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Institute of Public Administration Australia Secretary’s Series

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Speaker: Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, President of the Institute of Public Administration of Australia, Frances Adamson

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Thank you, Carmel [McGregor], for that kind introduction.

It has been a pleasure working with you as one of our two Deputy Presidents on the board and council of IPAA ACT over the past two years. In fact it's been a pleasure working with a talented and committed board and council and a dream IPAA team under Drew Baker's leadership as CEO.

I acknowledge also my distinguished predecessors as IPAA Presidents and fellow secretaries (but I won't ask you to stand).

One of the things that struck me almost immediately I was appointed as a secretary three years ago was the generosity of spirit amongst my colleagues in terms of stewardship of the Service. And that has been true also in your support for IPAA, not just through our Secretaries Series but in all aspects of IPAA's engagement with our members.

And a personal thank you for stepping in to chair or be a panellist or speak to our emerging leaders or our executive assistants, on the (too) many occasions when I've been on planes and unable to be here.

As our members know, it has been a busy and productive period.

We have overseen, with strong input from Michael Manthorpe, also Deputy President, the development of the IPAA Strategic Plan to 2022, which sets out how we will promote excellence and professionalism in public administration over the next three years.

We brought together emerging leaders from across the sector to build networks and discuss future challenges.

We worked with the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science on the Public Sector Innovation Awards, to recognise and promote creativity and fresh thinking across the Australian Public Service.

We held more than 100 events, attended by over 14,000 people – though I suspect there might be some repeat customers there, which the IPAA team should take as an endorsement of its hard work.

We also made an important change on the corporate side, adopting a new constitution and governance model – and again I thank Michael Brennan from Minter-Ellison for supporting us throughout.

IPAA occupies a special position in Canberra life and it has been my privilege to work with the 19 other members of its council to shape its agenda.

And I couldn't be happier that Steven Kennedy has agreed to become President of IPAA ACT following our Annual General Meeting on 4 September.

A defining feature of IPAA is that it brings together people - today is a good example - with different perspectives and strengths in the pursuit of improving public service and the lives of Australians.

That is what I'd like to talk about this afternoon: the importance of collaboration in our work, and of drawing on a spectrum of views and experiences to shape and implement policy in a world where we face serious and consequential challenges.

An increasingly complex world

For, our world, not just our region, is undergoing a profound transformation.

Economic, demographic, technological and geopolitical shifts are changing how states perceive and promote their interests, how business is done, and even how people relate to one another.

The trends identified in the government's 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper are accelerating in ways that challenge Australia's interests.

The big story in our own region, with reverberations beyond, is, of course, the changing balance of strategic power.

The relationship between the United States and China is strained.

Trade tensions between them are putting the entire global economic system under pressure.

Around the world, there is growing disillusionment at what some see as the empty promises of liberalism and globalisation.

Trust in democratic institutions is being eroded.

At the same time, technology is drastically changing how we live and work.

The confluence of these forces raises the stakes for governments and, across our region for the officials who advise them and who implement policy.

As challenges grow more complex and more difficult to meet, the ways we address them must become more sophisticated.

So, what does this all mean for the Australian Public Service?

I'd like to speak today about our place in this bigger picture.

How our changing times require us to work together more collaboratively than ever before.

And I'll explain why we must bring to bear the best of our human qualities – in all their diversity – to support the government in shaping Australia's future.

I'd like to focus on what I think is fundamental: trust, cooperation and inclusion.


Firstly, trust.

Around the world trust in democratically elected governments is at a low point. That is now well known.

We can debate how fair that is.

From a personal standpoint, as a public servant who has worked with successive governments, I can say that ministers, MPs, and public servants take their duties seriously and think deeply about the effects of their decisions.

But we need to appreciate that as public servants living in Canberra, our perspective is not the same as that of many Australians.

Despite almost 28 years of economic growth, Australians are less inclined to trust their elected representatives, are skeptical of institutions and are somewhat disenchanted with democratic processes.

The Museum of Australian Democracy's 2018 report, Trust and Democracy in Australia, found that 48 per cent of Australians distrust MPs in general. Worse for us, their polling indicates public servants are trusted by just 38 per cent of the population[1].

This same report states that "satisfaction in democracy has more than halved in a decade and trust in key institutions and social leaders is eroding".

This year's Lowy Institute Poll shows that while most Australians [70 per cent] are satisfied with the way democracy works, almost one in three [30 per cent] is not[2].

