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Innovative, collaborative and high performance government

The Australian public has come to expect a broad range of efficient and effective services and outcomes from government. The APS is responding by embracing innovation and collaboration.


In 2017, almost all APS agencies applied an approach for encouraging and/or promoting innovation. The role of senior leadership in communicating, supporting new ideas and taking on innovation champion roles was most often cited by agencies as a method they applied to encourage innovation. Other approaches included developing a collaborative culture, ensuring innovation was promoted in values and formal reward and recognition of employee contributions. Several agencies specified the importance of a formal model or framework for embedding innovative work practices.

Half of respondents to the 2017 APS employee census agree that their workgroup had implemented an innovation in the previous 12 months (Figure 11). This represents more than 46,000 individual employees. Most respondents further indicated that one of their responsibilities is to continually look for new ways to improve how they work.

Innovation starts with each and every one of us. No matter what level we are or what department or agency we work in, we can all ask ourselves how we can work differently.
Dr Martin Parkinson AC PSM, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet IPAA Annual Address to the Public Service, 6 December 2016.

Figure 11: Innovation in the APS

Examples of innovation in the APS are demonstrated by the winners of the 2017 Public Sector Innovation Awards. The departments of Agriculture and Water Resources, the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Finance were recognised for their innovative practices.

2017 Public Sector Innovation Awards

Department of Agriculture and Water Resources—Maritime Arrivals Reporting System

The Maritime Arrivals Reporting System is a fully online system that ensures incoming vessels meet biosecurity regulations to minimise the risk of pests and diseases entering Australia. This system simplifies the border crossing process while ensuring these regulations are met. It has been widely embraced by the international shipping industry.

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet—Digital First Capability

The development of an innovative online briefing system has transformed the way the department briefs the Prime Minister, breaking down barriers to collaboration. The system allows the Prime Minister and advisors to get information, ask questions and receive answers in real-time.

Department of Finance—Finance Transformation Program

The Department of Finance has undergone significant transformation and is now using new approaches to working that include more modern tools and systems. These changes have enabled the department to work more flexibly and collaboratively and realise efficiencies.7

APS agencies and work groups differ in the extent that innovation is embraced and supported. In some agencies, 100 per cent of respondents to the 2017 APS employee census indicated that employees are recognised for proposing new ways of working. In other agencies fewer than 40 per cent of respondents think the same. These results highlight further opportunities for innovation across the APS.

Ninety-one per cent of agencies are seeking to improve their capabilities related to innovation in some way over the next three years. Most commonly, agencies identified that workforce skills necessary to support innovation required the greatest level of improvement.


Collaboration is used to share skills and knowledge among APS employees. Collaboration between APS agencies is typically widespread and commonplace. Often policy or service delivery activities do not fall neatly within one agency’s remit and so collaboration is required to achieve policy and service delivery objectives.

Cross-agency forums are a way of promoting collaboration. The departments of Finance and the Prime Minister and Cabinet have formed a community of practice for portfolio, program and project management across the APS. The community of practice enables employees to share, learn and promote ideas in these areas. Other examples include a forum for small APS agencies and a community of practice looking at performance management.

Many APS agencies work with state and territory counterparts to deliver policy outcomes for and services to the Australian people. Some of these are specific initiatives of the Council of Australian Governments.

Communications, collaboration, connectivity

Communications professionals from across APS agencies gather each quarter for an informal knowledge sharing network known as ComCAN. This network promotes better practice and awareness of communication approaches and digital media tools that can be shared among agencies.

ComCAN is about coordinating APS efforts in the communications and social media space. It enables communications professionals to discuss hot topics affecting government departments and agencies from a media perspective.

The APS also regularly collaborates with private sector organisations. Numerous examples exist of government agencies and private sector entities working together and sharing resources on key projects. For example, under Australia’s Cyber Security Strategy, collaboration between private industry, the APS and law enforcement agencies is key to advancing and protecting Australia’s interests online.

Employee engagement

Employee engagement is linked to productivity. Agencies with higher levels of employee engagement are more likely to be productive. Ongoing dialogue with employees through effective workplace relations practices can foster greater engagement. Similarly, engaged employees are more likely to be innovative. Highly engaged workplaces tend to be more diverse and more attractive to job seekers. Across the APS, employees report high levels of engagement with their job, the team they work with, their immediate supervisor and their agency. These levels of engagement have remained consistently high since 2014 (Figure 12).

