Ian Fitzgerald FAHRI, chief human capital officer at the Australian Public Service Commission, talks about tackling HR’s core challenges.
Q. What are the changes ahead for HR in the Australian Public Service (APS)?
The National Commission of Audit had a look at HR in the APS and came to the view that the HR expense per person stood out as being high compared to private sector benchmarks. It recommended that this be more closely examined.
Looking ahead a few years, I think we’ll have a smaller HR function in the APS, but we also have to ensure it’s a better one. We need to focus on quality and the value-add as well.
The challenge for HR in the APS today is no different to other areas of the public service. There will be less money in the future and that will mean doing things differently to the way they were done in the past.
Q. What are the opportunities for HR in coming years?
The only way to improve performance while reducing cost is to build capability and improve productivity, which requires attention to structures, systems, processes, people and culture. This work is a core HR responsibility.
HR has an important role to play in setting up the accountability systems and processes, whether that’s in relation to performance management, effective delegation, absence management or ensuring safe and healthy workplaces.
And in terms of doing more with less, I think it’s about doing the right things and using technology to its full potential. The best companies have exceptional online tools for managers and employees, which free up HR from transactional activity.
The critical question is how we make available sufficient resources to facilitate technology investments that will pay back over time. It also makes sense to identify areas of common activity across the APS and think through how best to do more of this together.
The capabilities we need most right now are those which will enhance the ability of the APS to pursue effective organisational change and further build a culture characterised by accountability, responsibility and high performance.
Q. Where do you think HR can add value, particularly in the APS?
HR needs to be absolutely focused on the business problems on the minds of the executives in individual agencies. The responsibility for managing an agency rests with the agency head, and this includes the HR functions. That said, HR leaders and practitioners come together regularly to find ways to do things better where there are common needs and objectives.
We do this in relation to leadership and talent development, management and core skills programs, employee surveys and Indigenous employment issues, to name a few areas. There are also plenty of shared service arrangements across agencies that have developed over the years because it made sense, and this has become a common approach.
Q. How do you keep all of the elements you’ve discussed top of mind while being responsive to government issues and ensuring community trust and confidence in the APS?
From the earliest days of the APS, it has always been about trust and confidence. And that’s no different today than it was 110 years ago.
As I said, HR has a very important role to play in setting up the accountability systems and processes. Trust comes from having strong accountability mechanisms coupled with taking responsibility for actions.
HR as a profession can play a stronger role. HR leaders don’t need permission to gather together and think about the capabilities HR professionals need today and in the future. It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day, but if we lift our heads we can see the contribution of HR as an enabler of agency and government strategy, and, where it makes sense, we all work together.
Q. As a senior member of HR in the APS, what would you like to see happen to the profession in the future?
With regard to the National Commission of Audit’s recommendation for a closer look at the APS HR function, I’d like to think that we as leaders of the profession can add value to any review by setting out the arguments for, and ways to build, a stronger enabling function that adds real value to agency outcomes.
More generally, it’s very important that, in a downsizing environment, we don’t lose sight of the need to invest wiselyto grow individual, workforce and agency capability. In fact, the need is heightened when the business goals and resourcing strategies mean people must work differently to achieve new things. HR needs to articulate the business case for making this investment and the best ways to do it.