Our January 2016 issue asked the question, The Australian Public Service:  Mad World or Agile Transformation? Again in February 2016 the APS is in the news, this time due to a dispute over some recently published reports. As one participant remarked ”Expectedly, there has been an outpouring of horrified comments in response to Shergold’s manifesto.”.

Professor Peter Shergold ‘s report, Learning from Failure: why large government policy initiatives have gone so badly wrong in the past and how the chances of success in the future can be improved, was published by the Australian Public Service Commission on 5th February,  causing some consternation.

In a 9th February article in The Mandarin, Adapt or die: Peter Shergold’s manifesto for transformation, Stephen Easton summarises the report and gives further information from a talk by Professor Shergold in Canberra just before the report was  released. The Mandarin article gives  details of Shergold’s  “adaptive government,”  approach , based on:

  • A focus on outcomes and flexibility in how they are achieved;
  • Trials or pilots using genuinely experimental methodology;
  • Facilitation of transient projects using collaboration and cross-pollination between public, private and not-for-profit sectors; and
  • Agility through looser organisational structures.

A response to the Shergold report is provided in a 19th February article in The Mandarin, Hollywood, DARPA and innovation in the public service, by Marie Johnson,  Managing Director and Chief Digital Officer for the Centre for Digital Business. The article starts with ” Last week, Peter Shergold delivered his manifesto for public sector transformation — calling for the “Hollywood model” of working, “where each film project brings together a different crew for a limited period of time”.  I urge everyone to read this”

Johnson then notes that “Expectedly, there has been an outpouring of horrified comments in response to Shergold’s manifesto” but points to “recent State of the Service Report and other APSC publications, which shows a rigid, aging and homogenous public service.”

Johnson cautions that “Those who are horrified at Shergold’s manifesto, should be more horrified at the following statistics.

  • 80% of APS level employees have only worked in one agency
  • 36.6% of SES officers have only worked in one agency.
  • Only 1.6% of APS employees moved between agencies
  • The proportion of APS employees 50 years of age and over has grown significantly over time, increasing from 20.2% of all employees in June 2001 to 31.7% at June 2015.
  • The 25–29 group decreased before levelling off at around 9%.
  • The 20–24 group has continued to decrease over time and is now less than 2%.
  • The average length of service in the APS has increased over time
  • There has only been a small increase in the representation of people from non-English speaking backgrounds, and people with disability.
  • There has been a decline in graduate numbers; and
  • Only 34% of APS employees agree their agency applies merit appropriately.”

However, Johnson’s real message is that innovation is happening  in the public service, much in line with Shergold’s Hollywood mode,  but is not recognised by  the State of the Service Report: “Over many years, I have spoken and written about a similar approach used by the Pentagon Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – an approach akin to this I have used over time in the delivery of major programmes.

Johnson goes on to describe the DARPA model, noting “Back in October 2013, the Harvard Business Review carried an article called “Special Forces Innovation: How DARPA Attacks Problems”. This is a must read together with Shergold’s manifesto. I urge all horrified and interested commentators to read both.”

Johnson also quotes two people who previously headed up DARPA and are now VPs at Google, who believe that the DARPA approach to breakthrough innovation is replicable. They describe three essential elements: Ambitious goals, Temporary projects teams and Independence.

Johnson goes on to give APS examples of “radical innovation in action” and concludes that “The real disappointment with the State of the Service Report — beyond the picture of aging and homogeneity — is that it fails to envision the APS as part of this phenomenal ecosystem.

Shergold’s manifesto lays down the challenge to systematize — and not bureaucratize — this model. The DARPA model describes how this could be achieved. We know the model works. The SoSR itself will need to adapt with an inspiring view of the future as the APS opens up. Innovation is not about counting people in silos.”

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