Martin Parkinson, Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, who will be giving his IPAA valedictory in a fortnight, chose to speak about trust in his annual address to the Australian Public Service at the end of last year.

As the interface between people and government, it is incumbent on us as public servants to seek to engender trust in government.

That means providing astute advice and demonstrating unity and a driving sense of purpose in implementing the government's agenda.

The Australian people expect no less and the Prime Minister has made that explicit.

It means striving for excellence in all that we do, whether that's frontline service delivery or writing policy recommendations.

And it means ensuring we remain worthy of the trust of our fellow Australians, and of each other.

We need to do this not only to advance, but also to maintain Australia's standing as one of the world's most desirable places to live, work, and pursue big ideas.


Secondly, cooperation.

Today's challenges demand more of governments than ever before.

Problems are more complex, often not lending themselves to one or even two dimensional solutions.

They are not easily compartmentalised.

Issues that may once have been the purview of a single department now demand attention across several, sometimes many, portfolios.

Where the "greenhouse effect" was once something of a specialist interest, climate change is now quite rightly a focus for multiple government departments[4].

Similarly, where once policy around "the Internet" with a capital "I" occupied a few agencies, anticipating the impact of emerging technologies is now on every secretary's radar.

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.

The only way the APS can support government to effectively address complex challenges is by employing all of our capabilities.

This requires us to break down barriers, build relationships and share our expertise across departments - and we are - bringing all voices to the table as we seek to develop policy advice to address what seems to be a growing number of "wicked" problems.

It is natural for an IPAA ACT Division President to bring a departmental perspective to the role, so let me draw on my own experience.

In DFAT we have been seeking to transform ourselves to better address these challenges, especially since integration with AusAID.

This is still a work in progress, but from an agency once dominated by foreign and trade policy generalists and consular and passport service providers, we are becoming a richer, more multi-disciplinary workforce that has embedded throughout it program managers, economists, expert sector specialists, and secondees from other agencies.

As a result, we are a more flexible organisation - better able to collaborate across government to deliver solutions to the problems the government faces in its international engagement - but still needing to do more.

I'll give you two examples of where this more open and cooperative approach is supercharging policy implementation across departments and agencies: the Office of the Pacific, and on cyber affairs.

The Office of the Pacific

The Office of the Pacific is delivering one of the government's key foreign policy priorities - the Pacific Step-Up.

The Step-Up builds on many years of Australian engagement with the Pacific to strengthen our support for the region's stability, security and prosperity.

While the Office of the Pacific sits within DFAT, it is a genuinely whole-of-government endeavour.

We have approximately 150 staff from ten agencies applying specialist skills, experience and networks to solve the type of problem I have referred to.

Such as Robyn, who transferred to us from the Attorney-General's Department to support Pacific states in finalising their maritime boundaries and exclusive economic zones.

There's Sophie, who joined DFAT from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, and Alex, seconded from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, who are working on the Pacific Fusion Centre. There's also Lachlan from the Office for Sport in the Department of Health, who is strengthening sports linkages between Australia and the Pacific.

This facility will strengthen the ability of Pacific governments to manage challenges such as illegal fishing, people smuggling and narcotics trafficking.

Around the corner in the office that was redesigned especially to accommodate this new initiative are staff seconded from Defence, Home Affairs and the Australian Federal Police.

They maintain close links into their home agencies so they can consult on the best ways to support our engagement with Pacific partners on security issues.

Experts in loan financing from Treasury, Finance and the Infrastructure and Project Financing Agency are working on our newly established Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific, which has $2 billion in loans and grants for critical infrastructure.

This includes the telecommunication, transport, energy and water systems our Pacific neighbours have identified that they need to support sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

I'm told a recent coordination meeting chaired by the head of the Office of the Pacific, Ewen McDonald, was attended by colleagues from 17 agencies.

It's about implementing policy not as a single department, but as an agile, cross-public service force.

A crack team of sorts.

For DFAT, it is unprecedented in scale and scope.

It hasn't come without challenges.

Bringing government resources to bear on complex problems which urgently require solutions is hard.

But it has been vitally important to realising a central aim of the Step-Up: to orient ourselves around not what we as individual departments can do for our Pacific counterparts – policing, defence training, legal drafting or capacity-building – but to provide the sort of coordinated support to our partners that responds to their development priorities.

And in the process to become more flexible, more adaptive and more effective.

As the challenges Australia and the countries of our region face grow more multi-dimensional, our responses must be multi-disciplinary and developed consultatively.

Cyber affairs

Another area that has benefited from a whole-of-government approach is cyber affairs.

As emerging technologies have worked their way towards the front line of geopolitical competition, the number of DFAT staff working on cyber affairs has grown significantly.

Australia's international cyber engagement is, in part, about shaping the future of cyberspace to ensure it remains a dynamic engine of economic growth and innovation for all; a space that is open, free and secure.

DFAT's Cyber Affairs Branch draws in expertise from across government and outside the public service.

Almost nobody in the branch started out at DFAT, with the exception of one of our graduates, who is working in a department almost unrecognisable from the one I joined 34 years ago.

One of the most recent examples of cross-department collaboration in this domain was the Australian-led joint statement at the G20 Leaders' Summit, calling on social media companies to do more to combat terrorist and violent extremist content online[5].

Colleagues in DFAT's Cyber Affairs Branch, along with the Counter Terrorism Branch and the Department of Home Affairs, provided advice to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from our global network, helping ensure the success of the Prime Minister's initiative.

The value in working collaboratively seems self-evident, but in fact it hasn't always been obvious.

In 2001, the Attorney General's Department developed the rather quaint sounding "e-security national agenda" to "create a trusted and secure electronic operating environment" [6].

Seven years later, ten agencies sat on the E-Security Policy and Coordination Committee. DFAT was not one of them[7].

Today, it's a different story.

We work closely with the Department of Home Affairs on cyber security policy issues.

Cyber issues – in one form or another – command the attention of every agency, including of course the specialist Australian Cyber Security Centre.

DFAT's Cyber Branch is headed by an Ambassador with a mandate to lead whole-of-government outreach on a broad range of cyber issues.

His team brought together 18 different government agencies, the private sector, academia and NGOs to develop the first iteration of the international cyber engagement strategy for Australia.

I have no doubt that cooperation on this important policy agenda will only deepen as we think through the potential geostrategic implications of fast-developing new technologies.

Coordination at posts

Of course, DFAT doesn't have a monopoly on the government's international engagement and nor should it.

Twenty-seven1 (27) Commonwealth Government Departments have staff in Australia's overseas posts. If you include portfolio agencies and other Commonwealth entities, the figure rises to 30.

(I have that figure etched in my mind because it was only a few months ago that the heads of those agencies joined me in signing on to the One Approach Zero Tolerance Statement, affirming our shared expectation that all Australian Government staff serving overseas treat others with respect and courtesy, and reject bullying and harassment of all forms.)

Education, Agriculture, Treasury, Defence and Home Affairs are just some of those with staff abroad, often working even more closely with colleagues from across government to support a coordinated and unified Australian Government agenda in their host country.

It not only makes us more effective; it reflects the reality of the world in which we live, where cross-cutting issues challenge us from many directions.

This idea emerges strongly in David Thodey and colleagues in the interim findings of their independent review of the APS.

In determining the attributes the public sector needs to be fit-for-purpose for the coming decades, the panel determined that a flexible operating model was a priority.

That includes dynamic ways of working and common digital platforms that make collaboration the norm.


Finally, inclusion.

For the Australian Government to be effective abroad or at home, we also need to draw on the talents of our people.

Implementing policy in a complex, changing and challenging world takes ingenuity, resourcefulness and insight.

For years, we've known that diverse teams are better at solving problems.

Inclusive workplaces also have more engaged employees.

We achieve better outcomes when staff know their views count; and when they feel empowered respectfully to contest policy and ideas.

Diversity and inclusion matter for improved function.

Building inclusivity is also consistent with the Australian Public Service's values and our commitment to a positive workplace culture and something IPAA has strongly supported.

That's why the Secretary-level Equality and Diversity Council exists - with all Departmental Secretaries meeting quarterly to discuss diversity and promote practical ways to drive inclusion across the APS.

The need for diversity is particularly pronounced in foreign affairs, where cross-cultural knowledge, language skills and the ability to build relationships with people from all over the world are vital.

Diversity and inclusion are so integral to advancing Australia's national interests, driving innovation and reflecting Australian values of fairness and equality, that the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper identifies the diversity of Australian society as a core national strength.

This also means valuing experience from outside our agencies, something DFAT, has at times been slow to recognise.

But we're getting better.

The majority of DFAT's current APS workforce – three-quarters - did not start out in our graduate program[8].

We are increasingly looking to workforce models that mix DFAT employees, contractors, and staff seconded from other APS agencies.

Since the beginning of last year, there have been just over 130 permanent or temporary transfers to DFAT from other agencies outside of recruitment processes.

