There's a shop in Braddon specialising in products that are, for want of a better description, so very, very Canberra. One of them is a coffee mug that says "World's Best EL1".
It's a kind of ACT in-joke, a self-deprecating but good-natured dig at the public service hierarchies that quietly regulate social interactions in the nation's capital. Unless you've spent some time in Canberra, or know someone who has, it wouldn't make sense.
Executive level one public servants - who sit at the higher end of the public service hierarchy - are a growing market for those mugs.About 28,000 Commonwealth public servants nationally were EL1s in December last year. According to the Australian Public Service Commission, there are more executive level staff compared to 20 or even 10 years ago.
The spread of public servants across the APS hierarchy has evolved. Like anything in evolution, there are species that thrive or decline. Today, APS 6s dominate, having surpassed APS 4s as the most common classification.
And read this commentary from the public service commission with David Attenborough's voice in mind: "At 30 June 2020, APS1/APS2 have virtually disappeared from the public service." Things have changed.
Not enough for some, either. The hierarchy that stratifies the APS is under scrutiny. A review into the public service's classification system is considering ways to streamline decision making and, to put it simply, break down layers of bureaucracy where they're unnecessary.
If it sounds very Canberra, that's because it is. But the findings of the APS Hierarchy and Classification Review won't only affect the working lives of the tens of thousands of public servants in the ACT. There are many more outside Canberra whose workplaces could be transformed. Public servant classifications could go.
Hierarchies are an infinite source of pain for public servants, let alone the ministers and members of the public dealing with them. EL staff seem to know that best, judging by the numbers. Public service census data showed EL public servants were more likely to say layers of decision making were a barrier to them performing their best to a great, or very great, extent.
The hierarchy review is looking at ways to make the public service less rigid and better able to make decisions, following criticism on those points from the Thodey review in 2019. Thodey said agencies were needlessly kicking decisions involving risk to the top of the chain, and that senior ministers wanted more access to the public service's subject matter experts.
The latest review wants to find ways to promote delegating and "decision-making being made at the lowest level possible". Public service commissioner Peter Woolcott framed another of the hierarchy review's questions like this last year: "How do we build in the flexibilities to routinely and quickly re-configure ourselves around a problem?"
There's been a lot said in the past year about making the public service's newfound flexibility during Covid a permanent thing. Some of the most senior bureaucrats have backed that push in public. But despite the talk, there are signs that in reality, many parts of the public service reject change and want to revert to the pre-Covid ways. Resistance in some agencies to working from home, or hybrid working, is a case in point.
The panel conducting the review is sifting through submissions after they closed earlier this month. It will deliver its findings in the second half of 2021. Until then, there are reasons to suspect hierarchies will prove resistant, and assert themselves in some way or another.
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