Canberra's most senior public servant has acknowledged a year marked by seismic scandals for the public service, but sought to pull focus to how the bureaucracy can serve the public.
Delivering his end-of-year address, Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Glyn Davis said that "behind the headlines of 2023 is a conversation about the next phase of the APS".
That conversation should be about serving the public, and who is best poised to do that, Professor Davis's speech outlined.
He began by recognising the work of staff at Services Australia - the government's largest service-delivery agency - recounting a visit to a service centre in Canberra's southern suburb of Woden.
"The Services Australia vision is to 'make government services simple so people can get on with their lives'," Professor Davis told those gathered at Hotel Realm.
"The teammembers I met were proud of the support they provide every day to fellow citizens.
"The Services Australia crew itself was an inspiring cross-section of Australia - diverse, experienced, committed, inventive."
The Albanese government and senior public servants have increasingly sought to vocalise the agency's significance this year, recognising that Centrelink staff are the face of the public service for most Australians.
But morale at the agency fell in 2023, as staff grappled with the findings of the robodebt royal commission, and the government was forced to promise an additional 3000 staff to respond to capability issues.
Tellingly, just 45 per cent of Services Australia staff thought said they were fairly remunerated in the 2023 census, and the agency remains leaderless following the retirement of chief executive officer Rebecca Skinner in September.
Staff at Services Australia represent "the future of our APS", Professor Davis said.
"A reminder of what is possible even amid a year which included the robodebt royal commission, consultancy scandals, and public sector code issues," he said, in a brief acknowledgement of the commission's damning findings on senior public servants, the PwC Australia tax leak and the sacking of Home Affairs boss Mike Pezzullo.
The future of consultants
In an effort to make sense of these "setbacks", the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary spent time unpacking questions around the use of consultants in the Australian Public Service.
He referenced the example of the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES), which connected employers with staff until it was shut down in 1998 in favour of private providers.
"Outsourcing introduced the APS to some cutting-edge technologies and new ways of thinking about service delivery," Professor Davis said.
"Contracting promised an attractive alternative to those CES counters and lines, with more responsive systems and better value for money.
"Several decades on the evidence is in about the shift in service delivery, and the consequences."
The high costs of contracting, and the "churn" effect of short-term employment have prompted "a new conversation" about the future of public administration, Professor Davis said.
"A synthesis looms," he said.
"There will be services, as now, for which government relies on competitive markets and external advice.
"The use of consultants in government will rebalance in light of public opinion, but we can never retain all necessary expertise within the public sector.
"Buying skills for some tasks will continue to be the right choice."
The future of the federal public service also lies in entrusting communities to design programs and control funding, in a "place-based" approach.
"A place-based approach requires the public sector to cede control over inputs and outcomes," Professor Davis said.
"This does not sit comfortably with electoral cycles, or with ministers keen to make announcements.
"Instead it makes officials truly servants of the public."
He referenced a trip to central Australia earlier in the year, alongside colleagues from the National Indigenous Australians Agency, in which residents of the small town of Papunya spoke clearly about their community's needs.
"They are frustrated by the lack of coordination between levels of government and by poorly directed investment," he said.
"They are ready to lead. What they want is a say in local decisions, a voice even."