Chapter 7: Assessing and developing capability

Chapter 7: Assessing and developing capability



 ...the nature of work in the public sector is changing rapidly, and the capabilities of public servants and those who lead them are constantly required to adjust.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development103

The skills and abilities of individual employees, together with an organisation’s structures, systems, processes and culture, are critical to an organisation’s ability to achieve its current and future objectives. While these are all drivers of organisational performance, at present there is no complete picture of the capability of individuals or organisations across the APS.

APS agencies have traditionally invested in learning and development (L&D) activities as a primary means for developing the capabilities of their employees. This continues to be the case, and APS employee census data shows that APS employees are broadly positive about the support for learning and development they receive.

A commitment to and investment in L&D aligns with pillar two of the OECD’s Recommendation on Public Service Leadership and Capability: ‘Skilled and effective public servants’.104 Among other things, this pillar emphasises the importance of a learning culture and environment in developing the capability that a public service requires to respond to the changing nature of work and community expectations. The Recommendation also points out that the capabilities of an effective public service—and effective public servants—are not static.

Assessing capability

The maturity of processes and structures for assessing employee capability varies across the APS. In the 2019 APS agency survey, 91 per cent of APS agencies reported using   a capability framework when considering individual employee capability, with at least half using the APS Integrated Leadership System. Agencies reported using capability frameworks primarily for recruitment and performance management activities; it is not clear whether capabilities unrelated to an employee’s current role (‘latent’ capabilities) are captured or considered.

Almost all agencies reported challenges in assessing and tracking the capability of individual employees, with the most common difficulties relating to resource constraints and the functionality of HR systems. The capability and capacity of supervisors to assess and track the capability of their direct reports was also raised by a number of agencies. Although some agencies have embarked on extensive capability mapping exercises, it is not clear how many agencies have an accurate picture of existing capabilities—and therefore capability gaps—of their employees. This uncertainty is replicated at system-wide level.

Integrated Job Role Profiles—Department of Home Affairs

The Vocational Competency Framework was established as part of the department’s commitment to ongoing investment in its people and to meet future workforce requirements. The Vocational Competency Framework and Integrated Job Role Profiles are key to informing the department’s approach to professionalising the workforce. They align recruitment, development, performance and career pathways.

The Integrated Job Role Profiles identify key responsibilities of the job role at different classification levels, as well as the role-specific knowledge, skills and attitudes/attributes required to be effective in a role. The profiles also reflect the future workforce state where it is known.

Since July 2017, the department has worked across the business to progress the development of high priority job roles that are specific to the department. This work has created significant value for business areas, particularly those that are driving an agenda of professionalisation across their workforce. Job role profiles provide business areas with opportunities to better plan their workforce requirements; recruit the right skills, knowledge and attributes; better inform development of performance goals; and inform learning and development planning and career conversations.

To date, 53 per cent of the workforce has a completed Integrated Job Role Profile. A further 20 per cent are anticipated for completion by June 2020.

The most common immediate L&D priorities identified by APS agencies through the 2019 APS agency survey related to leadership and management skills and digital/data capability. Technical skills specific to particular agencies and roles were also an area of focus, along with professional APS capabilities such as policy development.

For the first time, the 2019 APS employee census asked employees about current skill or capability gaps within their immediate workgroup (Figure 7.1). More than half of respondents indicated that gaps exist. This figure rose to more than 70 per cent for SES respondents. The two most commonly reported gaps related to people management and leadership and data capability and so were broadly aligned to agency L&D priorities. Almost 40 per cent of respondents also suggested that written communication was an area of concern.

Figure 7.1: APS employee perceptions of skill or capability gaps in their immediate workgroup

Figure 7.1 is a bar graph that presents 2019 APS employee census results on APS employee perceptions of skill or capability gaps within their immediate workgroup.

Note: As respondents could select more than one option, percentages may not total 100 per cent.

Source: 2019 APS employee census

Current learning and development approaches

L&D encompasses a wide range of activities designed to improve employee capabilities. Capabilities comprise the technical skills and knowledge people have, as well as their attributes, attitudes and behaviours.

Learning activities can target specific skills in a short period to meet an immediate need or they can be designed to achieve broader capability requirements over a longer period. Learning activities extend beyond formal classroom learning to include on-the-job training, development opportunities (such as taskforces, conferences, secondments) and mentoring. Responsibility for the professional development of APS employees is shared between the agency, supervisor and the individual employee.

