Federal Politics


Let our govt staff wander

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It’s not a great time to be a public servant, especially if you’re after a new job or promotion. This week, the Parliamentary Library published a snapshot of what’s happening to federal and state bureaucracies. The grim read tallies up more than 32,000 expected job losses across the country. And that's just those that have been announced.

There are almost certainly more to come. Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says that, if he wins office, he will appoint a commission of audit; much like those that recommended the present cuts to state bureaucracies.

Many Canberrans will remember the last national commission of audit, chaired by Professor Bob Officer 16 years ago for then prime minister John Howard. It heralded the abolition of several government agencies, the corporatisation of others, and the principle that public services should, in most cases, be put to the market and delivered by whichever bidder offered the best value for money. Almost 30,000 public servants were retrenched in Howard’s first term.

The economic and managerial cases for sudden, severe austerity drives – as opposed to the much harder work of finding and eliminating organisational inefficiencies – are flimsy. Abbott persists with his catchcries that Australia has a public debt problem and that the federal government has grown under Labor, even though he knows neither claim is true.

But there’s little point arguing over the policy, because the slashers have won the politics. Austerity is on its way and will stay for some time.

Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick addressed a group of senior public servants this week about this challenge (ever the professional, he referred to the cuts as ‘‘resource prioritisation’’). He said ‘‘we should approach the current fiscal situation not as an aberration, but as something that will be with us for the foreseeable future, irrespective of which party is in power’’.


Sedgwick’s prescription is for more ‘‘thinking outside the box’’; new ways of working. He cites as a favourite innovation the creation of Centrelink and the Job Network in the 1990s, and their effect on the labour market. He praises the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations’ openness to ideas: earlier this year, it asked its staff how to accommodate the budget cuts and received more than 9000 suggestions. Sedgwick also spoke of the importance of leadership and genuine performance management.

But is this far enough outside ‘‘the box’’ to cope with spending cuts of the scale on which Abbott appears intent?

Two of the most common internal complaints made about the Australian Public Service over the past decade, repeated in countless reports, relate to ‘‘siloed thinking’’ and ‘‘a lack of mobility’’. That is, staff often spend most of their career in just one agency and become captured by its culture; it skews their perspective. They know a lot about their area but suffer from a lack of breadth of experience that, say, consultants enjoy.

Yet how many federal public servants are genuine specialists who suit only one portfolio? A contract manager in DEEWR, for example, may have acquired knowledge of vocational training and relevant legislation. But her real skills are negotiation, administration and an understanding of contract law. She would be of use in most Commonwealth workplaces. So why does one department employ her exclusively? Why not place her in a pool of contract managers, ready to be deployed to any project, in any portfolio, that needs her?

We can make the same case for IT workers or government lawyers. Indeed, in 2009, the Blunn-Krieger report on legal spending criticised the wastefulness of each agency employing its own in-house lawyers, when alternatives, such as the Australian Government Solicitor, were usually more effective.

Nor should policy staff necessarily be tied to a single workplace or speciality. A few years ago, I suggested most policy development could take place via an ‘‘open-source model’’, akin to the way in which parliamentary committees prepare inquiry reports. Public servants could act as impartial gatekeepers of a public policy debate: collecting and publishing research and submissions as they are received, and then summarising the information in a report (for both ministers and the public). This is how committee secretaries do their jobs with very limited resources. They are not specialists; they harness the community’s expertise and, on the whole, produce advice of a very-high standard.

To create an 'open-source bureaucracy', we’d first need to junk the idea that ministerial advice should, in most cases, be kept from the public.

Of course, to create an ‘‘open-source bureaucracy’’, we’d first need to junk the idea that ministerial advice should, in most cases, be kept from the public.

The consulting firm Deloitte proposed a similar model, which it calls "GovCloud", in this month’s Public Sector Informant. Such a model would ‘‘allow on-demand access to shared resources by having workers reside in a central talent pool ... accessible by numerous agencies to help them adapt to evolving circumstances’’.

‘‘Siloed thinking’’ is only a problem because the APS is a collection of silos. Each public servant is employed not by the government but by a single piece of the government. And each silo tries to do everything itself, employing its own finance, human resources, IT and other staff. Bizarrely, each silo even offers unique rates of pay.

Why not share staff; let public servants roam to where they’re needed? If we ended the extraodinary waste that comes from more than 100 APS agencies acting with little cohesion, we’d save so much public money, and time, we’d barely notice the coming austerity season.

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant. Send your tips to aps6@canberratimes.com.au.