As a multicultural country, diversity also matters for better representation.

Australia is fortunate to have diplomats of all levels serving in countries that reflect their heritage, or their religious or linguistic background.

Among our ambassadors and heads of post there's James Choi in Seoul, Harinder Sidhu in New Delhi, Christopher Lim in Chengdu and Ridwaan Jadwat in Riyadh, who is also Australia's Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

When it comes to forming relationships and developing insights, our culturally and linguistically diverse workforce is Australia's not-so-secret weapon, one which few other countries possess.

Embracing diversity also drives innovation and enhances our ability to relate to modern Australia.

To enable us to do this better, DFAT has a number of inclusion strategies.

We recognise that for some groups, targeted action is needed.

Women in Leadership

DFAT has a longstanding commitment to achieving gender equality.

We have made good progress since the launch of our Women in Leadership strategy under my predecessor Peter Varghese in November 2015.

At that time, although DFAT had been recruiting equal numbers of male and female graduates since the mid-1980s, women made up only 34 per cent of the Senior Executive Service and 27 per cent of our ambassadors and heads of posts.

Since then, the department has prioritised and resourced an agenda that has made headway in increasing the number of women in senior roles.

Our aim has always been to create a workplace that maximises performance and capability by enabling men and women to thrive equally.

It's about our values, but also about our effectiveness: studies show that organisations with a critical mass of women in senior management perform better than those with less gender diversity in these key roles.

I'm pleased to say that we met our 2018 target of 40 per cent of women at the SES band 1 level, up from 36 per cent in November 2015.

We fell short of our SES band 2 target of 35 per cent, but still made an improvement on three years ago.

And at the end of 2018, we had more women heads of mission and posts than ever before[9].

There are no roles in which women cannot serve overseas.

We have female ambassadors across key security partners in the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East, Southwest Asia, Europe, and multilateral posts, where the international security architecture is debated and negotiated.

IPAA has also pursued its own Women in Leadership initiatives, strongly supported by my fellow secretaries, 50 percent of whom are female.

Women represent half the population, so it makes sense to have a focus on gender equality.

But it's important we reflect the community we represent in all its diversity.

Diversity in all its forms

There is still a lot of work to be done on diversity across the APS.

In DFAT, we have trouble retaining Indigenous officers, who tend to leave us after they reach APS5 – many drawn to attractive roles in the private sector or promotions elsewhere in the public sector.

While I encourage our staff to broaden their professional experience and seize opportunities, I would like us to do better on retaining our future Indigenous leaders.

And while we have reduced barriers to employment for people with disabilities in recent years, only 2.9 per cent of our staff identify as having a disability, compared to 3.7 per cent in the broader APS[10] and 18 per cent in the general population[11].

We want all our staff to feel included, whether they are sixth generation Australian or first, whether their parents were lawyers or labourers, whatever faith they follow – or don't, and whomever they love.

And we want to ensure that we include people who may not identify with any of those groups, to make sure they feel they belong, too.

It's about creating a workplace where people can bring their best selves – their unique experiences, perspectives and thinking – and apply all of those attributes to the problems they're solving.

This becomes all the more important when we think about what advances in technology mean for the future of work.


As machine learning becomes more advanced, our most human qualities will become our most valuable assets.

These are characteristics such as creativity, empathy, imagination and integrity.

The ability to form meaningful connections with people.

The curiosity to ask questions, the courage to challenge entrenched ways of thinking, and the vision to lead.

In the world I have described today, we must all endeavour to hone these qualities.

To embody excellence and professionalism in all that we do.

To engender trust in democratic institutions and confidence in government.

And to apply the best of ourselves – in all our diversity – to addressing the challenges of today, and to shaping Australia's future and that of our region and the world.

1. Advice from OVB as at 30 June 2019

[1] MPs are trusted "a little bit" or "very much" by 21% of population (n=1,021). Ministers are trusted to some degree by 23% of the population. Democracy 2025report, p.21.

[2] Lowy InstitutePoll 2019, n=2,130.

[3] Australia's climate change policy chronology available atParliament website

[4] PM'smedia release, 29 June 2019.

[5] Document:National Office for the Information Economy (2002).

[6] E-Security ReviewDiscussion Paper, AGD, 2008.

[7] Includes DFAT and former AusAID's graduate programs.

[8] WIL secretariat document

[9] APSEmployment Data via APSC website 31/12/18

[10] ABSdata, 2015

Last Updated: 14 August 2019
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