As chief human capital officer at the Australian Public Service Commission, Ian Fitzgerald leads human capital thinking and knowledge development, and provides a resource for the commission and agencies in dealing with human capital issues. The role includes overseeing human capital strategy development; reporting and associated benchmarking; the work of the Strategic Centre for Leadership, Learning and Development; APSJOBS; and agency capability reviews.
Meryl Stanton: You have a very broad remit, but what is the main focus of your role?
Ian Fitzgerald: I think capability, assessment and development are the unifying themes. I’m also engaged in some of the longer-term drivers of change that, over the next decade, will impact the public sector.
Some of these things are well known, such as Australia’s ageing population, while others require more exploration, including our place in Asia, how we respond to tighter budgets, how technology impacts the work we do and how we get it done.
My day job is working out what that means for leadership, the workforce and the capability of agencies now and into the future. In a practical sense, that translates into the executive leadership work we are doing on talent development, core skills and a wide range of professional development services. It also includes the capability-review program where we review the capability of departments and major agencies in terms of strategy, delivery and leadership.
I also have the State of the Service report in my world, which includes an employee census that feeds into the report. We had more than 87,000 responses in 2012, so it’s quite a significant source of information.
We do international work with key public services around the world. This is capability-development work that is funded by AusAid.
Finally, we manage APSJOBS, the recently refreshed central recruitment portal for the Australian Public Service (APS) – we are on track for five million visits in 2013. Among other outcomes, it supports the whole of Government Graduate Development Program, which develops future leaders.
MS: How do public sector issues differ from those you encountered earlier in your career in the private sector?
IF: I don’t think the differences are as profound as some might think. At the end of the day we are focusing on leadership and talent development, particularly at the senior levels, and building workforce and organisational capability.
Coming from the private sector you notice that HR is typically part of a broader corporate division within an agency. That’s a little different to some of my private sector roles where HR very clearly had a seat at the executive table at the most senior level.
I’ve met and worked with exceptional HR executives in the APS and we agree there’s more we can do as a profession to equip ourselves to contribute at the top table – and that’s something we are keen to work with AHRI on.
I believe the way to approach this is to find out what really matters to departmental secretaries and agency heads, and demonstrate the capacity to add value. We are facing a tighter financial environment over the next decade, so productivity, efficiency and effectiveness must be top of mind. Our response to that will be much better if we are effective HR business partners who can assist line managers with that change management, setting up performance systems and ensuring the performance conversations are working.
MS: How might partnering with bodies like AHRI assist in your work?
IF: When finance was going through a professionalisation process 20 years ago, that occurred in partnership with professional bodies. I think we have a similar process to go through and part of that is through the accreditation of skills and capabilities. You wouldn’t want an accountant who wasn’t accredited and I struggle to see why we would want employees working on people issues if we weren’t sure they had the capability to do that. In my view, it’s not a game for amateurs and it can certainly go badly wrong if we think HR is a job anyone can d.
MS: How do things like professionalisation and the structure of work tie together?
IF: If performance management is a focus area for us we need to build the HR capability to be able to coach people through those conversations to get the best outcome for all parties.
From my experience, I’ve noted that a manager typically deals with underperformance every couple of years. So it’s very beneficial to have with them a HR partner who really knows how to work with a manager to help lift someone’s performance, or look at alternatives.
MS: Do you have any current priorities for the way the APS represents the entire make-up of the population?
IF: The best companies have a workforce that is representative of their customer base. I do believe that the APS should be a role model and work to reflect the diversity of the citizens we serve.
I’m pretty passionate about indigenous employment. The APSC oversees the Jawun program, which involves the placement of senior public servants in indigenous communities around Australia. It’s been very well received by the communities that invite us in and it has been a powerful experience for those who’ve participated.
There’s a lot more we can do in terms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff – and people with disabilities. The statistics are not really going in the right direction, and it’s something that’s been recognised at the most senior levels in the service. To make it clear how important these issues are, there’s now a diversity council, which is a sub-committee of the secretaries board.