Martin Parkinson calls them the wicked problems facing the nation. He's not just referring to COVID-19.
The former secretary of the Prime Minister's Department and Treasury lists some of the challenges for governments: international security, inequality, climate change, reconciliation and racism.
They're complex, and many involve uncertainty. Dr Parkinson said public servants will need to be equipped with the latest knowledge to address them.
"The challenges that governments are facing are increasingly complex and complicated," he said.
"Those things are quite different. Things can be complicated but you can step your way through it. But the complexity is usually characterised by massive amounts of uncertainty and ambiguity."
Dr Parkinson, who served in some of the public service's most senior roles under both Labor and Coalition governments until 2019, might be trusted to know a complex problem when he sees one.
He said the public service will need to be informed by research and evidence as it addresses public policy challenges ahead.
"If the Australian Public Service is to serve the people of Australia through the government of the day - which is what its mantra is - it's got to be in a position to bring the best analytics and data to help address these complex and complicated problems."
Dr Parkinson is about to lead what he describes as one part of the toolkit for that task. He will replace another former Treasury secretary, Ken Henry, as chair of the foundation providing scholarships to public servants researching issues of national significance.
The Sir Roland Wilson Foundation, named after the long-serving Treasury secretary who helped coordinate Australia's post-war economic expansion, has provided more than 50 public servants with scholarships since it began in 1998. It supports research informing public policy in the APS.
Among the issues public servants are investigating through its scholarship are the geopolitics of United States-China technological competition in the 21st century, energy diplomacy in south-east Asia, and business tax policy.
The foundation is an initiative at the Australian National University proposed by Dr Henry, who also chaired the foundation from 2013 and served on its board since 2001.
Australian governments have been most effective when they have involved the public service closely in the development of policy.Ken Henry
Dr Henry, Treasury secretary between 2001 and 2011, said the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation scholarships had a significant impact through the research they supported, the leadership skills the scholars gained, and the bridge created between the APS and ANU.
Dr Parkinson intends to build on the legacy of his predecessor. He said the scholarships gave public servants the freedom and time to dive deep into issues, with support from leading researchers.
Dr Parkinson had found it striking, and gratifying, to see the amount of trust placed in expertise during the pandemic.
"It's the way the Westminster system should work. Ministers and the public service are a partnership, and it works best when everybody brings to the table what their expertise is," he said.
"It's not the public service's job to second guess the political process, but it is their job to bring research-based data and evidence about how best to tackle hard problems to the table, to help ministers when they're thinking about the choices they make."
Dr Henry said the government had relied and acted on the advice of the public service during the COVID-19 crisis. He expected it would continue this during the recovery phase.
"The Australian Public Service has enormous depth and breadth of expertise and Australian governments have been most effective when they have involved the public service closely in the development of policy," he said.
The post-COVID challenges for the nation involved issues it had faced before the pandemic.
"We haven't enjoyed the sorts of rates of economic growth, productivity growth, real wages growth and household income growth that Australians enjoyed late in the 20th century. So in the last 20 years, they have actually been, despite the mining boom, quite lacklustre in many respects," Dr Henry said.
"There's an opportunity now for the Australian government working with the public service and its skilled advisers to develop a growth strategy for the future."
Dr Henry, who advised the Rudd government during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, said the economic response then had shown the importance of policy advisers who were comfortable speaking truth to power in advising governments how they should act.
The response to that crisis had also shown the importance of having public servants who were across the academic literature in their policy areas, and able to consider it in forming their advice.
When experts with academic backgrounds and speaking with authority criticised government policies, advisers needed to be able to tell ministers how and why they had considered or disagreed with the views.
"That capability was tested on numerous occasions in the Global Financial Crisis and of course I've been at a greater distance during the COVID-19 crisis, but I've seen the same thing playing out," Dr Henry said.
"Not just at the Commonwealth level but at the state level as well, decisions taken by governments acting on the advice of their chief medical officers and other policy advisers, have faced criticism on occasion.
"I'm sure that [governments] have taken great comfort from the fact that public servants offering them the advice have considerable expertise in the subject matter."