APS agencies are responsible for ensuring that employees can access relevant and appropriate development activities. With this devolved responsibility there is no whole-of-APS data on L&D expenditure; however, 65 per cent of 2019 APS employee census respondents indicated their workplace provided access to effective L&D. This represents a slight increase from the 2018 figure of 63 per cent.

The 2019 APS agency survey sought agency views on challenges to providing effective L&D. The most commonly reported were time and budget pressures and delivering programs to geographically dispersed staff.

Immediate supervisors also play an important part in enabling employees to access and make the most of L&D activities. Employee perceptions of supervisors on this were generally positive, especially support for attendance at learning programs and opportunities to apply learnings in the workplace. However, as outlined in Chapter 6, APS employee census results suggest that supervisors could invest more in coaching and career conversations with their staff The role of supervisors in this regard is a clear focus of the recent amendments to the Commissioner’s Directions.

Employees are also responsible for engaging fully in their own capability development.  The 2019 APS employee census indicated that most APS employees were aware of their own development needs, were accessing L&D solutions, and were seeking opportunities to apply learnings in the workplace (Figure 7.2). Just over half of 2019 APS employee census respondents reported spending time out of working hours building their capability.

Figure 7.2: APS employee perceptions related to individual learning and development

Figure 7.2 is a bar graph that presents 2019 APS employee census results on APS employee perceptions of their individual learning and development needs.

Source: 2019 APS employee census

The impact of learning activities extends beyond the immediate capability that is targeted. Analysis of 2019 APS employee census data revealed that positive perceptions about access to development programs was associated with higher engagement, innovation and job satisfaction. L&D is not the only contributing factor to these higher perceptions, but the relationship adds weight to the value for agencies to provide access to effective learning programs for their employees.

The devolved approach to APS workforce management means that most capability development across the APS is organised and managed at agency level. Priorities for Change highlighted this fragmented approach to L&D across the APS, and suggested it had the potential to undermine organisational performance.

The APS-wide workforce strategy under development will likely include a system-wide perspective on workforce capability, supporting a more integrated approach to L&D across the APS. An important first step in this will be to share learnings across the service and consolidate understanding of current capabilities and emerging needs.

In the meantime, the APSC continues to play an important role in fostering high-quality L&D initiatives across the public service, and it encourages and supports a broad approach to L&D. The APSC maintains a strong focus on core public sector skills and leadership development, to complement agency offerings and profession-specific formal and informal learning. The APSC is also the custodian of the Integrated Leadership System, Work Level Standards, and capabilities for senior APS roles.

The APSC’s core skills programs cover a number of capability areas under four broad headings:

  • Working with People
  • Working with Government
  • Management Skills
  • Decision Making and Judgement.

A total of 466 learning programs under these headings were delivered to more than 8,000 participants during 2018–19. Feedback on the value and relevance of the programs  was very positive and participants also reported significant capability shifts as a result of their attendance.

Diplomatic Academy—Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

The Diplomatic Academy is a learning and development hub within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is a centre of excellence for sharing best practice in modern diplomacy and a valuable resource for all APS employees working to advance Australian interests internationally.

The Academy offers learning opportunities to build international engagement capability across the APS and state and territory governments. It also builds collaborative links with other academies and foreign ministries, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, to exchange best practice and resources on training and to provide additional learning activities and programs for staff in Australia and around the world.

The Academy provides formal and informal digital and face-to-face learning across nine faculties, including trade, investment and economic diplomacy, international policy and strategies, international development, diplomatic tradecraft and language.

Additional learning opportunities include lunchtime seminars for the APS, delivered by eminent academics and experts on the full range of international policy issues. Bespoke courses for APS agencies are also offered to meet specific interests and needs. For example, the Academy recently delivered Diplomatic Protocol and Representation Skills training for officers of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science in preparation for the November 2019 Group on Earth Observation Conference and Ministerial Summit. Another example is the one-day multilateral diplomacy workshop provided to the Department of Health in preparation for their attendance at the World Health Assembly.

The Academy has also developed Ngunnawal language workshops as part of its 2019 Understanding Australia curriculum. These workshops teach the Ngunnawal language Acknowledgement of Country. In addition to departmental staff, 11 APS secretaries and more than 20 APS agency heads and SES have participated.

Uptake of learning opportunities by departmental and other agency staff has been significant. During 2018–19, over 1,000 classes and seminars were provided under the auspices of the Academy, with more than 8,000 participants. Feedback on activities offered by the Academy is regularly collected and used to refine and better target course offerings.


