Mandarin report also contains links to earlier articles on the Review, including this report on a  submission to the APS Review from former APS Commissioner  Andrew Podger AO, who writes about a sense of continuity and stability as "critical to the institution that is the public service." Renée also spoke about the work of the APS Reform Committee, which is coordinating modernisation projects across six streams and is guided by the Roadmap for Reform announced in the 2018-19 federal budget.

Australia's public sector has always been open to learning from international best practice. At a recent  IPAA Secretary Series event, Michael Pezzullo observed that the foundations of our Australian Public Service (APS) were based on signficant reform in the British civil service "which laid the platform for a merit-based, professional and impartial civil service in the United Kingdom, shorn of the corruption and patronage of earlier times." In terms of performance, the APS  can be seen to be comparable to some of the world’s best public services. But as the introduction to the current APS Review notes "The time is right to examine the capability, culture and operating model of the APS, to ensure the APS is ready to capitalise on ... opportunities, improve citizens’ experience of government, and deliver better services."

The final reflective session saw Carmel McGregor PSM, Dr Steven Kennedy PSM, Kathy Leigh and Dr Gordon de Brouwer PSM build on earlier presentations by discussing the immediate priorities for federal and state governments and what can we do now in relation to the Independent Review of the APS.

Lifelong learning, wayfinding, permeability and "putting ourselves in others' shoes" were identified by Carmel McGregor as key skills for future public sector workers. For further reading on this, see Helen Dickinson and Helen Sullivan's 2014 report Imagining the 21st Century Public Service Workforce. Dr Kennedy spoke about the public service as an organisation and how to make it healthier and more productive immediately. His "secret" list of questions to ask himself while being given a briefing are fleshed out in this article in The Mandarin. You can read more about Steven's ideas in these remarks to the ANU College of Business and Economics made in September.

Reflecting a key theme emerging from the APS Review, Kathy Leigh spoke about the "One Service" ethos of the ACT Public Service. Gordon de Brouwer also went to the ideal of collective endeavour in his remarks to the session.  The APS Review defines collective endeavour as being about "a clear purpose and clarity of roles which unites the whole service." This is related to the concept of stewardship, which is is rising in prominence as a driver of contemporary public service practice in Australia and internationally. In a 2017 article on stewardship The Mandarin notes that "the Department of  Prime Minister and Cabinet defines its entire role in stewardship terms. For more on this read Is All Stewardship Equal? Developing a Typology of Stewardship Approaches by Dr Katie Moon, Dr Dru Marsh, Dr Helen Dickinson, Dr Gemma Carey from the UNSW Canberra Public Service Research Group.

The final remarks from all four speakers were a call for action: Gordon de Brouwer reminded us that there were more opportunities to engage with the APS Review; Kathy Leigh stressed that public service is a fabulous vocation; Steven Kennedy advised us to go out and make necessary changes immediately; and Carmel McGregor urged us to go forth - don't wait to be asked.


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IPAA ACT acknowledges the Traditional Owners and Custodians of country throughout Australia, and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

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