Figure 12: Employee engagement, 2014 to 2017

Ninety-five per cent of APS agencies employ strategies to maximise employee engagement. A common approach is to monitor engagement scores through annual APS employee census results. This enables agencies to identify concerns with and develop plans to improve engagement scores. Other strategies include  providing employees with learning and development opportunities and ensuring agencies have a supporting and enabling culture. An emphasis on the importance of collaboration and consultation and having a visible leadership presence are other approaches.

Talent management

APS agencies recognise the importance of effective talent management. Ninety-four per cent of agencies are looking to improve their capability in this area over the next three years. The APSC coordinates APS-wide talent management activities in partnership with agencies and publishes guides and materials to inform internal talent management practices.

High Potential Identification Questionnaire

Engagement with APS agencies about talent management indicated the need for a tool to assist with the identification of talent at the executive levels. This year the APSC, in conjunction with five pilot agencies, trialled a tool called the High Potential Identification Questionnaire. The questionnaire was developed by external experts based on a robust theoretical framework and experience with private sector talent management.

The trial has generated useful learning and discussion in agencies that have engaged with the tool. The experience has also provided valuable insights into the importance of robust performance information and career conversations.

The APSC is refining guidance material and an implementation toolkit to help agencies make the best use of the High Potential Identification Questionnaire.

Performance management

Effective performance management is an ongoing challenge in the APS. Care is needed to ensure agencies do not focus on process at the expense of creating a positive performance culture.8

The results of the 2017 APS employee census confirm that satisfaction with and confidence in approaches to performance management is low across the APS.  The APS needs to address how it promotes, manages and measures performance.

Approaches to performance management are diverse. Some agencies focus on formal approaches in which efforts to support improvement in individual performance are tied to well-defined performance management systems. Other agencies place less emphasis on formal systems and instead nominate frequent, regular conversations between managers and employees, access to resources, learning and development opportunities and coaching for managers in performance conversations.

Employees’ understanding of performance expectations are also diverse. More than 80 per cent of respondents in some APS agencies believe the performance expectations of their job are clear and unambiguous. In other agencies, less than 50 per cent think this.

APS agencies are taking steps to increase the effectiveness of their performance management strategies. Sixty-four per cent of agencies have revised performance management policies in the previous 12 months and 88 per cent have plans to do so over the next year. Almost all APS agencies have strategies in place to support individual performance improvement.

Department of Communications and the Arts—Performance Conversations Framework

Throughout 2016–17, the Department of Communications and the Arts continued to implement and mature its Performance Conversations Framework, which underpins its high-performance culture. The department continued to build the capability of employees and managers to engage in forward-looking growth conversations, and intervene early to support those not meeting performance expectations.

The 2017 APS employee census results show that in comparison to the entire APS, the department’s employees were more likely to:

  • engage in formal and informal performance feedback
  • agree that this feedback improves performance
  • agree that expectations are clear and that performance management has been useful for their development
  • agree that performance discussions help their understanding of what is required and that their agreement reflects what they are expected to deliver on a day-to-day basis.

The Performance Conversations Framework was recognised by the Institute of Public Administration Australia, the APSC, The Mandarin, the Deputy Secretaries Reform Group, the Australian Government Leadership Network and the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO). The ANAO highlighted their effective engagement with, and resolution of, cases of underperformance as a leading example of good practice in its report Managing Underperformance in the Australian Public Service tabled in May 2017.

Australian Public Service Commission—Ripple

The APSC’s smartphone app, Ripple, is a conversation starter focused on performance management. The concept is simple: one question a day on performance issues is delivered to a smartphone, with accumulative APS-wide results available immediately. The aim is to help employees think through what is important to them about their job and make them better at it. It is a simple approach to a complex topic built on the idea that productive dialogue begins with a good question.

The pilot for Ripple started in August 2016 with 2,000 randomly selected APS employees spread across 30 agencies. More than 1,000 employees answered a question every day about performance issues with 1,400 employees answering 75 per cent or more of the questions. The process was designed to fit with employee daily work routines.

