Young children would be scared witless if they were to be told how many deputy secretaries it takes to change a light bulb these days. It's frightening enough for consenting adults.
The comparative statistics are a bit hard to come to grips with, but in June 1985 there were 64 senior executive service officers at level5 and6; not all would have been deputy secretaries. In June 2010, there were 126 SES band 3s.
Some of the big increases are in the Defence Department (eight to at least 14), the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (two to eight), Health (two to eight), the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (four to eight) and the Treasury (three to six). Some departments are also burdened with associate secretary positions, for which no justifications have been offered because there are none.
In the same period, the total SES has increased by about 65 per cent. Here, some of the bolters are the Australian Taxation Office and AusAID (up more than 300 per cent each), the Immigration Department (more than 200 per cent), Health (about 150 per cent), and Treasury and DEEWR (about 100 per cent each).
These comparisons rely on figures published in 1985 by the Public Service Board and the Public Service Commission's APSED series. To some extent, these are not apples and apples - more of that a little later.
Further, longer-range trends in SES staffing are affected by changes in functions. Since 1985, there have been significant reductions on account of the removal of the defence dockyards and factories, the transfer of territorial and education functions following ACT self-government, the fading away of housing and construction, the outsourcing of the Commonwealth Employment Service, the establishment of the Australian Government Solicitor outside of the public service, the abolition of the Public Service Board and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and the transfer of Veterans' Affairs hospitals to the states. At a rough guess, these and other changes may account for a reduction in SES staff of between 250 and 300.
At the same time, some functions have also been added or bolstered; for example, Austrade, the Climate Change Department, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the National Health and Medical Research Council, staff in some of the Commonwealth courts and others. It's difficult to put an exact number on the SES staff associated with these additions but it's likely to be much lower than the number lost due to reduced functions.
Notwithstanding the hazards of precise comparisons of SES staffing over time, it is quite clear that the numbers have grown at a startling rate, especially, but not only, over the past 10 years.
In March 2010, this phenomenon caught the eye of those who wrote the Ahead of the Game blueprint for reforming government administration. It promised a ''review of the size, capability and work level standards for each level of the SES, before any new net growth in the SES occurs''. The total number of SES staff was subsequently capped.
In July 2010, the Public Service Commission appointed former departmental secretary Roger Beale ''as an eminent person to guide, advise and oversight the review''. It also engaged the personnel management consulting firm Mercer to assist.
There's no doubt that Beale is an eminent person and, in this case, he has the extra advantage of knowing a great deal about the subject - that's a pleasant change. As a young lad in the public service, Beale, metaphorically speaking, often perched on the knee of the father of the current senior management system, Sir Frederick Wheeler. In 1983-84, he was the principal adviser on the introduction of the SES, a commissioner of the Public Service Board and then a long-serving departmental secretary with a SES cadre of his own. Indeed, if a return of the television program Mastermind were to displace some of the awful cooking shows presently turning the brains of viewers to custard, and Beale were to appear on it, as he should, it's likely his special subject would be ''the SES in the Australian Public Service - 1966 to 2011''. He'd romp it in.
The review that Beale guided was asked to consider whether the level of growth in the SES was justified and, if not, to recommend corrective action. His report was submitted in January this year, but the Government kept it under wraps. Only after Canberra Times editor-at-large Jack Waterford made belligerent noises about freedom of information requests was the report issued, on September 16, by acting Special Minister of State Brendan O'Connor, who said pathetically that the Government would respond to Beale's recommendations ''in due course''.
What is it about the current Government that enables it to accept all of the recommendations of fail-grade reports like Professor Rufus Black's on Defence and then procrastinate on distinction ones like Beale's on the SES?
For Beale's report is very good. It outlines the history of the SES, analyses the causes of its growth, considers agency classification practices and presents a classification audit of a sample of jobs using work-level standards developed in conjunction with Mercer. It provides a manageable number of eminently sensible recommendations and is written in plain enough and comprehensible English - a happy exception these days.
