Capability in the Public Service

Achieving High Performance in a Changing World 

Increasingly government is less involved in the delivery of public services, with the contracting out of these services leading to them being delivered by non-governmental and private organisations. Consequently, there have been significant changes to both the organisation of public services and the workforce requirements of the public service.   

At the same time, there have been moves towards achieving high performing government in ways that include adopting greater organisational agility, supporting innovation, greater intra- and inter-organisational coordination and collaboration, implementing systems approaches and adopting more flexible work practices. 

All these initiatives require high level of management and leadership capacity. In this theme we bring together work on issues such as human resource systems, performance management, organisational culture, workforce development and project management to explore the types of changes that are taking place in relation to the capability of public services and the mechanisms required to deliver better outcomes.  

Of particular note are the changing nature of work and the capabilities needed for the future. 


Our research is aimed at delivering: 

  • enhanced management and leadership skills 
  • more effective change management 
  • improved training and development outcomes 
  • enhanced and integrated human resources policies and practices. 

Competitive Advantage

While recognising the importance of senior leadership, our researchers in this area seek to understand how to support the development of organisational capability through the development of leadership and managerial skills at all levels of the organisation. Starting with the premise that the focus should be on attaining high performance, we work with organisations to better understand their capability system and how it can lead to improved outputs and outcomes. Our focus on partnering with organisations and undertaking applied research helps build the knowledge and skills necessary for practitioners to implement our research findings; this is also aided by our research informing our Executive Education courses. 

Successful Applications

Professor Deborah Blackman, Professor Michael O’Donnell and Dr Fiona Buick developed the Strengthening the Performance Framework for the Commonwealth Government. The partnership with the Australian Public Service Commission resulted in: amended Public Service Commissioner’s Directives, a diagnostic tool, revised performance management approaches, and capability development initiatives including the Crafting Conversation Masterclass focused on more effective performance conversations. 

Dr Samantha Johnson, Professor Deborah Blackman and Dr Fiona Buick studied the popular 70:20:10 learning and development framework, determining its efficacy in improving learning transfer. The resultant reconceptualisation of the model has led to organisations seeking assistance to improve their learning and development practices and, consequently, their learning transfer. 

Study With Us

The Master of Strategic People Management is designed to develop middle managers and the program is by underpinned relevant research at UNSW Canberra, including our research into Capability in the Public Service.  

Middle managers are recognised as a key element of organisational change, yet the majority of university programs do not focus on their specific people management challenges. This online program balances advanced theory with practical knowledge, offering the opportunity to develop strategy implementation plans which effectively integrate and utilise the people involved.  

Underpinned by relevant research at UNSW Canberra the program enables more successful incorporation of human resources into strategic plans and the achievement of desired organisational outcomes. The program adopts an organisational system perspective to enable more nuanced strategy and implementation formulation. There is a route to AHRI accreditation. 

Managing expectations to create high performance government – Review of Public Personnel Administration 

Deborah A. Blackman, Fiona Buick, Janine O’Flynn, Michael O’Donnell, Damian West 

The 70:20:10 framework and the transfer of learning – Human Resource Development Quarterly 

Samantha J. Johnson, Deborah A. Blackman, Fiona Buick 

Enabling Middle Managers as Change Agents: Why Organisational Support Needs to Change – Australian Journal of Public Administration 

Fiona Buick, Deborah A. Blackman, Samantha Johnson  

Structural Changes to the Public Sector and Cultural Incompatibility: The Consequences of Inadequate Cultural Integration – Australian Journal of Public Administration 

Fiona Buick, Gemma Carey, Melanie Pescud 

Developing and Recruiting the Future Public Servant in Helen Dickinson, Catherine Needham, Catherine Mangan, Helen Sullivan (ed.)’s Reimagining the Future Public Service Workforce 

Deborah A. Blackman, Samantha Johnson, Helen Dickinson, Linda Dewey 

Referees or Sponsors? The Role of evaluators in the promotion of research scientists in a public research organisation – Research Evaluation 

Miriam Glennie, Michael O’Donnell, Michelle Brown, John Benson 

Successful policy transfer and public sector reform in developing countries – Policy & Politics 

Lhawang Ugyel, Carsten Daugbjerg 

Why Performance Management Should Not Be Like Dieting – Australian Journal of Public Administration 

Deborah A. Blackman, Fiona Buick, Michael O’Donnell 

Effective Practitioner-Scholar Relationships: Lessons from a Coproduction Partnership – Public Administration Review 

Fiona Buick, Deborah A. Blackman, Janine O’Flynn, Michael O’Donnell, Damian West