State of the Service report: Sick days and bullying high among public servants

Focused on problems: Australian Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick.
Focused on problems: Australian Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick. Photo: Melissa Adams

Impartial public servants in ministerial offices should not be downgraded by the next incoming government, says the State of the Service report which also found the federal bureaucracy was suffering from bullying, sick days and poor staff management.  

"It's a pity some on both sides of politics have come to discount the value of experience of those who have served in ministerial offices in an alternative government," Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick said on Monday.

The report said the pendulum may have swung too far from the days when the public service held too much decision-making power.

The bureaucracy was now too reactive and task-oriented and lacked ideas. There was also uncertainty about the communication between the public service and ministerial offices. 

Commissioner Sedgwick said the federal bureaucracy needed to give more straightforward advice to ministers rather than obscuring tough words with euphemisms.


"Are we now so worried about [freedom of information] we don't say to the minister this program is terrible?" Commissioner Sedgwick said.

The report pointed to the recent findings of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program.

But Commissioner Sedgwick qualified his comment by saying it would be a shame if the major effect of the royal commission was a flood of worried public servants bombarding superiors with nightmare situations that might happen but were wholly improbable.

The yearly report is the most in-depth gauge of the 160,000-strong workforce serving the federal government.

Commissioner Sedgwick said overall the APS was a well led, resilient and an effective institution but in his overview he chose to focus on several key problem areas.

"The evidence has accumulated in recent years that progress has been slower than desirable in responding to a number of issues that have figured in previous State of the Service reports, and which the Public Service Commission identified earlier this year as "seemingly intractable," the report said.

Among these were:

  • Persistent and undesirably high self-reported rates of bullying and harassment;
  • Slow progress in raising the representation of key groups such as Australians who identify as indigenous or as having a disability;
  • Unexplained increases in unscheduled absence, which rose again this year after a pause;
  • Significant gaps in many agencies in respect of critical management capabilities such as performance, change and risk management; and
  • Slow progress in exploiting economies of scale now available through shared services arrangements and other procurement practices that rely on greater standardisation and, possibly, centralisation and more coordinated approaches to procurement.

The number of code of conduct investigations increased from 516 in 2012-13 to 592 in 2013-14 and the proportion of confirmed breaches also rose from 75 per cent to 81 per cent.  

Included in these figures were 92 employees investigated for suspected bullying or harassment. 

A total of 17 per cent of public servants who responded to the census said they had been harassed or bullied in the previous year.

The report said the public service was going through transformational, not incremental, change which was needed for the bureaucracy to operate better.

"The public service has been through transformational change before and there's no reason with a committed workforce we can't do it again," Commissioner Sedgwick said.

As previously reported, the federal bureaucracy's headcount had reduced by 8000 last financial year and about half of that was through natural attrition.