Australian Strategic Policy Institute - Building Capabilities for Tomorrow

The past 12 months have, unsurprisingly, been characterised by challenges and change for the AFP.

This should be no surprise – it reflects the environment, which continues to increase in complexity and sophistication.

Enhancements to law enforcement capabilities are quickly matched by criminal networks and exploited without regard to jurisdictional boundaries. Crimes in Australia are increasingly emanating from, being directed by, or having a significant element of overseas activity.

In fact, a recent stock take told us that 70 per cent of our investigations have an international element. When we consider the complexity of international law, the differing legal systems that exist, and the speed at which technology is outpacing our trusted international legal frameworks, it should be no surprise that our investigations are complex, protracted and challenging.

Of course, the continued domination of national security, specifically counter terrorism, further complicate our operating environment, placing pressure both on our capacities, but also our capabilities to respond.

Having said that, when I reflect on the past 12-18 months I am proud to say we have we have continued to grow and build on our strengths to record strong operational results.

  • The AFP, with our partners, has disrupted at least six planned terrorist attacks on our shore, resulting in 31 people being charged since September 2014. That’s more than one-third of all terrorism related charges since 2001. Tragically – we have also seen three successful attacks over the past 18 months.
  • In response to a changing terrorism environment, the AFP has developed a suite of non-traditional capabilities, including the National Disruption Group, Diversion Teams, an enhanced on-line targeting capability and improved community engagement. These are all areas of growing importance and priority for the AFP that support whole of government efforts in this space. Much of this did not exist 18 months ago, but has now become part of our core business.
  • Away from Counter Terrorism, we have continued to drive the expansion of the multi-agency Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre, to combat serious and complex fraud as well as corruption. Not only has the Centre achieved tangible operational outcomes, but importantly, it has delivered a collective approach to the underlying systemic issues that provide the opportunity for crime, including potential legislative reform and process improvements.
  • The AFP-led Multi Agency Commonwealth Criminal Asset Confiscation Taskforce also continues to gain significant traction. In the last two years alone, we have restrained $285 million in criminal assets. While still a way short of the full $36 billion estimated cost to the Australian community of organised crime, it is a significant hit to organised crime in this country, and represents a positive return on the focus the AFP has brought to criminal profits.
  • In our efforts to disrupt the supply chain for narcotics, the AFP and our partner agencies have been involved in 11 major drug seizures since December 2015 alone. We have dismantled many criminal syndicates, seized over 619kg of crystal meth; 720 litres of liquid meth; 100kg of cocaine and 340kg of ephedrine.

And finally

  • In what is probably the most exciting development – we also built on our partnership with the Chinese National Narcotics Control Commission to create a joint investigational effort known as Taskforce Blaze. This partnership is a significant milestone for Australian law enforcement in our understanding of concealment methods, trafficking routes and syndicates facilitating methamphetamine imports into Australia.

Despite these operational achievements we have had our fair share of challenges – with national security being prominent amongst them. In the forefront of my mind – and a key priority – has been the safety of my members who have become a direct target of terrorism.

By its nature, policing is a dangerous profession – it has always been that way. However, the stabbing of two Joint Counter-Terrorism Team members outside a police station in Melbourne, and the tragic attack on Curtis Cheng outside NSW Police Headquarters, demonstrate the threat posed to police personnel. We know we are now a target, and we know we have to respond to protect ourselves.

All of this has meant that the security footprint of the AFP has had to grow. I have re-directed resources in order to do this, but of course this comes at a cost – policing does not operate a standing reserve capacity. Everything we do, especially anything new, comes at an opportunity cost somewhere else. This requires a constant juggling of resources and effort to ensure we are best placed to meet the various demands we face.

In the last 18 months we have surged considerably towards counter terrorism and our protection obligations – this is to be expected and is obvious. But we have also managed to continue to perform against our core organized crime and general crime responsibilities.

As Commissioner, the question in my mind is about sustainability, about skills, about capabilities – can we continue to operate at this heightened tempo? What do we need to do differently to increase our effectiveness?

The answer to that is not simple. It is not as if we are not doing things well at the moment. We are. But the pace of change, complexity of law, globalization, advances in technology, communications and electronic commerce, demographic changes and alike, all impact on policing and the challenges we face in national security and organized crime.

This increased complexity, combined with a heightened tempo, is set to remain for the foreseeable future; this is the new normal for policing. So it makes sense that our responses must also evolve and become more complex.

The Frontline police officers of today deal with a spectrum of legal, operational, technical and tactical complexities that did not exist to the same degree when I was an investigator. Today’s officers need all of the skills we were taught 20, 30 years ago – but they also need new skills to help them manage these added complexities. The frontline officers of tomorrow will likely need new skills again.

