The public service has today launched a new academy to teach its public servants, while asking a thought-provoking question.
What makes a good public servant? The officials who have established the Australian Public Service Academy, based in Old Parliament House, have had a go at answering.
They've distilled a few qualities regarded as must-haves in the public service, and the academy will teach courses in those cornerstones of its craft.
Integrity, leadership and management are among them. Other courses will look at how public servants partner up with teams inside the bureaucracy, and groups outside it, to form policies and deliver programs.
A lot of its teaching material, however, is yet to be developed. That's a deliberate move by the creators of the APS Academy working in the Australian Public Service Commission, the agency that oversees the employment of about 149,000 federal public servants.
To understand why, the recent major review of the public service led by businessman David Thodey offers a clue. It found the public service had a fragmented approach to training.
The APS Academy is a bid to address the Thodey review's criticism that the bureaucracy had gone too far in devolving learning and development to agencies, which sometimes further delegated their responsibility for training within their own layers of bureaucracy. By creating a central school within the public service, the academy will create a hub for bureaucrats to learn or grow skills at different points of their careers, the commission hopes.
To date, the academy has a six-month calendar of courses, events, in-agency programs and social learning activities scheduled through to end of 2021.
Based on that, the public service commission expects it will reach 4146 public servants, not including those using e-learning or self-guided learning programs, which can only be counted retrospectively.
The school will be led by practitioners - that is, currently- or recently-employed public service leaders who will concentrate their knowledge and skills within the one institution.
The APS Academy is also a bid to tailor training to the needs of the public service. It will analyse data and consult with agencies to identify skills gaps, and work with experts in the bureaucracy to develop training to fill them.
The public service hopes that will go some way to addressing this criticism about its education and training in the Thodey review, released in 2019: "A broad range of educational programs are offered within agencies, across agencies and by external providers," its report said.
"The challenge for the APS is not in the availability of good in-house and external sources of training and professional development but in a system-wide understanding of what development is needed, what is available and what works."
One of Thodey's sharpest and most important observations followed: "There is also little guidance on what is essential or core to being a great public servant."
So what makes a great public servant?
The APS Academy boldly attempts to offer that guidance by defining what it calls "APS Craft", or "the fundamental capabilities needed to deliver great policy and services".
They're skills that give public servants the "necessary foundations to deliver high-quality, respected and trusted solutions to meet Australia's challenges". In other words, they're the non-negotiable skills required for public servants to do their jobs properly. That includes integrity - which the academy says lies at the foundation of all good public service work - but also things like strategic analysis and service delivery.
Public service commissioner Peter Woolcott says the APS Academy will partner with government departments and experts outside the bureaucracy to equip public servants with those fundamental skills.
The academy has rooms inside Old Parliament House, but the public service commission stresses it is not a "bricks and mortar" deal. It's intended to be a learning hub, with networks running deep inside the public service and partnering up with universities and other education providers.
It will offer courses, some of them funded through fees paid by agencies, but will also share learning material on a website for public servants looking for guidance in their work. Public servants can volunteer for courses, or they can be nominated by their employers.
So far it's unclear exactly how much it has cost to establish the new institution, except that last year $9.6 million of the APS Commission's budget was allocated to supporting operations of the new academy, and its predecessor, the APSC Centre for Leadership and Learning, combined.
It's a bold experiment, and one that attracts curiosity, evoking images of public servants in uniform, with pencils down and books stacked precariously on desks. School's out no longer? That's no certain thing, and it remains to be seen if the APS Academy will have the buy-in from agencies needed to sustain it over many years.
One of the key measures of its success, though, will be how far it goes towards rebuilding the expertise that so many observe has disappeared from the public service through years of contracting and staffing cuts. That will be hard to measure.
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