Benchmarking surveys showed participants made observable improvements in 13 performance indicators. Improvements included an increased awareness of their own capability strengths and weaknesses and improved motivation and engagement.9

Management of underperformance

Effective management of underperformance is fundamental to any performance management framework.

Overall, 41 per cent of respondents to the 2017 APS employee census do not believe their agency deals with underperformance effectively. In some agencies, more than half of respondents hold this view. In other agencies, it is less than five per cent.

APS agencies recognise the impact of underperformance on productivity and morale. Eighty-three per cent are acting to improve underperformance management. For most, reviewing policy and practices is key. Such policies work alongside providing support, education and coaching to those who are managing underperformers. Other actions include attempting to intervene early before underperformance becomes problematic, moving to detailed metrics linked to agency corporate plans and participating in underperformance community of practice pilots.

Human labour working alongside digital labour

The APS uses digital technologies to support the work of its employees. This includes machine learning and augmented intelligence. New and emerging digital technologies will have implications for how the APS works.

Digital transformation

The APS recognises the importance of digital transformation. Work has been undertaken to ensure the APS is well placed to seize future digital technology opportunities. The Digital Transformation Agency helps government agencies undergo digital transformation. It has wide-ranging responsibilities to help lead transformation across government and to coordinate the delivery of the government’s digital transformation agenda. This agenda aims to improve the speed and simplicity of interacting with government through any channel. It also seeks to ensure that resources are deployed with agility and that their performance can be better measured.

In line with the digital transformation agenda, APS agencies are committed to improving their capabilities in this area. Ninety-two per cent are seeking to improve capabilities related to digital transformation in some way over the next three years. Most commonly, agencies identify workforce skills as the capability requiring the greatest level of improvement.

APS agencies are also seeking to ensure their digital information management processes are sufficient for fully realising digital labour technology benefits. The Digital Continuity 2020 Policy released by the National Archives of Australia, complements the digital transformation agenda. The policy aims to ‘support efficiency, innovation, interoperability, information re-use and accountability by integrating robust digital information management into all government business processes.’ In mid-2017, 91 per cent of agencies indicated they are on track to meeting the policy’s outcomes. Some agencies are excelling in the management, use and reuse of digital information as signified by the winners of the 2017 National Archives Awards for Digital Excellence.

Digital Continuity 2020 Policy

Principle 1—Information is valued

By 2020 agencies will manage their information as an asset, ensuring it is created, stored and managed for as long as required, taking into account business requirements and other needs and risks.

Principle 2—Information is managed digitally

By 2020 agencies will transition to entirely digital work processes. This means that business processes including authorisations and approvals are completed digitally, and that information is created and managed in digital format.

Principle 3—Information is interoperable

By 2020 agencies will have interoperable information, systems and processes to improve information quality and enable information to be found, managed, shared and re-used easily and efficiently.

Source: http://www.naa.gov.au/information-management/digital-transition-and-digi...

2017 National Archives Awards for Digital Excellence

The National Archives Awards for Digital Excellence recognise and promote excellence and innovation in the management, use and reuse of digital information by Australian Government agencies.

The winners are examples of government agencies that meet public needs, improve efficiency and productivity, and work to international standards in digital information management.

Winner for the large agency category (more than 1000 employees)

Department of Industry, Innovation and Science for their case study: User-centric approach to digital documents management.

Winner for the medium agency category (between 200 and 1000 employees)

Geoscience Australia: National Offshore Petroleum Information Management System.

Commendations for the medium agency category

Australian Institute of Marine Science: AIMS Research Data Security Project.

Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre: Digital ‘People’.

Source: National Archives of Australia (http://www.naa.gov.au/information-management/digital-transition-and-digital-continuity/digital-excellence-awards/index.aspx)

Digital Transformation—National Museum of Australia

The National Museum of Australia has worked over the last three years to meet its obligations under the National Archives of Australia’s Digital Transition Policy and the Digital Continuity 2020 Policy. It has done so by introducing and implementing ‘RM8’, an electronic records management system.

