Updated: May 8, 2019
The Independent Review of the APS: Priorities for Change released on the 19th March predictably contained a series of recommendations for the Australian Public Service to consider as they prepare for a future that will without question be defined by unrelenting technological and social change.
A stand out of the report, which perhaps may have been lost in the broader set of recommendations, was the statement that implementation is key to meeting the aspiration outlined by the review committee. The aspiration of a trusted APS, united in serving all Australians is a simple goal but one that most will agree is an aspiration that remains a distant dream.
This statement stands out because the panel go on to mention that some of the priorities outlined in the review have been recommended in past reviews but have either not been fully implemented or their original intent has not been fully realised.
The panel go on to talk of ideas and their belief that no single idea is sufficient to drive meaningful change and that the only option for meaningful change is for the APS to ensure two key things, namely:
1. That the complete set of initiatives are taken forward as an integrated package
2. That the initiatives are owned and embedded across the APS - which will require a new and sustained approach to implementation.
This assessment suggests that efforts to create meaningful change in the past have been punctuated by an ad hoc approach and a significant degree of failure. But while the review goes on to recommend ways to prevent future failure, specifically by ensuring the six elements for success are adhered to, the report fails to take a deep dive into the reasons for these failures.
Of course, the common response will be to cast blame on the culture of the public service, to write all APS employees off as lazy and incompetent or even to accuse those at the helm of being afflicted a general malaise that renders them inferior to those who apply their skills in private sector roles.
Naturally, these assumptions, while potentially news worthy are completely incorrect and for the most part founded on an uninformed bias. At their worst they completely ignore the fact that the APS is where it is with significant input from private sector in the form of highly credentialed consultants and contractors.
To hear the statement that implementation is key will be of surprise to no one. But such a simple statement belies the difficulty that comes in implementing significant change in an organisation of some 150,000 people working across the country and around the world in 100 individual agencies and 18 separate departments.
Why the Failure?
In our experience almost all change projects begin their path to failure from the outset, which is to say they do not spend an adequate amount of time understanding the past and more specifically the path dependencies that will influence the project and subsequent change management efforts.
Understanding path dependence, in its simplest form is a study in how the decisions of the past influence the decisions we make today. In the words of Douglas Puffert Associate Professor of Economics & Business at Gordon College “Path dependence is the dependence of outcomes on the path of previous outcomes, rather than simply on current conditions.” Put simply this means that history matters and that it has a perpetual and enduring influence on our future actions.
Puffert, a leading researcher and writer in the study of path dependence goes on to say “the outcomes of path dependent processes require looking at history rather than simply at current conditions of technology, preferences and other factors that determine outcomes.”
In the case of the APS, and as acknowledged in the report, the APS, which while formed in 1901 has deep roots in the Westminster tradition, a tradition that dates back even earlier to 1867. It stands to reason that the APS with its deep connectivity to supporting Australian life, its breadth of service , relationship with an often turbulent political environment and its complex operating structures will be held captive by its own path dependence.
While the report acknowledges that this system has proved remarkably durable and evolving over time to meet the demands of different eras. It could be argued that there are few organisations in Australia with greater set of path dependencies.
Acknowledging that path dependency has likely played a significant role in previous failures not only means assigning blame to APS staff who have been charged with creating the change required is inappropriate. It means that we also have lens through which to see the future before we tackle projects.
With an ability to predict roadblocks in transformational change projects, it stands to reason that all projects should be founded in a detailed assessment of past decisions. Not to question their validity but to understand the influence they will have on current change management activities.
Minimising Future Failure
Our belief is that the APS has the ideas and they have the capability to create the change required but that process must start with understanding what paths are influencing their current decision make processes.
More importantly APS must adopt practices to understand what paths they must continue to follow, what paths they need cease following and what paths they must carve. This process will lay the foundation from which best practice project and change management can be laid.