Acute skills shortages increasingly affect governments’ capacity to conduct policy. Yet, responses to the challenge remain patchy. In Australia, as elsewhere, the public service is facing growing divergence between its own urge to undertake systematic workforce planning and slow, inadequate or inexistent response by most of its line agencies. This article analyses recent survey, audit and administrative data to uncover the roots of this puzzle. Current trends are evaluated and illustrated through five case studies, which suggest important roles for leadership commitment, organisational culture, and the geostrategic exposure of organisations.