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Job for the boy? The public service is giving up on the merit principle. We'll all regret it

The APS increasingly 'procures', rather than recruits, staff to perform the normal functions of government.

Canberra is bulging at the seams with generalists, especially project and program managers. Indeed, that type of work is the bread and butter of many public servants. Which makes the following tale particularly bizarre.

On Friday last week, the Industry Department advertised on the government's digital marketplace for a manager of its program management office*. It's a one-year contract. The closing date for applications is this Friday – which is cutting it fine, though perhaps the need is urgent. Fair enough.

But here's the rub. It's not a "job". The department is pitching this as a business opportunity. That is, it wants to recruit a manager – we're guessing someone who would normally be employed as an SES band 1 officer – but the "seller" must be a business entity, not a prospective departmental employee.

And now for the really innovative bit. This is an "open to one" opportunity. That is, the department already knows whom it wants for the job, so it invited only one "seller" to apply.

The tens of thousands of public servants in Canberra who trudged through an ethics unit in their public administration course may be asking at this point: "Hang on, that's illegal isn't it?"

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The department insists it isn't. It tells us simply that it is conducting the recruitment exercise on a "fee-for-service basis" and it "is compliant with all Commonwealth Procurement Rules".

So much for the 160-plus years of post-Northcote-Trevelyan effort that's gone into protecting bureaucracies in Westminsterial systems from the ravages of nepotism. So much for competition, and so much for merit.

A departmental spokesman declined to explain why it was necessary to limit its recruitment pool to a single person. Yet the role is hardly specialist: the manager will lead the office's "activities such as ... procurement [really?]; recruitment [now this is getting funnier]; finances and budgeting; costings; governance [hmm...] and secretariat; and general administration functions". A senior role, perhaps, but one that only one individual (operating as a business) could possibly fill?

Our other questions remain unanswered, too. Such as:

  • Why, given this is a rather typical senior management role, is it not governed by the Public Service Act (which, after all, was created to manage those who work for government)?
  • Given that the act specifies that "the usual basis for engagement is as an ongoing APS employee", why is the job advertised as non-ongoing? Does the department really intend to abolish the position after a year – and then let the office function without a manager?

We'll leave open an invitation to Bruce Wilson, the senior executive in whose division this is happening, to explain to readers just why the practice isn't as dodgy as it looks.

Yet, to be fair to him, this isn't necessarily an isolated case. The APS seems to be turning increasingly to "procuring", rather than recruiting, staff to perform the normal functions of government. We're not talking about specialists and consultants who perform one-off tasks of limited duration. We're talking about the rash of sole traders and labour-hire employees who work, in growing numbers, in Canberra's large government departments and agencies.

There are strong political and practical pressures on agency heads to permit these types of "staff". For instance, employing them doesn't undermine the government's directive to retain APS staffing at 2007 levels. And hiring them as "businesses" allows agencies to avoid entirely the frustrating strictures of the government's remuneration policy.

Yet everyone knows it's wrong. It undermines one of our bureaucracy's great strengths: the merit principle. Yes, this principle is often given lip service only, but that doesn't mean it's unimportant. Who will be bold enough to champion it in the face of the slide into "flexibility", jobbery and worse?

Will it be you, Bruce Wilson? Someone needs to take the first step.

* We refuse to spell "program" the ridiculous way that the department does.

Update: the Industry Department responds

The department provided the following response on Wednesday:

This article is misleading and I wish to clarify some points that appeared in it.

For the record, and to report the facts, the department had previously undertaken two procurement processes to engage a program manager. These processes were extensive and involved two separate approaches to market with no successful outcome prior to approaching the digital marketplace panel. This crucial fact was ignored by your reporter.

This was merely the last step in several we had already taken to the open market. The journalist has disappointingly chosen to focus just on this final step.

I would add that this exercise was also entirely compliant with Commonwealth Procurement Rules.

The market for skilled program managers is tight and the department is, of course, committed to delivering value for money for the taxpayer in delivering the objectives of the Australian government.

Michael Schwager
chief operating officer
Department of Industry, Innovation and Science

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