Q&A - APS200 Virtual Forum

25 Nov 2020
Prime Minister

PHIL GAETJENS, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF PRIME MINISTER AND CABINET: Questions and we'll open up now for some and we've got the first one from someone you would recall, Prime Minister. Charles Wann.

PRIME MINISTER: The Dragons had a very bad year, Charles. 

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Prime Minister, for reminding me. The Sharks didn't do too much better. 

PRIME MINISTER: Not too much better. You're in league with Mr Pezullo there. 

QUESTION: He's got great judgement. So look. Thanks, Phil. Thanks, Prime Minister. As Phil mentioned I’m Charles Wann.  I’m the corporate operations officer for the Department of Health. People may not know, but next year my department will be 100 years old, having been established in March 1921 following the devastation brought on by the Spanish flu, another particularly nasty pandemic. So within the context of responding to terrible events such as the pandemic, we've seen opportunities for innovation. And within that context, I'd like to ask two questions. The first you've touched on. But it's in your view, what is the key to continuing to improve the public sector’s ability to deliver on the government's commitments? And secondly, what do you think is the right balance in terms of adopting flexible working in both the public and private sectors? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, thanks, Charles. Look, a couple of points. I think what I said about the metrics is really important and the contributing metrics, the outcomes, I think is really important. I think this is really helpful for ministers as well, because- I'll give you an example. In our first meeting of the Policy Implementation Committee, we were looking at the delivery on the JobTrainer program and we were also looking at the performance of the wage subsidy for apprentices. And we were able to observe that, you know, the ultimate goal was to see that we kept apprentices in place and people getting trained. But we saw that JobKeeper in many ways actually overlapped quite a bit with the apprentices. So we're getting the right result. We are keeping apprentices in place. But if you just looked at the total number of people who were on the apprentice subsidy as opposed to the JobKeeper subsidy, you might have drawn a different conclusion. And so I think making sure ministers, you can help your ministers and me a great deal by thinking more about the contributing metrics to the outcome so we can get a good sense of it. And that also needs to be conscious of timing around those metrics, too. I mean, it's like in any scheduling exercise. If we know if we don't meet A by date B, then we're not going to meet C by date D. And I think that is also critical in how you're framing the tracking of progress. 

These things can become very mechanistic if you allow them to be. But if you keep thinking about how you're reporting around delivery is focused on helping the minister understand what the hell is going on rather than, oh we sent this report and it satisfied this requirement in that climate. But that's less interesting to me. What's more interesting to me is that my minister knows exactly where the programme of delivery is at and whether they can hit their mark. So I think that's very important. I think the other thing is that the APS has to keep working on being a self-learning organisation and it sort of goes in part to your second question. And we’ve got to take out the positives of what has been, you know, a ridiculous experience over the course of the last 12 months. I mean, the way that the public service was able to swarm to solve problems, that's something I want to see more of. The fact, I mean, the latest innovation with Services Australia contacting people on DFAT’s emergency and registered overseas is a good way, it's just a tremendous way of seeing how those two agencies can actually solve the same problem. Services Australia is going to play a bigger and bigger role in my sort of world view of the public service as a delivery agency, serving many other departments. We're already seeing that and how it delivers Medicare and how it delivers social services policies and other things. But we've seen it play some other roles this year. And the digital component of that, I think is really important. 

But within departments and across departments, I think we have to have good processes for harvesting the learnings about what has worked well and lock that stuff in. But don't go, oh 2020 was pretty good, we all got on pretty well that year and did stuff and then we throw it all away and we go back to how we're doing things before. That would be a great failure and I think that would be that would disrespect the achievements of the public service have made this year. In terms of how people work, well, I don't think honestly there is any substitute for people coming together and being in a workplace environment. I think that's positive from a productivity point of view, from a collaboration point of view, and I think it's positive from a social point of view, frankly, and people's own well-being. I think it has taught us, though, about how we can be a bit more flexible on some of these things. I think there is improvements around the edges. I've always been one for flexibility in workplace arrangements and that is a very much a collaborative exercise and so I’m open to those sorts of things. And Peter and others take a similar view. But, you know, I don't think the lesson of 2020 is everyone can work from home from now on. No, we want people back in the offices working together, solving problems together. And as good as the technology is and as it's on show today, I'd rather be with you all. I'd rather be able to see you all and I'd rather engage with you all.

