Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick says no more 'gold star nonsense'

Public Service Commissioner says a few weeks in Bowral is no longer the go for future secretaries.

In an hour-long briefing about the State of the Service report – his last major foray as the Commonwealth bureaucracy's overseer – Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick's delivery was methodical but punctured by a few short sighs. Moments of impatience.

These times were when he was being asked about issues such as sick days and bullying.

It may have been the fact he did not want his agency's dense 274-page report boiled down to a few of the cliched headlines that have hung over the public service for years.

Instead the report had cutting edge findings that should not be missed, he said, at a time when politicians on all sides needed the bureaucracy to be sharper than ever. 

When the report talked about strengthening performance management, he did not want this turned into a story about how easy or hard it was to sack bureaucrats.


The problem of underperformers was overstated, he said.

Commissioner Sedgwick said it meant stripping away needless paperwork for performance reviews. Some organisations could outline how they would review an employee's performance in a couple of pages. Others needed 10 pages.

Where it became a problem was when managers used process instead of culture. When a staff member did not receive feedback weekly but in a massive dump at the end of the year.

He said it also meant broadening the skills of talented staff.

"We've gone away from this notion you develop a leader by sending them down to Bowral for a couple of weeks, stamp their passport give them a gold star and call them a leader," he said.

"We don't do that nonsense anymore."

Now 70 per cent of leadership programs – which run from nine  months to a year – were experiential in line with the latest thinking on what an adult required to learn (20 per cent was learning with colleagues and 10 per cent was formalised classes).

And supervisors had to plot the progress of people who may one day be secretaries.

"If we had this conversation 15 years ago someone would have hung me out to dry," he said.  

"One of the things that's really nice about the way the secretaries board is operating at the moment is that we're having more of these conversations (about talent retention).

"The willingness of my colleagues to look afresh at some of these issues is reflected in the fact that they've been prepared to put real money our way. They've given us license to reinvent the way we do leadership development in the past three  to four  years."

New talent will need to be found to replace Commissioner Sedgwick who finishes his job on December 13.

He did not take questions about what his future held on Monday because it could divert focus from the report.