Integrity was the major theme of Dr Gordon de Brouwer’s first public address as APS commissioner, with a reminder to some of the country’s most powerful mandarins they are legally bound to abide by prescribed public service values.

Appealing to the beating heart of altruism and doers-of-good in the public service, de Brouwer has described the bureaucracy as full of “honourable people” with an “honourable mission”.

However, he has also alerted senior leaders that they are facing at least a decade of major reform to fix the systems, culture and processes needed to make the APS the best public service in the world.

“As part of APS reform, the government is exploring where it needs to hardwire a change in legislation to make change stick,” de Brouwer said.

“That means changing the law to make sure that the commitments and promises we make through APS reform are followed through. It’s part of strengthening systems.”

De Brouwer made his remarks at an event hosted by IPAA ACT — the professional organisation for public servants he once led as national president — on Friday.

The event concluded with an in-conversation Q&A with Attorney-General’s Department head Katherine Jones.

Other big hitters in attendance included Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo and the boss of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Andrew Metcalfe.

But de Brouwer’s message was not just intended for those powerbrokers pulling organisational levers at the highest echelons of the bureaucracy — or even necessarily an audience of policy boffins from Canberra.

The commissioner said 60% of the APS lived and worked outside of the ACT, performing important government service delivery, program management and other regulatory functions. It was this group de Brouwer said he wanted to engage and hear from directly, flagging his plans to take a road trip tour of government workplaces across the country.

“I frankly think the best way is to get out and speak to people, and go out and experience the different bits of the community, and see what people can see,” de Brouwer said.

The commissioner cited the occasions during his public service career when he had the chance to experience frontline service delivery — in Orange and Redfern in NSW – to understand what delivering for the public actually looked like.

Getting a taste for frontline service was eye-opening and “inspirational” for de Brouwer, who said it helped a policy expert like him shift his perspective. Public policy was no longer an abstract concept being discussed in a Treasury building but was a matter of people, flesh and blood, he said.

“When I was in PM&C — and this really had a big impact on me — I was a policy person working under prime minister Rudd,” de Brouwer said.

“Andrew [Metcalfe] was then secretary of the Department of Immigration and he had a program where he brought people from central agencies to experience the line [of service] upfront.

“The whole range of services delivered, there are very different activities that the government does input with the public — you just get a sense of that, and I found that it really changed my attitude and perspective,” he said.

Much has happened in the APS reform space since de Brouwer took up his new role last month, although the new gig is hardly unfamiliar terrain for the former secretary and economist who was serving a two-year term with overlapping mandates to the APSC under the new Albanese Labor government.

De Brouwer’s mission as secretary for public sector reform, based in PM&C, exactly one year ago was to support the government’s commitment to building a stronger public service. Public service minister Katy Gallagher said she wanted to see de Brouwer play a leading role in building an APS that delivered better outcomes for the community, acted as a model employer and contributed to building a fairer and more inclusive Australia.

Some of the fruits of that reform work have come to bear, with the introduction of the Public Service Amendment Bill 2023 in parliament last week, and the new independent National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) days away from becoming operational.

The amendments to the Public Service Actinclude seven substantive changes, de Brouwer explained, including adding stewardship as a value of the APS.

In a public consultation, his office received about 1,500 submissions comprising responses from around 90% of government employees, who indicated they saw themselves as stewards in the workplace and welcomed the idea that it would be stitched into the legislated values of the APS.

“Stewardship captures the notion of responsibility for institution, both in how it performs now and how it remains effective for the future,” de Brouwer said.

“Stewardship is currently in the Public Service Act, but only as a responsibility for secretaries and secretaries board.

“We each have responsibility for our bit of the system, to ensure that our bit of the institution, our workplace, is as effective as it can be, and to leave our workplaces and the things we work on better when we move on to something else,” he said.

The reforms have also required the creation of a new purpose statement, which sets out a vision for the APS for the next five years — a recommendation of the 2019 ‘Our public service, our future’ Thodey review. A deliberative committee, which de Brouwer referred to as a “public service citizens’ jury” has now set about working on developing the statement to help draw APS together and achieve more.

“Inspire, to aspire. Purpose matters to most people, and it’s a primary motivation for public servants and to people in public life in general,” de Brouwer said.

“[The deliberative committee have] come up with eight options [for the purpose statement] that they’re now testing with staff and the public. These are available on the APS reform website for you to give feedback and rank and say which ones you prefer or not,” he said.

An APS-wide vote on three final options will be held in August, to create what the commissioner said would be part of the toolkit guiding departments and agencies into the future.

Jones told the IPAA ACT audience that she doubted few in the room had not been deeply reflecting on integrity, and what it meant in their day-to-day roles, not least because of the robodebt royal commission, which is expecting the commissioner to deliver her report on July 7.

All in the public service are watching to see just how far the adverse findings included in that report will come down on key players involved in the illegal scheme, and which mandarins are facing the equivalent of the professional guillotine once it lands.

In response to a question from Jones about what his top priorities were in terms of promoting integrity in the APS, de Brouwer said capability and workplace conditions were major components of the effort to lift integrity.

“​​On integrity, it’s really that people own it, and including leaders, that they see that as actually a core part of their work,” the commissioner said.

“These things aren’t optional. You have to, by law, go about these things with a clean conscience — [ensure] that you’re doing things the right way, that you’re proud of your own conduct in the way you engage as a public servant.

“That really matters, and if you don’t have that, well frankly, you become an empty shell,” he said.

Intense APS reform focus will also be directed at governance, accountability and transparency measures, with the commissioner noting periodic capability reviews would become part and parcel of ensuring government workplaces were committed to modernisation.

“They are a device by which public servants can see and contribute to their work, how their workplaces modernise and how they improve – it’s participatory,” de Brouwer said.

“[And work] for the secretaries board to commission regular long term insights reports to explore medium and long term issues, trends and risks and opportunities [will be] a tool to build up forward-looking strategic insight, and one of the series of devices to strengthen public service outreach and understanding of the community,” he added.

APS Commissioner Dr Gordon de Brouwer speech at IPAA Secretary Series