We need them to think differently, and as police leaders we need to think differently also.

The reality is - these complex problems do not always respond well to traditional policing solutions. This is not easy in an organization more accustomed to structure, process, rules and precedent.

To combat this we need to be far more ambidextrous – in both our thinking and our acting. We need the ability to both ‘run the business’ – through exploiting traditional ways of doing things - and mixing that with an ability to ‘change the business’ through exploring new possibilities, innovation, experimentation and reimagining how police work will be done.

Inherent in this is recognition that we may not have all of the answers, but we must be prepared to ask the difficult questions and explore solutions outside of our immediate scope.

This is the challenge we have set for the AFP. It requires modern leadership, new thinking, less structured management and more ‘adaptive’ problem solving. Our role within government demands it, but equally I believe the community should expect it from its national institutions.

So what are we doing to change?

There is an old adage that an Army marches on its stomach. I am sure Mark Binskin or Angus Campbell would tell me it is a little more complicated than that, but the sentiment is true. In policing, our members are only as good as the health of the organization allows, and are only as effective as the capabilities we give them.

Recognising this has been a driving force for the organisational reforms I have embarked on as Commissioner.

Now, you may think that every new Commissioner or CEO will inevitably undertake some sort of restructure or reform – a chance to put their personal stamp on their organisation. And it is quite possibly true in some instances! But equally it reflects the changing nature of society and the fact that no organisation can stand still and just hope to evolve. To stay relevant, we must drive reform. As Commissioner I have a duty to prepare the agency for the future, not just the present.

Eight months ago, on 1 July 2015, the AFP moved to a new capability-based model; one that aligns our capacities and our capabilities to best support our operational outcomes. It seems logical, but in policing terms we have rarely brought clarity to how we align all of our efforts to ensure we maximise the parts that matter – our operations. The AFP will always be judged on our operational performance – and so it should – so we need to ensure all of our efforts are aligned to this objective.

This change in model has also allowed the AFP to bring a clear focus to our capabilities. Instead of having our capabilities spread throughout the organisation, they are now aligned together in support of operations. It makes sense operationally, but in a tight fiscal environment it is also crucial to our efficiency. Like all agencies and departments, I am being asked to do more with less. To do this I need confidence that our capabilities are being utilised in the smartest way possible.

Specialist police capabilities are no longer an investigative afterthought – they need to drive our investigational strategies, particularly within Serious and Organised crime. Exploiting vulnerabilities within sophisticated organised crime business models requires innovative use of precious, sometimes sensitive, capabilities. That is why we are moving to a consultancy model for our capabilities. Investigators will dictate the strategy and the desired outcome, but the specialist areas of the AFP – be they intelligence, forensic, technical or tactical – will determine how those capabilities can best achieve the outcome.

It is a subtle shift in strategy, but a big change in investigative mind set.

So the question not only becomes ‘what capabilities do we use’ but also ‘what capabilities to we need?’

Key to our reforms and to ensuring a “future capable” AFP is the Future Directions Project. This project will refresh our current thinking, build a capability roadmap by understanding our future demands, and provide a sense of long-term direction and purpose for the AFP and our members. It will be the hook by which all future planning, both strategic and operational, will hang.

The broad consultation undertaken during this project has already gleaned valuable insights for the AFP, including identifying the capabilities that distinguish the AFP from other police and law enforcement agencies, and where the AFP should place greatest emphasis.

This work is ongoing and consultation continues, however common areas of emphasis are emerging. These include:

  • The need for the AFP to focus its efforts on conducting complex and serious organized crime investigations. Those crimes that have the greatest impact on the Australian community;
  • The critical importance that the AFP’s international collaboration and cooperation role plays in the broader security and law enforcement context;
  • The emerging importance of the AFP’s role as an agency that can provide a leadership and coordination role on serious crime and national security. That doesn’t mean we will also lead the efforts, or that our role will be high profile – but crime is borderless and the AFP is uniquely placed to bring together the effort of law enforcement, and others, in this space. Our partners are crucial to our success, and they are increasingly asking us to fill that role;

And finally,

  • We must place emphasis on adding value to the work of partner agencies by providing specialist capabilities. We have to ask ourselves the critical question – what is it that we can bring to the table that is unique?

These areas of emphasis and other guidance arising from the Future Directions project will shape our investment decisions, our workforce plan and our capability plans well into the future. It is not an attempt to crystal ball gaze – in crime terms that would be impossible – but we can begin to inform and even predict what skills and capabilities we will need into the future. And we must reinforce our vision for where we think the AFP will best be able to serve the Australian community.

This work is already shaping my thinking, in particular reinforcing the significance of the AFP’s role internationally now and in the future. We will need to continue to evolve and build upon our international relationships, particularly in South East Asia and the Pacific – to grow our law enforcement cooperation and build capabilities across the region, but also to advance broader Australian Government initiatives through police-led diplomacy.