On the history, the review uses the commission's Australian Public Service Employment Database, or APSED. While this provides a convenient and consistent base for comparisons over time, it includes a number of classifications regarded as SES equivalents as well as ambassadors and high commissioners. Strictly speaking, these people are not part of the SES. For example, for better or for worse, current ambassadors and former politicians such as train buff Tim Fischer and ''Admiral'' Brendan Nelson are not members of the public service. That is to say, in terms of total numbers, the APSED suggests a larger SES than there is.
Of the reasons the review report cites for SES growth, the more convincing relate to:
- New policy areas and associated programs, many of which are not consolidated but provided with separate administrative identities for political purposes, including the tendency for the Commonwealth to want to impose itself more on state functions.
- The establishment of some new departments and agencies.
- The complexity in the way some work is done, not to be confused with the policy environment, which is now relatively benign and less complex than at many other times in the Commonwealth's history.
- The demands of ministers for briefing and ''media management'' - much of which may well be overdone and overzealous.
- Work on national security - all valuable, of course, to calm anxieties often thoughtlessly excited by politicians.
Less convincing are references to:
- Increases in the number of pages of legislation.
- One-offs such as the global financial crisis, the 2004 Asian tsunami and Cyclone Larry in Queensland.
- Administrative law requirements, most of which were introduced in the 1970s and early 1980s.
On agency classification management practices, Beale's report says ''most agency heads have not developed agency-specific work-level standards as required by public service classification rules''. Before 1984, when agency heads did not have the power to classify SES positions, some were bold enough to ask, ''Are we not to be trusted?'' Unfortunately, that question has now been answered. The review goes on to say that ''in spite of the increased flexibility given to agency heads to set remuneration ... managers may be overclassifying some jobs on the basis of the required remuneration outcome instead of the work to be performed''. That's putting it diplomatically.
On the classification of individual SES jobs, the review audited a sample of 238 using new work-level standards and a points-based Mercer job-evaluation method. That is, the audit was against new standards, not what they might have been in days of yore. At all three SES bands there was a disproportionate number of jobs in the lower levels of the Mercer points ratings. The review's conclusions are that about 148 band 1 and 2 positions are overclassified and 90 underclassified, and 26 band 3s are overclassified.
Overall, the review says there is evidence that the work value of some jobs has been diluted and that some new ones do not meet work-level standards. What it does not say is that, since 1975, as the range and complexity of public service functions has greatly narrowed, the number of SES has more than doubled while the total number of staff has halved. That's what's known in the trade as classification creep.
The review report says it ''is reluctant to recommend an across-the-board cut in SES numbers''. Instead, it suggests:
- The mandatory use of the work-level standards it has developed for classifying SES positions.
- The use of a simple methodology to apply the standards.
- Agency heads to be required to assess all new positions and existing positions as they become vacant against the proposed work-levels standards and to certify to the public service commissioner that, as a consequence, all positions have been classified against the standards.
- Agency limits on the numbers of SES positions be maintained for five years.
These sensible steps could be usefully augmented by:
- Phasing out of all associate secretary positions as they become vacant - they are a blot on the administrative landscape.
- Restricting the use of deputy secretary positions primarily to circumstances where agency heads' spans of control of division head positions is too great.
- Creating in the Public Service Commission a small centre of expertise on top management structures.
- Encouraging ministers to think more carefully about the organisation and staffing implications of the ways in which they wish to have government programs administered. They might also consider more closely the costs and consequences of parliamentary, media and other briefings they request, and just how much of that ends up being of any use - there would appear to be ample scope for better risk management here. It would be interesting to know, for example, how many possible parliamentary question briefs actually get used.
Most of all, the Government should stop dithering on Beale's report. It's disgraceful that it's been left on the shelf for nine months and is still there. If agency heads are resisting, they should be brushed aside - we now know most have neglected important elements of their responsibilities when it comes to classifying senior jobs. The review's recommendations should be implemented now.
Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant.