Climbing the public service pay ladder

Perhaps you listed "get a new job" among your New Year's resolutions. If you're a federal bureaucrat in Canberra, it's likely that new job will be elsewhere in the Australian Public Service.

But will a transfer, or even a promotion, be worth your while?

Switching jobs in the APS is a gamble, thanks to its convoluted, decentralised system of enterprise bargaining. Every government workplace has its own pay deal, which means changing jobs can leave you tens of thousands of dollars a year better or worse off.

Let's say you're an executive level 1 officer (the largest APS cohort in Canberra) whose job mostly involves analysing staff and payroll data for the National Capital Authority.

You could do exactly the same job, even in the same building (in Parkes), but be paid $17,650 a year extra if you're employed by the Treasury. (This assumes you're on the lowest EL1 pay point in both roles.)

Here's a more bizarre example. You've worked for a year as an executive assistant (APS level 5) at the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority. The job is in Fyshwick, so you look for somewhere more pleasant.

The good news: you win a promotion to APS level 6! Even better, the new job is in Civic.

The bad news: because your new workplace is the Agriculture Department, you just lost $9363 a year – even though you're now a higher level. (You'll need to pay for parking, too.)

Welcome to the nonsensically scrambled world of APS pay. It's made even worse by machinery-of-government changes, which lead to colleagues – in the same organisation and at the same level – receiving very different salaries.

Of course, public servants who transfer from one agency to another can sometimes negotiate a salary at a higher pay point, but not always, nor is their previous salary guaranteed.

Tony Abbott (right) and his public service minister Eriz Abetz (left) spruiked 'pay flexibility' but weren't really fans of it. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Tony Abbott (right) and his public service minister Eriz Abetz (left) spruiked 'pay flexibility' but weren't really fans of it. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Unfortunately, there's no sign this mess will improve. Every government over the past two decades – Coalition and Labor – has argued the merits of the current, devolved-bargaining system. It apparently offers "flexibility", allowing individual agencies to tailor conditions to their employees' needs.

Of course, that makes no sense whatsoever.

First, APS agencies don't have any real flexibility. Since Tony Abbott was prime minister, the government has imposed limits on pay rises and on the types of conditions that agencies can offer staff.

Second, the APS does not operate in a genuinely free labour market. The amount of money that agencies can spend on staff is determined not by the value of their employees' labour but by the clout of the agency's minister – in other words, did the minister win this year's cabinet tussle for extra budget funding?

Third, if there was a need to give agencies the "flexibility" to define their own staff's value, why is the Public Service Commission trying to enforce consistency in "work-level standards"? Surely it should either ditch the pretence that there is uniformity in staffing standards, or take on full responsibility for pay across the APS.

And fourth, no one really believes that this wonderful "flexibility" is worth the tens, or probably hundreds, of millions of dollars it has cost in legal expenses and staffing hours to create more than 100 separate enterprise agreements across the APS. Explain that one to taxpayers.

The Gillard government did give the public service a tiny nudge in the right direction about eight years ago: it made all agencies end their agreements on the same date, which would have made it easier to develop a more consistent approach to pay in future. Alas, the Abbott government undid that.

Still, just because the APS pay system is a broken disaster doesn't mean you should lose out. Use the chart above to compare your pay with that of potential new employers, and plot your next career move.

Climb that ladder and watch for the snakes. Thousands of dollars a year extra await you, for no extra work!

Clarification: Some agencies employ multiple types of staff (e.g. general, IT, legal, medical) with their own pay ranges. For reporting purposes, agencies combine these staff into single classifications, which explains some of the higher pay points.