These relationships have already proven to deliver enormous benefits in developing collective solutions to global criminal issues, such as online child sexual exploitation, terrorism and drug trafficking. However the establishment of strong relationships of trust also provide a solid platform to build broader whole-of-government relationships. We saw this in the AFP’s response to the tragic events of MH17, which resulted in the AFP playing a crucial role to successfully bring together a number of countries to work together.

This Future Directions project is a very exciting piece of work which I look forward to sharing with you when it is completed later this year. However, this is not all that is required to achieve my objective.

In shaping the future direction of the organisation, there is a critical need to re-shape our culture and build a diverse workforce. Capabilities are not just the tools we use – our greatest capability is the skills and health of our people. Organisations with good cultures, strong internal health and skilled workers will always perform well – especially when the environment is so complex and changeable.

For me, this starts first and foremost with gender equality. I realise that the diversity needs of the AFP are very broad and will not end with gender. But they must start there. If I cannot create an organisation that reflects – and represents – the majority of the population, then how can I hope to create a diversity of skill, diversity of thought, diversity of culture, diversity of language? The list can go on.

So my first challenge is gender. I want the women and girls of tomorrow to look to the AFP as a career of choice and to not face obstacles along the way.

You are probably wondering just what the gender breakdown is of the AFP. To put it simply, our current statistics aren’t great.

Currently across the whole AFP workforce, only 35 percent of our staff are women. 35 percent. For uniformed staff it’s even worse - less than 20 per cent.

In AFP senior leadership positions, only 15 of our 84 senior leaders are women. This is not a picture I like painting. The data is clear, and so is the need for action. If we want to truly represent the balance of the community we serve, we need more women in our ranks. We need a culture in which men and women can thrive equally.

Research shows that more women in leadership roles results in more acceptance, more appreciation of differences and better decision-making. Organisations that prioritise gender diversity are more successful in literally every key measure.

For law enforcement agencies, more gender-diverse teams increase organisational performance, creativity and motivation to succeed, have less complaints, deliver greater corporate transparency, communicate better, are less reliant on use of force and better utilise their people.

To ensure we get to where we need to be in this space, I have engaged the former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, to work with the AFP in 2016 and improve our long-term workforce diversity and inclusions strategies.

Don’t get me wrong. I am immensely proud of my organisation. The AFP is already governed by strong values, we work hard for each other and our spirit is high, but we have some work to do to ensure these values are reflected in our overall workforce diversity, our recruitment and promotion practices.

I’m pleased to say that this work is already well underway. Liz has spoken to all of the AFP’s senior leadership about her work for this year and every member of the AFP will be able to engage with Liz and her team.

In addition, we have also set internal gender targets. I know there is debate out there as to whether organisations should set targets and I don’t yet have all of the answers to settle that debate. But if nothing changes, then nothing will change.

Setting targets does not mean that placements and promotions across the workforce will not be merit-based. We need the best person for the job in the job. But we must ensure that we have the best people competing for the job also. It has to be a level playing field.

At the moment, this is not the case. We need to set targets so that the inclusion of women in our workforce remains in the forefront of our minds and assists to transform the unconscious (and at times conscious) bias that exists. It is not about legislation and guidelines – we have them and they are sound. It is about transforming cultures and organisational attitudes.

I don’t expect this process will be a comfortable. In fact, I expect it to be quite uncomfortable at times. But I’m prepared for this because we will achieve real change.

Change – in particular, significant change – is never easy for anyone. But this change is necessary. This is a priority that cannot be delayed. It is not just the right thing to do; it will also help me build on the core strength of the AFP – our people – and will help unlock capabilities that we need to position the AFP for the future.

Diversity in the AFP is not a human resource aspiration – it is a core capability. Diversity of skills, diversity of thinking, diversity of education, diversity of language, diversity of culture, diversity of gender – all diversity will add to the rich fabric of the AFP and enhance our capabilities.

Let me bring my address to a close at that point.

As Commissioner, I cannot be next to every officer when they make an arrest, when they speak to an alleged offender – or a witness – or when they console a member of the public. Each and every day, thousands of AFP officers are making decisions and judgements about how to act, and what to do next. My job is to ensure they make those decisions and consider those judgements with the very best training, the very best support and the very best tools available. That has been a big focus for the AFPs Executive team over the past 12 months and it will continue to be in the future.

In the meantime, I know that the good, and often unreported, work of the AFP continues.

Thank you for your interest.

Commissioner Andrew Colvin

If it doesn't add up, speak up. Call the National Security Hotline - 1800 123 400.

Read the AFP Annual Report 2021-22

Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation - visit website

Policing and community news from the AFP