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APS Human Rights Network - Speech by Stephanie Foster


Like Gillian, I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we’re meeting on, and pay my respects to elders past and present, and to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island employees joining us today.

And hello to all.  It’s wonderful, as Deputy PS Commissioner, to see such a level of interest in our values and what they mean in practice.

In fact, we are just on the cusp of releasing revised guidance on “Values in Practice”, so it’s very timely from our perspective to generate some discussion.

The values encapsulate the kind of public service we are, and strive to be.  While they underwent a much needed simplification in 2013, the fundamental principles that underpin the APS have been enduring.

I don’t hear much, if any, argument about the merit of an APS that is impartial, committed to service, accountable, respectful and ethical.

But what that actually means today is full of both challenge and opportunity.  The lines are a bit blurrier in a world that’s more informal, more connected, more rapid.  Where the issues we are tackling are complex, where the answers aren’t obvious, where we’re exhorting people to experiment and adapt and throw out the rule book.

Is it okay to call your Minister by his or her first name?  To what extent should we brainstorm policies and implementation strategies on politically sensitive issues with Ministers and their staff?  What is our “advice” under these circumstances? 

Can we provide frank and fearless advice and maintain an effective working relationship with Ministers when we know that advice might be made public through FOI or through Senate orders?

Under what circumstances should we appear in public ad campaigns?

How will we respond when the public is able to rate us, and we them, Uber-style?

How do we engage with “the public” when it is representing politically motivated interests?

Is it okay to set a goal of experimenting and “failing fast” with public money?

In a war with the private sector for top talent, can we ensure our commitment to diversity is maintained?

What does “merit” really mean in our service?  How do cater for unconscious bias?  At what point does it make sense simply to appoint the person you believe will do the best job?  

Is it necessary to have the usual basis for employment as “ongoing”?  Should we still strive to be a “career-based” public service?  Does this make us impartial?  Is it realistic in today’s employment market?  Is it giving us enough diversity? Can we be agile and flexible like this?

And to come to the core of some of the questions around rights, how far does our responsibility extend in relation to advice to government, or explanations to the public?  What are our options when our personal values and our work come into conflict?  People focus on the hot topic of Immigration here, but it can cut across so many of our endeavours:  environmental issues, industry policy, urban planning, welfare policies, education standards.

I hope you’re not expecting answers, because in most cases, there isn’t a simple one.  We can’t set rules.  I think the best we can do is generate debates such as this today, get everyone thinking and talking about the opportunities and the risks, equipping every one of us to use our judgement, and to make values-based decisions.

And we’re just about to make it a whole lot more complex!  We running a contestability review into management of the APS workforce, which is focused on recruitment, separation and mobility.  We have started a series of skunkworks or experimental groups which are dreaming up some approaches which will really disrupt our system, and the “rules” we have followed to ensure impartial, ethical, accountable and respectful behaviour.

Focused on values, generally, I have a very firm view that if we have basic principles right, we will be making judgements in our everyday work that “respects all people, including their rights”.

All agencies have policies & procedures to ensure we do operate within government policy and our legal obligations both domestic and within regard to human rights.   We have mechanisms for all staff to raise any concerns, chain of command, PID, independent units in some agencies.

But what actually matters is the actions, decisions we take at all levels, all the time.

I think, as Gillian said, APS does a terrific job – I’m enormously proud of how we manage the complexity that I spoke of before. 

I am very confident we have the capacity and the will to continue this, and I look forward to a robust debate.