In an APS context, mobility can be understood as the movement of capability, skills and experiences within and between APS agencies, other jurisdictions, and the private and not-for-profit sectors. Mobility of employees supports continuous development of the workforce by enabling employees to move freely within and through the APS system throughout their career.

Mobility in the public sector is important. The APS must be more permeable and mobile to foster diversity of thinking, the contestability of ideas and capability uplift. Mobility also plays an important part in enabling the APS to direct resources towards complex challenges quickly and efficiently.

The 2019–20 Budget Paper No. 4 underlined the importance of mobility in fulfilling  the core purpose of the APS: ‘Enhanced mobility will allow the public sector to draw on a broad base of experience when developing programs, designing and delivering services
for citizens, and providing advice to the Government’.105  The Unlocking Potential Review suggested some specific individual and organisational benefits of targeted mobility:

  • exposing employees to different approaches to policy development, service delivery, leadership styles, and management practices
  • helping to build employee networks, which in turn can forge closer partnerships across agencies
  • providing opportunities for employee development and building their range of experiences.106

Successive reviews of the APS have commented on relatively low rates of APS mobility and emphasised the importance of addressing barriers. Despite this, intra-agency mobility rates remain low across the APS. During 2018–19, only 3.6 per cent of ongoing employees moved to another agency within the APS either through a permanent transfer, promotion, or temporary transfer.

Over the past 20 years the mobility rate has remained fairly steady, only fluctuating between 1.5 per cent and 3.6 per cent. It is therefore unsurprising that a significant majority (70.1 per cent) of ongoing APS employees have only worked in one agency across their APS career. This also aligns with results of the 2019 APS employee census—only 29 per cent of respondents agreed their agency provides opportunities for external mobility.

Movements between agencies are a relatively small part of the whole-of-APS mobility picture. While internal mobility data is not recorded in APSED, for the first time, the 2019 APS employee census included a question on internal mobility. Sixteen per cent of respondents indicated they had taken an internal opportunity in 2018–19.

The traditional view of mobility within the APS has focused on individuals moving internally and across agency boundaries. This is supported by 2019 APS employee census data—only 0.7 per cent of respondents indicated they had taken a mobility opportunity outside the Commonwealth public sector in the past year.

There is a growing recognition of the benefits of a more porous APS, characterised by greater cross-jurisdictional and cross-sectoral mobility opportunities for APS employees. In light of this, a group of APS agencies is working with the private sector and state and territory governments to broaden the service’s view of mobility to include movement to and from the different tiers of government, the private sector and the not-for-profit sector.

While mobility can deliver positive outcomes for the APS, it needs to be balanced. International experience indicates that too much, or poorly targeted, mobility can have an adverse impact, through added expense, disruption and loss of subject matter expertise. More work is required to ensure that mobility is an enabler of end results for the Government and the people of Australia.

Organisational capability

The 21st century Public Servant … needs organisations which are fluid and supportive rather than siloed and controlling.

Reimagining the Future Public Service Workforce107

Organisational capability is more than an aggregate picture of the capabilities of individual employees. It also includes the structures, systems, processes and cultural settings that enable employee capability to be directed towards achieving organisational objectives. In short, organisational capability enables organisational performance.

While the introduction of the PGPA Act initiated an APS reform process to improve the way delivery of organisational outcomes is measured, there has not been a comparable effort to assess organisational capability and measure its growth.

The APS employee census captures various data that can contribute to assessing capability at agency level. Each year, agencies receive tailored reports providing detail and analysis of agency-level APS employee census results. This information, in conjunction with data available on the online APS employee census portal, can inform agency-specific capability initiatives and interventions.

Similar to previous years, the 2019 APS employee census showed significant variation between agencies on most questions relating to organisational capability. In particular, agency size tended to be a key differentiator of employee perceptions, with smaller agencies typically presenting more positive views than larger agencies. However, some organisational capability questions scored low in absolute terms across all agencies (Figure 7.3).

Figure 7.3: APS employee perceptions of organisational capability, by agency size

Figure 7.3 is a bar graph that displays 2019 APS employee census results on APS employee perceptions of organisational capability. Results are displayed by agency size.

Source: 2019 APS employee census

A more complete assessment of an agency’s organisational capability can be undertaken through a formal organisational capability review. Organisational capability reviews provide a strategic and independent assessment of an agency’s capability. They consider how an organisation aligns processes, systems and the expertise of its people to deliver on objectives.

