Public Service review calls for stable 'spine' of digital platforms

Common platforms would help the Australian Public Service operate more efficiently, a review led by former Telstra CEO David Thodey has said.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in May announced a review into the Australian Public Service (APS), seeking mainly to understand whether those staffing Australia's government departments are capable of ushering in the "next wave" of digital.

Ten months on, findings of the review have been published, highlighting a need to refresh the APS culture, collaborate across agencies, and automate mundane tasks. But rather than focusing on those staffing the departments as laggards, the Independent Review of the APS: Priorities for Change [PDF] has shown that change must come from the top, and staff should be given the right tools.

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One example is the introduction of common digital platforms.

While there have been some "promising new initiatives", the APS' disparate systems and processes are affecting its performance, efficiency, and capacity to meet expectations, former Telstra CEO and current chair of CSIRO David Thodey said in the review.

Essentially, the review argues that moving the APS to a more common way of operating -- a "stable spine of common digital platforms" -- would facilitate the change that is needed where collaboration and digital capability within the APS, along with the introduction of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) for service delivery are concerned.

Approximately 40 percent of the time spent on tasks performed by the APS today involves highly automatable data collection and processing, the review said.

"A stable spine of common digital platforms and policy frameworks that can operate across the APS for core enabling services, including human resources, finance, ICT, and data sharing," the review says under the header of "What we think is needed".

The APS Secretaries Board, the review has said, should be charged with overseeing development of this spine.

"In driving digital transformation across the APS, the board should provide clear guidance on which enabling functions should be common or shared and which should be bespoke," it explained, noting a digitally enabled APS, with sophisticated systems and deep capabilities in data analytics, AI, and automation should result from this.

The recommendations, the review explained, followed feedback that the lack of standardised processes and systems in teams such as HR, security, and IT are barriers to working across internal APS boundaries, as well as an "inability to move resources quickly to where they are most needed".

"The approaches of other jurisdictions experimenting with shared portals for citizen services, and finding that inter-operability between services can be more efficient than moving to single platforms," it added.

Currently, there are over 170 bespoke IT systems being separately managed and maintained across the APS to deliver corporate services. There is also in excess of 200 bespoke business processes across government agencies with little coordination.

The APS comprises 18 departments of state, more than 100 agencies and authorities, and over 150,000 employees. Over 62 percent of the workforce is located outside Canberra.

Over the past 20 years, the APS has undergone more than 200 Machinery of Government (MoG) changes.

"Our research into MoG changes suggests they are frequently enacted but poorly implemented ... and highly disruptive," a submission from the University of New South Wales Public Service Research Group is quoted in the report as saying.

The transformation opportunity where common or networked enabling platforms, systems, and policies are concerned, the review explains, is that the APS will be able to coordinate and deliver more effective outcomes.

"A better flow of information and people across the APS will facilitate collaboration across and within agencies, allowing faster and more effective responses," it said. "An improved resourcing and financing framework will ensure that, consistent with government policy, the APS can reallocate resources proactively and -- for example -- enable investment in the underlying digital platforms needed to deliver long-term outcomes."

According to the review, simpler workforce structures will support effective decision making, empower employees, and "deepen the culture of collaboration".

It should also reduce the need for MoG changes. However, with an election scheduled for May, more MoG changes appear to be inevitable.

"We need the APS to provide stability and surety, to promote the wellbeing of all Australians, and to support successive governments in navigating future challenges – whether this is tackling entrenched disadvantage, harnessing the technological revolution to make lives better for all Australians, or defending Australia's security and economic interests in a less stable world," Thodey said.

"In short, this means investing in the APS and setting it up to succeed -- not for its own sake but for Australia's."

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