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Peter Woolcott on adapting the APS to deal with complexity

28 June 2023

News and media


Peter Woolcott AO headshot

Retiring Board Chair Peter Woolcott AO has told ANZSOG staff that his time as Public Service Commissioner had been the ‘capstone’ of his career and shared his views on how the public sector needs to modernise to help it deal with the complex, interconnected challenges that Government faced.  

Beginning his public service career as a diplomat, Mr Woolcott has seen the public service/political relationship from both sides, serving as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s chief of staff before becoming Australian Public Service Commissioner and ANZSOG Board Chair in 2018. 

He has also served as Australia’s High Commissioner to New Zealand (2016–2017), Ambassador for the Environment (2014–16), and Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva and Ambassador for Disarmament (2010–2014), where he spearheaded global negotiations of the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) which has now been ratified by 113 countries and regulates the international sale of arms and armaments. 

Mr Woolcott said that the high quality of Australia’s public services were one of the reasons for the nation’s success. 

“One of the things you learn as a diplomat is just how much governance matters. It’s not iron ore or gold or what other resources you have in the ground, it’s the quality of governance and the contract you have with the people that makes a country prosper and be strong,” he said. 

“I’ve been involved in governance from both ends, from the public service end and from the ministerial end. So, when I was offered a chance to become Australian Public Service Commissioner, I grabbed it. This has been a real capstone of my career.  I have loved leading on issues ranging from integrity through to capability and workplace relations – all the more so because I knew how fundamentally important they were, and for a considerable portion of this time we were navigating through crisis”. 

He said that over the forty years of his diplomatic and public service career, issues had become more complex and public expectations of government had never been higher.  

“It is the growing interconnectedness of issues that is making them more complex to manage, and the fact that what happens overseas profoundly impacts Australia. Even domestic issues are increasingly difficult to manage through the old-fashioned siloes and ‘my agency first’ thinking – they have just become much too complex.” 

“Another thing is just the speed of technological change, including the ability to integrate data at scale and the prevalence of social media. This means that the public have enormous expectations about how they relate to government and what government can and should do for them. They also think its systems should operate more like the banking sector or Facebook in terms of their interactions.” 

“The next big change that is coming really quickly is Artificial Intelligence – and what that’s going to mean for the way we work in the future. What are the guardrails around this? We need to bring focus onto how we use it, and what the accountabilities, transparencies and securities are.” 

Focusing on stewardship, diversity and building trust

Mr Woolcott said that values of the APS were still utterly relevant and the basis for its work advising governments. 

“The long-term values of the APS are well-encapsulated in the Public Service Act: the principles of impartiality, commitment to service, accountability, respect and effectiveness. 

“We are also having important discussions now about the concept of stewardship – that you have a wider responsibility that’s not just about your work today, but about the system and leaving things better than when you found it. We are looking to make stewardship an APS value – so embedding that wider view that your responsibility is not just to your job, but to the people you serve and the wider system”.   

He said that the Robodebt Royal Commission would have critical lessons for the public service and thus included having the courage to give frank advice, to supervisors and ministers when they were wrong. There would be a strong focus on behaviours”.  

“That said, in my experience, APS leaders rarely shy away from that responsibility, and I have seen that from both sides of the fence, as a Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff and in dealing with agency head colleagues.” 

He disagreed with claims that the federal public service had become more politicised in recent years. 

“You always get some high-profile changes when a new government is elected, especially with the Head of PM&C given that the incoming Prime Minister wants to have complete confidence in that person to carry out his agenda.  

“In general, governments of both political ilks tend to adhere to the merit and transparency process for appointing agency heads. Maybe in the past you had people in positions for longer periods of time and now the candle can be shorter and a five-year term may be it. But the respect for an impartial Federal public service is still pretty strong although you would want to stay vigilant.”  

Mr Woolcott said that there was a need to change the way the public sector recruited and developed staff to increase diversity, and to recognise the modern increase in workforce mobility. 

“We need to become more porous, and allow people to come and go more frequently, and we need to think about how we change our culture to facilitate that,” he said.  

“In terms of the APS, we’ve done pretty well on female leadership – 53 per cent of the SES is female – and that’s a really strong positive. But on other aspects of diversity – First Nations, people with disability, CALD groups – in terms of raw numbers, they are represented but they are at lower levels.” 

“That will take time to fix but it will also require a different approach, and we need to learn the lessons from how we created a stream of female leaders and take that approach with these groups. Our senior leaders may have a good balance between male and female, but as a group they are still very white.” 

Mr Woolcott said that there was no doubt that integrity and trust were major issues that needed to be ‘marbled into’ the work of the public service in every aspect of policy formulation, regulation and implementation. 

“We need to think about integrity not just as ‘I shouldn’t do this’, but about institutional integrity where we ask, ‘what is the right thing to do’. We are so focused on outcome delivery because that is how we have been judged in the past, and less focused on how we achieved those outcomes. One of the things we are looking at in the federal level when giving evaluations or appraisals is not just ‘did you achieve your KPIs?’, but how you achieved them, for example did you bring people along with you?” 

ANZSOG and the future of the APS

Mr Woolcott was involved in Prime Minister Turnbull’s Office in setting up the Thodey Review of the public service and in its implementation as the Commissioner. He said that the panel’s recommendations would be a continuing basis for future change in the APS under new APS Commissioner Gordon de Brouwer who had been an integral member of the Panel.  

“ANZSOG is quite a fundamental part of the machinery of what we are trying to do, and my role as ANZSOG Chair has been almost an ancillary role to that of Public Service Commissioner,” he said. 

“It’s about making sure that ANZSOG works in real partnership with all the jurisdictions in Australia and New Zealand and in terms of being a resource, as to how we can have the leadership and capability to grapple with these issues.” 

“Our leadership needs to continue to evolve if we are to manage this complex environment. A more adaptive leadership is required, and I think ANZSOG has a very important role to play in terms of leadership development. 

“I think it also has a really crucial role in terms of networking within our Federal system. ANZSOG is unique in that you are owned by all governments. You have the ability to play a strong role in developing leadership networks between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories and helping manage what remains a really clunky part of our system of government”.  


Peter Woolcott completed his term as ANZSOG Chair at the May 24 Board Meeting, he has also recently delivered an address to the National Press Club on the future of the public service and the need for APS reform.