A transformed workforce

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Australia’s Government Department of Finance was recognized at the 2017 Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) Public Sector Innovation Awards for its Finance Transformation Program. Here, the Federal Government & Public Sector Leader for EY in Australia, Andrew Metcalfe, who was on the awards judging panel, speaks with Rina Bruinsma, the Department’s first assistant secretary.

Andrew Metcalfe: Tell me about your new operating model. What makes it innovative?

Rina Bruinsma: Our operating model is designed to help us make decisions about the relative priorities of the department – from a whole-of-department perspective – and to allocate staff with the right capabilities quickly to deliver on these priorities.

The new model moves away from traditional hierarchical teams, creating a mobile workforce that can be deployed based on capability and availability – unique in the Australian Public Service. We have a mobile workforce of around 230 staff, called our project deployment team. When these staff complete their current project, they are matched to another based on the department’s priorities.

We also use a “surge” model where we train staff in certain activities of the business so that at peak times they can come in to help out. This is particularly useful when delivering the federal budget.

AM: What process did you use to design the model?

RB: The model was designed with the participation of more than 400 staff through co-design sessions that we call test labs. Staff from all levels of the organization came up with solutions to address specific problems and to test ideas.

The test labs provided a semi-structured environment for open and honest discussion. A graphic facilitator recorded the conversations, allowing the final design to be captured in a visual form.

We also used Q&A sessions, surveys and reference groups to consult with staff. The department continues to refine the model in consultation with staff. We are open to admitting when things are not working well, or where adjustment is needed.

AM: What were the biggest challenges?

RB: In finance, we are used to deadlines, certainty, facts and figures. Transformational change, however, is iterative and cultural change takes time.

You can’t manage transformational change in a linear way with a predetermined end state. Change is happening through trial and error and the end state is emerging as we go.

We all had to learn new behaviors as part of the change process. We learned that it is okay to take risks, to adjust our direction and to learn from our errors.

AM: What can other agencies learn from your experience?

RB: When it comes to transformation projects, business areas need to think about priorities from a whole-of-department perspective and be willing to “let go” of human resources to support higher priority activities.

We set up a new way of prioritizing our work that asked business areas to identify activities that can be ceased or modified, and also to put forward business cases for proposed new projects.

You have to set aside self-interest, trusting that when you have a significant resourcing need, others will do the same.

Learn more about the 2017 IPAA Public Sector Innovation Awards.

Next interview: Commercializing research