Between 2012 and 2016, the APSC delivered a program of capability reviews across a number of departments and agencies.108  Analysis of reports prepared through this program provided an indicator of whole-of-APS systemic challenges at that time, and highlighted opportunities for the APS to develop, mature and build on organisational strategic capability.

While the program of capability reviews is not currently active, some agencies have commissioned independent reviews to assess their organisational effectiveness and identify opportunities to best position themselves for the future. The   Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade), for example, initiated a capability review in October 2017 to evaluate the effectiveness of its client service, engagement and collaboration approaches. This strategic assessment catalysed an extensive and ongoing organisational change process to assist the agency to meet current challenges, measure progress, and build future organisational capability.

Capability review implementation—Austrade

Austrade undertook an organisational capability assessment in 2017–18 to evaluate current capability and future capability needs. The assessment considered strategy, operating model, processes, systems, and Austrade’s collective expertise. The resulting report highlighted an unprecedented rate of change in Austrade’s and its clients’ operating environments and made a number of recommendations for Austrade to remain relevant and continue to add value for current and future clients.

In response, Austrade developed and has begun to implement a five-year strategy and transformation plan to ensure the organisation can respond, grow and deliver in a time of rapid and ongoing change. Austrade’s journey started with setting a shared purpose and clear vision to take the agency forward and transform the work they do, who they do it with, and when and how they do it.

One strategic priority has been to strengthen client service delivery. To better understand and identify client needs, Austrade adopted agile and human-centred design techniques to help improve services and design new offerings. Recognising it could not deliver all client needs on its own, Austrade has started to move beyond its traditional operating model to embrace the talents of other organisations through a networked approach.

Through the capability review and change process that followed, Austrade has developed a clear understanding of ts role, its client needs, and capability needs to help the agency best prioritise its resources and effort, establish new ways of working, and partner effectively with others.

‘As Austrade prepares to celebrate 100 years of promoting Australian products and services around the globe, we are taking stock of our core business and the changing needs of our clients. Technological advances, the rise of online commerce and significant shifts in the international trading environment are creating challenges and opportunities for Australians who export – or who are thinking of exporting for the first time.

On the flip-side we also identify and attract productive foreign investors who can contribute to Australia’s competitiveness. We are embracing ‘digital-first’ thinking to extend the reach of our services, and piloting a new model of bespoke client service to maximise our impact on Australian exporters’ outcomes. This is about client needs and outcomes, which directly contribute to the prosperity of our nation.’

Dr Stephanie Fahey, Chief Executive Officer, Austrade

In August 2019, the APSC finalised its own organisational capability review. The review’s findings provide a robust assessment of current organisational capabilities and operational challenges. They also highlight key strategic initiatives to strengthen internal processes and systems and improve organisational outcomes. The review process initiated a valuable conversation across the APSC about what the Commission needs to do to prepare for the future. Implementation of the review’s recommendations will progress throughout 2019–20.

Future considerations

As the Secretaries Board leads the APS through change over the years ahead, a whole-of-service perspective on organisational capability will become increasingly important. Organisational capability reviews, based on a common evaluation framework, are a useful mechanism for highlighting organisational strengths and challenges at system level. The reviews also enable identification and sharing of innovative and successful agency-level reform initiatives that have the potential to be scaled up to drive improvement across the APS.

As outlined in Chapter 5, the APS-wide workforce strategy that is under development will play an important part in driving a system-wide approach to a number of individual and organisational capability areas. The workforce strategy represents a step towards a more holistic approach to APS workforce management and shared ownership of the strategy, along with shared accountability for implementation, will be essential to its success.

The APS is grappling with increasingly complex and inter-related policy, regulatory and service delivery issues that require system-wide perspectives, and this trend will continue. In this environment, a robust engagement with organisational capability across the service will be a critical factor in the ability of the APS to fulfil its serving responsibilities to the Government and the people of Australia.

103 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2019). Recommendation on Public Service Leadership and Capability.

104 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2019). Recommendation on Public Service Leadership and Capability

105 Commonwealth of Australia. (2019). Budget 2019–20. Budget Paper No. 4: Agency Resourcing 2019–20, 11.

106 Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Public Service Commission. (2015). Unlocking potential: If not us, who? If not now, when? Australian Public Service Workforce Management Contestability Review.

107 Dickinson, H., Needham, C., Mangan, C. & Sullivan, H. (2018). Reimagining the Future Public Service Workforce, 10. Singapore: Springer

108 Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Public Service Commission. Capability Review Program.