Future-proofing the Australian public service


By Paul Leahy, Regional Sales Director, Public Sector, Workday Australia and New Zealand
Monday, 24 July, 2023

Future-proofing the Australian public service

Australia’s strength as a nation has always depended heavily on the capabilities of our public sector workforce. From our foundations as a government-managed colony through to the modern day, the public sector has been the key provider of vital services ranging from education and health care to city planning and transport.

The Digital Transformation Agency’s Data and Digital Government Strategy paper outlines the Australian Government’s 2030 vision of “delivering simple, secure and connected services for all people and business through world-class data and digital capabilities”.

With the federal government aspiring to become a world-leading digital government, the adoption of digital services is expected to accelerate. These new technologies and digital processes will constantly reshape the possibilities for service delivery, and citizens will continue to expect digital government services to become even more user-friendly and efficient. This means that it is vital that public sector agencies have the skills to meet the expectations of citizens, who today judge all experiences against the best they receive.

For any organisation today, having a digitally skilled labour force is more critical than ever, and the public service is no exception. However, we currently find the Australian public sector (APS) workforce in a challenging phase, with its internal capabilities undermined by a long-term trend towards outsourced staffing models, especially in the digital and ICT arena. This shortfall in digital capability is further exacerbated as the APS is also competing with the private sector for the same talent pool due to a tight labour market in the technology sector.

Thus, a key challenge for the APS in fulfilling its digital government aspiration is that should current public sector workforce trends continue, we will be left with a public service that is reliant on external consultants not only for the design and delivery of digital services, but also for their operation and ongoing development. If Australia is to stay ahead as a digital democracy, then now is the time to invest in increasing digital skills and capabilities of the public service. But there is one other important area where change is needed — and that is in how the workforce is organised, and the tools it is given to perform its tasks.

Investing in skills-based workforce

The 2019 Thodey Review noted that the APS has “startlingly little knowledge of its workforce”. This led to the development of the APS Workforce Strategy 2025 by the Australian Public Service Commission, which, together with the National Skills Commission, will be forecasting the future skills that will be required within the APS in the years ahead. The federal government’s APS Reform agenda is another welcome initiative that will address the current workforce challenges faced by the APS.

This shift to a skills-based approach will allow the Australian Government to hire and retain the right talent and enable the APS workforce to upskill their existing skillsets to meet the needs of today’s digital world. Agencies will also need to evolve how they think about the concept of work, moving away from the rigid idea that work is done through structured job roles and responsibilities, instead viewing work as a more fluid compilation of skills to be leveraged as the world around us changes.

Fundamental to delivering on this shift to a skills-based approach are technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), which can understand key attributes to help drive automation and provide insights and predictions that identify and align skills with jobs. This allows organisations to leverage and turn employee data into a strategic advantage and in turn adapt quickly to change.

Strategic workforce planning

Regardless of what the future of work looks like for the APS, the demand for digital services and ICT skills and capabilities will continue to rise. It is therefore important to proactively identify current and emerging capability gaps in the APS workforce and the investments required to close them. However, DTA’s 2021 Digital Review revealed that some agencies lack a long-term focus in workforce planning, which is further hampered by the use of legacy and outdated HR systems. The ability to align workforce plans with APS’s organisational goals, modelling workforce dynamics, hiring, transfers and retention plans, will be key to the long-term success of the APS.

Furthermore, as the workforce undergoes wave after wave of change — from the ‘Great Resignation’ to the rise of contingent and hybrid work — the APS is similarly not spared. It is becoming clearer that traditional and tactical workforce planning will no longer suffice. Modern workforce planning can help organisations take control of their futures by giving them access to the very capabilities traditional planning lacks. These include continuous company-wide planning, deeper data-driven insights, and the ability to adapt and perform at scale. And when combined in a single cloud planning platform, such capabilities provide organisations with the ability to scale and adapt while anticipating change, allowing them to stay ahead of the curve despite disruptions.

Empowering the workforce with digital tools and knowledge

For digital service transformation to truly take place within the APS, it must not only focus on digitising citizen-facing front-end processes, but also direct energy towards bringing similar benefits to back-end processes, and especially to those that impact the working lives of employees. Even simple tasks such as checking leave entitlements or booking into learning and development programs can be cumbersome and time-consuming when they are not streamlined using digital technologies. Workday’s solutions unify financial and talent management, time and attendance, and recruitment, allowing agencies the ability to automate their day-to-day personnel processes and give their workers more control through self-service options.

Increasing the APS’s adoption of digital tools that can improve internal processes also ensures staff maximise the time they can devote to improving citizen-facing services. Furthermore, improving internal service delivery is also proven to enhance employee engagement, which assists in boosting worker productivity and strengthening staff retention. All of these improvements would then help relieve some of the pressure on hiring and the need for external labour sources.

We believe it is vital that the Australian Government implements strategies to strengthen the public sector workforce, to ensure it can meet the current and future needs of Australians. Investing in digital skills, and the systems that enable these skills to be deployed most effectively, is therefore vital for the ongoing development of the Australian public sector workforce. When that workforce is equipped with digital tools and processes that enable them to focus on the work that matters most, they become an unstoppable force for raising the quality of digital service delivery, and that is good for all Australians.

Image credit: iStock.com/portishead1

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