Labor opposed performance bonuses in the bureaucracy, but the Coalition plans to bring them back. Photo: Jim Rice
Somewhere in the federal bureaucracy, a lucky junior executive received an extraordinary performance bonus last year: almost half a million dollars.
That payment was topped only by one given to a senior public servant, who pocketed a bonus of more than $630,000 in addition to their usual salary.
Yet the Public Service Commission can't say who these officers are, where they work, nor describe their accomplishments. It is bound by an agreement with government agencies to keep the details confidential.
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Despite a handful of exceptional payments, the commission's latest pay data shows the bureaucracy is slowly wiping out bonuses, which were introduced by the Howard government to encourage public servants to be more responsive.
The size of bonuses last year was relatively modest: the median payment to a typical bureaucrat – an APS6 officer – was $1478 while, near the top, the amount for a deputy secretary (the second in charge of a department) was $29,157.
After winning office in 2007, Labor scrapped bonuses for department heads and began to phase them out across the public service, because it believed they persuaded staff to give only the advice ministers wanted to hear.
About 69 per cent of the senior executive service received the payments in 2007, but only 13 per cent did last year. The proportion of lower-level staff who pocketed a bonus fell from 29 per cent to 15 per cent over the same period.
However, one executive level 2 public servant – a job usually held by a middle manager or a specialist – received a huge bonus of $482,069 last year. The amount was more than 3½ times the median annual salary of an EL2 officer.
It followed similarly large payments to an EL2 officer of $416,232 and $397,254 in the previous two years, though it was unknown whether the same person received those bonuses.
Meanwhile, one SES band 2 officer – an executive role that typically oversees several hundred staff – was given a huge $633,216 bonus last year. Bonuses of $536,760 and $412,242 were paid in the previous two years to an executive at the same level.
The Community and Public Sector Union said the "obscene" payments would outrage rank and file government staff.
Its national secretary, Nadine Flood, said: "To see a select few bosses pocket such massive secret 'bonuses' when most public servants earn average wages and are struggling with cuts is appalling, frankly."
She described the bonuses as an attempt by some agencies "to get around the remuneration policy to benefit a few hand-picked favourites".
"No one knows who is getting these payments or what they did to deserve them. It looks dodgy and highlights why most public sector workers remain so opposed to the use of unaccountable and divisive bonuses."
The Coalition said before last year's election it would bring back performance bonuses for department heads and senior public servants, and tie the payments to their success in cutting red tape.
But the Public Service Commission warned the newly elected Abbott government in September the plan was problematic.
Public Service Minister Eric Abetz then acknowledged in April that "judging performance is sometimes more difficult in the public sector".
"You have to tread carefully in these areas; it's not a matter of being 100 per cent ideological one way or the other," he said. "You see what can work and what would work, then go down that path."
Last year's extraordinary bonuses were most likely given to the very small number of public servants on an Australian workplace agreement or a common-law contract. The vast majority of bureaucrats – about 98 per cent – are employed under an enterprise agreement.