If a week is a long time in politics, the public service follows a different tempo. It's a slow moving beast, and change can be glacial.
That wasn't true last month, when a series of unrelated events revealed much about the future shape and size of the public service. At what was billed as an announcement for a new campaign encouraging city dwellers to the regions, Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack said the government still planned to relocate public service jobs to regional Australia. Pressed for more detail, he said a $41 million research package announced last year would identify positions to move into the bush, and mark the cities those jobs would come from.
The Deputy Prime Minister held up Canberra itself as a model, calling it "the best decentralisation project of all" and "the decentralisation success story of Australia". In truth, it's recently been the source of most public service jobs relocated to regional areas, a fact glossed over by the Deputy Prime Minister's serenade for the national capital. In Canberra, it remains the case that what government first gives, government can take away.
The day after Mr McCormack made his comments, the agency overseeing the public service's workforce announced a new strategy to keep the bureaucracy skilled and attractive to employees. The new document's commentary about flexible working is the most relevant to the daily lives of public servants. The Australian Public Service Commission recognises agencies are competing with private sector employers for the talent they need, particularly in digital and data skills. Like in any market, the public service needs an edge. The strategy touts flexible working as one way to appeal to IT specialists weighing their options. That may or may not involve remote working, but the signs point to Commonwealth workplaces becoming more flexible in coming years.
Not all changes to the public service are so market-driven. The growing use of contractors inside the bureaucracy embraces private sector firms, but the trend is a byproduct of the Coalition government's artificial cap on staffing levels. It's long been documented that government agencies are using more labour hire workers, but the pace and scale of that change has emerged in new figures that became the focus of a Senate estimates hearing last month. Labor senator and public service spokesperson Katy Gallagher listed the numbers: 10 agencies had about 20 per cent or more of staff engaged by labour hire firms, and seven agencies reported that more than 25 per cent of their workforce was employed through labour hire. One of the most extreme cases was the Department of Veterans' Affairs, where 42 per cent of the workforce is labour hire. Even the department's own secretary Liz Cosson, speaking at Senate estimates, described the department's high level of contracted workers as unsustainable.
The numbers of public servants directly employed by agencies swelled as the bureaucracy delivered the government's response to COVID-19 last year. Anyone hoping the crisis had permanently changed the public service's approach to staffing will be disappointed at the latest employment data, which show Commonwealth workplaces have shed the casual staff who bolstered their workforces as the pandemic first escalated. The APS is more or less back at its pre-COVID size, its headcount falling by 1700 to 148,700 in the six months to December.
Agencies relocating around the country, employees expecting more flexibility, a workforce becoming steadily more populated with contractors, and a growing public service workload straining against staffing level caps.
It's all so familiar, and yet at the same time, it all signifies rapid change for the public service.