One of the key things a Defence public servant (hopefully) learns when they first pass beneath the grey imposing silhouette of R1, is that an Australian Public Service (APS) Level 6 is not quite the same as a Major, Lieutenant Commander, or Squadron Leader. If a newly minted public servant is unaware of this, the excitable young APS officer is likely to be politely but firmly reminded in their first meeting, or rather abruptly in the long snaking coffee queue. Likewise, a major’s first posting to Russell is likely to constitute a significant shift when compared with life in a Brigade, requiring a change of perspective and a significant expansion of their trusted stakeholder group.

The differences, one would think, would be clear between the two experiences of the Major and the APS 6; however, we are arguably still working on what best practice looks like in terms of collaboration between ADF, APS, and the broader Defence Enterprise. From my perspective as a Defence public servant, I acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers and I try to learn something new from my ADF colleagues every single day. I also believe that I can contribute to the debate on what should guide best practice in respect to collaboration across the Defence Enterprise between ADF and APS personnel, particularly at the O-4 equivalent rank.

For an Army Major with 1-2 years in rank, a posting to Russell is often amongst the first opportunities to work in an environment alongside Defence public servants, in addition to the larger Defence apparatus. By the time they arrive in Canberra, Majors have been responsible for the command, leadership, and management of their soldiers; something that would be relatively daunting for any APS 6 trying to make their mark in Defence. Yet, it is also likely that such a posting to Canberra constitutes a significant turning point in the career of a Major, particularly as it is certain to involve much broader engagement and consultation across the Defence Enterprise.

By contrast, an APS 6 will have had at least 3 years in the APS, often in several different Commonwealth agencies and perhaps in a Defence specific graduate development program. In policy and program related roles, APS 6s may supervise some staff but will largely work as part of a broader team with their own portfolio of work to prosecute with a degree of competency, independence, and knowledge. APS 6s, in a policy focused role in Defence, will generally have a tertiary education – whether at undergraduate or post-graduate levels – although it is not necessarily a specific requirement.

My ADF colleagues are and have been far more experienced in their areas of expertise than I was or am currently. They have undergone years of rigorous training, prolonged periods of time separated from family and loved-ones, endured painful injuries, and contributed to the national defence on deployments overseas – often in incredibly adverse circumstances.

By way of contrast, I have spent years studying and writing history essays in a university, contesting the finer points of an essay thesis and perfecting opinion pieces and strategic documents on Australia’s defence policy. I prepare briefs and correspondence every day for and on behalf of senior APS and ADF officers and ministers. I’m proud of what I have achieved professionally and the education I have enjoyed to date. I am however cognisant that the level of sacrifice that a public servant endures is rarely as deep as that experienced by our colleagues in the ADF, including those ADF members I have had the honour of working with.

The two experiences are clearly quite different, and we should not shy away or ignore the differences and ironies inherent in both experiences. Nor should we devalue or undermine either experience or perspective, because they are both important and contribute in their own ways to the defence of Australia. Each part of the Defence Organisation has its own history and objectives. What we must do more of is to recognise where other people are at and start the conversation from where we are, rather than where we hope to be. It’s worth reflecting that it is incumbent on all of us to demonstrate inclusivity and value the contributions of everyone under the Defence Behaviours which underpin the broader Defence Values.

In the spirit of ‘One Defence’ there is a pressing need for closer integration and better understanding of the role of the Australian Public Service, which is an essential component of the broader Defence enterprise. The Defence APS workforce provides much of the overarching Defence policy guidance expertise, capability related support and management, corporate and enabling support, and so much more. Without this policy expertise, programs, and enabling support the ADF could not be as effective as it is today. Defence also benefits substantially from the expertise of public servants across government; from intelligence agencies, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Understanding the ecosystem of the broader public service in Canberra is undeniably helpful in navigating the number of policy and program related issues and questions that arise. By extension, the rules and processes of the Australian Parliament and the Federal Cabinet will likely touch on, to varying degrees, the work that we do together every single day.

The ADF and the APS working together, side-by-side, achieves better outcomes for the Australian people than the alternative. The challenge is there is no single set of standing orders or standard operating procedures that helps guide us all through this.

Our Defence Enterprise is by no means perfect; however, what we are striving for is not perfection but a balanced, interconnected, and robust network of systems that provides Government with the ability and levers to defend Australia and its national interests. The ADF and the APS are essential elements of these systems and we are heavily dependent on each other to ensure our systems continue to operate together, in the correct direction, and with a healthy dose of contestability thrown in.

We also have a lot to learn from each other. Whether it be the way we think, how we learn, or how we go about our business – our shared mission is served much more comprehensively when we know and understand where each other is coming from and how they got there. We must foster professional curiosity and empathy towards each other to ensure we can best meet our shared objectives and work effectively together in common purpose.

Whilst we have no standard operating procedures on APS and ADF collaboration, the most important things we all have to keep in mind are to remain respectful, professionally curious, and open to understanding and reflecting on each other’s experiences. We all can add value to the Defence Enterprise in our own ways, and this value is increased when we genuinely collaborate and remain team focused.

Despite our differences, our common purpose and abilities to be professionally curious and engaged give us an opportunity in which to forward our shared objectives together. It is these very differences that give us the ability to tackle complex problems in ways we could not conceive in isolation – ultimately delivering better outcomes for Australia. No one person, unit, or service holds all the knowledge and experience. It is therefore incumbent on all of us to be inclusive and value the contributions of others towards advancing the defence of Australia.