PHIL GAETJENS, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF PRIME MINISTER AND CABINET: Thanks, Charles. Thanks, PM. Now question from Wes Norris, from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. 

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Phil, and thank you very much for your time this morning, Prime Minister. My question is actually- sorry, Wes Norris, I’m the chief executive officer of Australian Fisheries Management Authority. My question is about the APS relationship with China. Although I should note, to be fair, I wrote it and submitted it a few days ago. And there's been some developments since then. Essentially I was curious as to whether you have any sort of centralised guidance for those of us that have direct working relationships with China in terms of government or industry. You've been very clear at the highest levels that we will stick to our priorities and uphold our rights. But down in the weeds, for those of us who are having these day to day interactions. There doesn't appear to be a lot of consistency in terms of our approach and how we go about trading off things like domestic commercial interests against our wider trade and relationship interests?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm disappointed to hear that because there's been no change in the government's view, and so I would be expecting the public service to continue to engage with their counterparts in any other country, including China, as they always have. I mean, our public officials are not burdened with the overlays of the international relations in the same way Ministers or Prime Ministers are. And I think one of the advantages that you would have is to be able to engage on the technical, on the direct, leverage on the relationships that you already have. And I would see that as an important connection, particularly at a time when there are tensions and of course, there are tensions. And in those circumstances, we rely more on these official engagements- these officials level of engagements. And I'm sure Graham up in Beijing would have a similar view. And there's just no need, I think, at the sort of level that officials are engaging at, that they just need to be drawn in to those other questions. I mean, the Chinese government has made it clear that at a public level that they are not engaging in any sort of political activity in relation to these quite specific issues that are arising in trade. Well, we take that at face value, but that is a line and a position that I would have thought that officials can actually repeat in being able to engage on the technicalities. So it's whether it's dealing with issues on barley or fisheries or any of these sorts of things where there are technical matters being raised. Well, we've just got to work the problem. That's what I'm relying on officials to do. I'm not asking officials to solve the international relations issue, that falls to me and Ministers and others. And, you know, that's a complex and it's a difficult environment. And I’d commend to all of you the speech I gave to the Policy Exchange last night., I think it was last night, night before? Which sort of sets out a number of those issues, but for you - keep up the connections and do all you can to improve them and keep the dialogue going at that level, because business and industry are relying on that to to enable us to try and mitigate the impact of some of these measures that are being introduced. So I mean, I hope that's clear. That is my and my Ministers very clear view about how officials should be engaging. Stick within the lines. Obviously, they set out what those lines are and you’d know them better than what I would in those areas and just keep working it as if and as if the other stuff is things that go on between politicians and leaders. That's not something that should have to trouble the working relationship that you're engaged in. 

PHIL GAETJENS, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF PRIME MINISTER AND CABINET:   Thanks PM, and I know you have to go and prepare for another large meeting this afternoon. So we'll let you go. But thank you for your time again. Thank you for your comments. And I think it's very useful that the public service, again, see’s you. Yes, in isolation, but at least they see you at the end of the screen and acknowledge the connection that you keep with us and the ability to give us a clear view, again, on China and on the pandemic and on the achievements that were achieved over this year. Like you, we all want a rest. And while you're still on the line, I just ask everyone if they could make sure that the PM's comments are made known to people in your organisations. And I'm sure- Well, I don't know - will this be on your media site PM?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah it will be, I mean I had a prepared text for today but as you can probably tell and as people who know me well, I don't always stay to a prepared text. And I've offered some other more personal reflections. And I'm sure the transcribers will pick that up. But I'm very happy to post it. I, there's nothing I've said in here today that I wouldn't say outside this forum. And my admiration for the public service, as you know Phil, and I want to thank you also for your leadership of the public service, I've always appreciated your style of just getting on with it and working with people and bringing people together. I think that's a tremendous approach. And I think you've had a tremendous year doing just that, Phil. And we've relied heavily on you in pulling together what has been an extraordinary, extraordinary effort from the public service. So I'm very happy for that to be the case. And I do hope people do get their break, you never know, I might get one this year. We'll see. 


PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot, cheers.