The Museum holds standard corporate records typical of APS agencies. It also holds a collection of records unique to its business. It manages information and resources relating to curatorial and collection management and its Indigenous Repatriation program. These information types can present new challenges for electronic management systems, particularly with confidentiality, cultural sensitivities and appropriate access.

A key component of the project was a cultural change program conducted within the Museum to ensure employees recognised the importance of complying with the digital transition policies. Cultural change was achieved through education sessions on why recordkeeping was so important and why it needed to comply with National Archives of Australia requirements.

The Museum now creates, captures and stores 95 per cent of its information in an electronic document and records management system or certified corporate management system.

Augmented intelligence

Artificial intelligence versus augmented intelligence

Artificial intelligence attempts to replicate human brain function. Augmented intelligence harnesses IT to enhance human intelligence. Augmented intelligence systems can assist with sourcing information, teaching and learning, risk management, decision making, and problem solving.

APS agencies are using augmented intelligence technologies and applications for improved productivity and efficiency. As these technologies become more commonplace, the APS will deploy a larger number of them across a broader range of applications.

Augmented intelligence technologies enhance, rather than replicate, human intelligence. They assist humans to make decisions, source information, teach and learn, manage risk, and solve problems. Augmented intelligence can support employees to perform tasks quicker and better. It can even automate some tasks, freeing up employees to devote time and effort to other activities.

Numerous agencies are already applying augmented intelligence technologies to improve productivity and efficiency. For example, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Department of Social Services use machine learning suites and other analytical systems to support decision making. The Australian Taxation Office and Royal Australian Mint use augmented intelligence technologies to assist their work in vastly different ways.

Australian Taxation Office—Alex

Clients of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) are demanding more contemporary engagement channels so they can self-serve 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Alex, the ATO’s virtual assistant, helps clients obtain answers to general questions and navigate the ATO website.

Alex has been trained in a broad range of general tax topics. While she is not artificially intelligent, she learns from every interaction through natural language processing, reasoning and detailed reporting. More people are interacting with Alex, asking her different and more complex questions. This allows her to keep learning and improving.

Alex has held more than 1.6 million conversations with clients and boasts a first contact resolution rate of around 83 per cent, well above the industry average of 60 to 65 per cent. She also has a deflection rate of 75 per cent which means her support has stopped a client from needing to call the ATO. By helping clients with general enquiries, Alex frees up contact centre employees to assist clients with more complex enquiries. In her first year of work, call volumes dropped for the first time.

The ATO is now working with other Australian government, and state and territory government agencies, to promote a consistent virtual assistant experience across government. IP Australia was the first additional agency to adopt the Alex brand and saw a call reduction of 10 per cent.

Royal Australian Mint—robots

Augmented intelligence is fundamental to the Royal Australian Mint, which produces up to two million coins per day. The Mint employs approximately 170 employees. It also ‘employs’ two robots, Robbie and Titan, who work in the circulating coin hall. Titan is employed to lift drums of coins weighing about 750 kg, while Robbie boxes bags of finished coins.

The Mint has three automatic guided vehicles named Florin, Pence and Penny. These vehicles have replaced traditional forklifts and are programmed to move drums and packages of coins. With their strength and skills, the robots allow human employees to concentrate on maintenance and quality checks.

Source: Royal Australian Mint (https://www.ramint.gov.au/sites/default/files/Robots%20at%20the%20Mint.pdf)

Considerations for the APS

As digital labour technologies emerge APS agencies will consider how best to get human and digital labour to work together.

Routine or manual tasks are most likely to be automated by digital labour. These technologies will free employees to focus on more abstract and cognitive tasks. Some predominantly routine or manual tasks may disappear over time. However, others will take their place, including those required to support digital technologies.

Some APS agencies already use machine learning and other analytical systems to support decision making. Legislation was amended to address the role these systems play in determining service or policy outcomes. As other agencies introduce similar systems, they will also need to consider changes to relevant legislation.

7 Institute of Public Administration Australia, ACT Division—http://www.act.ipaa.org.au/innovation-winners-17

8 http://www.act.ipaa.org.au/innovation-winners-17

9 http://www.apsc.gov.au/working-in-the-aps/performance/ripple

Last reviewed: 
31 May 2018