Public service agencies must collaborate in responding to a "confluence" of events challenging Australia, including the shifting Asia-Pacific power balance and eroding trust in democracy, the Foreign Affairs Department's secretary says.
Frances Adamson told public servants on Monday a series of changes had combined to raise the stakes for governments and officials advising on and implementing policy.
The senior public servant, speaking at an Institute of Public Administration Australia event in Canberra, admitted the federal bureaucracy was still adapting to a world posing more complex challenges.
Departments and agencies would need to become more sophisticated in meeting challenges growing more "complex and difficult", Ms Adamson said.
"Changing times require us to work together more collaboratively than ever before," she said.
Ms Adamson said the public service would also need to draw on the diversity within its ranks in responding to Australia's challenges.
Trends identified in 2017's foreign policy white paper were accelerating in ways that challenged the nation's interests, she said.
"The big story in our own region, with reverberations beyond, is of course the changing balance of strategic power," Ms Adamson said.
"The relationship between the United States and China is strained, increasingly strained, and more obviously so almost with every passing day.
"Trade tensions between them are putting the entire global economic system under pressure."
There was also growing disillusionment around the world at what some saw as the "empty promise of liberalism and globalisation", Ms Adamson said.
"Trust in democratic institutions is being eroded. At the same time, technology is drastically changing how we live and work.
"As changes grow more complex and more difficult to meet, the ways we address them must become more sophisticated."
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Problems facing governments lent themselves less to simple solutions and were not easily compartmentalised.
"Issues that may have once been the purview of a single department now demand attention across several, sometimes many portfolios," Ms Adamson said.
"The world has changed, and we as public servants are still in the process of adapting.
"We need to be able to think through issues holistically, to recognise that on the Venn diagram of departmental interests, the circles increasingly overlap, and not just in inter-departmental committees."
This would require the public service to build relationships and share expertise across its departments, Ms Adamson said.
The public service would need to draw on its diversity in shaping and implementing policy responses, she said.
Agencies would also need to use expertise from outside, something Ms Adamson admitted her department had sometimes been slow to recognise.