Automation and artificial intelligence present “compelling opportunities” for the Australian public sector to deliver better services to the public, but internal skills gaps need to be addressed urgently, the Thodey APS inquiry has found.
The independent review of the APS was commissioned by the government 10 months ago, to be chaired by former Telstra boss David Thodey. The review aims to “ensure the APS is fit for purpose in the decades ahead”, and will be delivering its findings and recommendations to the government midway through this year.
Mr Thodey on Tuesday released the inquiry’s interim findings, with a significant focus on digital transformation and how the APS can harness new technologies both internally and in delivering crucial public services.
“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. This means investing in the APS and setting it up to succeed – not for its own sake but for Australia’s,” Mr Thodey said in the interim report.
New technologies like automation and AI provide significant opportunities for the APS to improve the services they offer to Australians, the report said.
“Automation and digitisation can improve the experience for people interacting with the APS in areas such as grants and payments. It may also free employees from routine tasks, enabling them to spend more time on customer facing roles and other higher value activities,” it said.
“Further, it will provide opportunities to improve the service’s own enabling services, helping the whole APS deliver better outcomes. Automation and digitisation should deliver better quality and more personalised services for Australians and will create opportunities for APS employees to build new skills and take on new roles.”
But there will need to be a “joint commitment” across the APS in order to properly capitalise on these opportunities, including a whole-of-service workforce strategy.
The APS will need to adapt to these new technologies because the general public is expecting far better and more personalised services like they receive from the private sector, the report found.
“People are experiencing remarkable levels of personalised service through new technology and have to expect the same from all service providers. The public sector will face increased expectations for delivery of seamless, personalised services,” it said.
A “long-term underinvestment” in digital and data infrastructure within the APS has risked leaving it with expensive legacy system that “do not support exceptional services or enable data-led policymaking”, it found, and a new flexible operating model is needed.
“Networked enabled systems and common processes will further break down boundaries between agencies and remove barriers to collaboration. An APS that is a leader among digitally-enabled organisations will see people at all levels empowered to lead, innovate and coordinate to deliver effective outcomes. Common enabling platforms will position the service to utilise data and emerging technologies to the benefit of all,” the report said.
To achieve this, the APS needs to move to a common, shared or interoperable platforms to provide better linkages between agencies, and implement a “stable spine” of common digital platforms and policy frameworks.
Improved technology platforms are also required to give the relevant ministers up-to-date advice from the public sector “at any time and from anywhere in the world”.
Concerns over the APS’s reliance on contractors and a lack of internal digital skills was also a major issue raised in the interim report. With concerns that the APS’s underlying capacity has “weakened over time”, the public sector needs to be prioritising its own people, it said.
Of the 14,000 to 15,0000 public servants classed as tech staff, about a third are currently contractors.
“There are concerns that the APS’s capability has diminished over time, that there is too much unused potential, that specific skills gaps have emerged and that the APS’s bench strength is not what is once was,” it said.
“If not addressed, these weaknesses will be exacerbated in the coming years as the APS workforce is reshaped by technological and other trends. The approach to capability and talent development should be predicated on a sophisticated understanding of long-term workforce trends, including the opportunities flowing from technological advances.”
These concerns have been echoed by the Opposition, with shadow digital economy minister Ed Husic recently announcing plans to crack down on “digital poachers” continually stealing talented digital staff out of the APS.
Labor has welcomed Mr Thodey’s interim findings, saying it raises “important issues for the review to consider further”.
“Our hope for the review is that it will ensure Australians’ have the kind of public service they need and deserve – one that can properly deliver the services they rely on, offers frank and fearless advice to the government, and provides value for money,” shadow finance minister Jim Chalmers said in a statement.