Decentralisation drive: all APS agencies told to consider every chance of a tree-change

By Stephen Easton

February 15, 2019

Key points:

  • Federal agencies will again be asked to consider moving inland as part of a broader strategy for regional development
  • No limits will be placed on the number of senior executive roles located in regional areas
  • 239 government jobs have been announced for relocation outside Canberra, inner Sydney and inner Melbourne since April 2017

The Morrison government has restated a commitment to having more public servants in regional areas, narrowly defined as anywhere but Canberra and the two major city-centres, in response to a Senate inquiry that reported last June.

The committee made 13 recommendations, most of which the government only agrees to “in principle” or simply “notes” but that is not the case for those calling for more Australian Public Service agencies to go bush.

Now, every federal agency will have to “assess the possibility for relocation whenever appropriate” in line with the committee’s recommendations, which were published well over six months ago.

Further, a bureaucratic tree-change will always have to be considered whenever a new “unit, agency or organisation” is established, when an agency is “merged or reorganised” or if a “significant property break occurs such as the termination of a lease”.

There’s a sense of deja vu, however, given the government claimed it was taking a bold and uncompromising “if not, why not” approach to decentralisation back in April 2017.

“A greater Australian Public Service (APS) presence in regional Australia brings government closer to the people it serves,” says the official response.

“The benefits go beyond service delivery. Closer proximity to rural and regional communities and stakeholders supports greater understanding of the views, needs and experiences of people living in regional Australia. It reinforces the Government’s strong connection with communities and the land.”

The government has also agreed that any time an agency or team is given its marching orders, they “should be part of a broader strategy for regional development” with the objectives and reasoning clearly and publicly stated. It accepts the committee’s recommendations for various criteria, but claims these are already considered in the process:

  • amenity of the gaining location;
  • opportunity for family employment;
  • existing workforce capacity in the proposed location;
  • physical and digital connectivity of the gaining location;
  • access to higher education and opportunities for local workforce development; and
  • risks associated with overloading existing services.

It has a similar response to a set of recommended measures to increase the chances of success, and avoid the kinds of organisational risks that have afflicted the highly publicised relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. The government agrees relocations require the following elements, but says they are “already undertaken” and are the responsibility of the agency that is moving:

  • strategies for communicating the relocation process to staff;
  • consideration of short-term incentives to relocated staff;
  • support for flexible working arrangements including teleworking; and
  • close collaboration with the local organisations of the gaining area.

Ministerial oversight proposed as a substitute for evaluation

The committee also recommended there be no limit to the number of high-paid senior executive roles located in regional areas, but the government only “notes” that proposal, since no such limits currently exist.

It also only “notes” the sensible idea that every agency relocated should evaluate the process after one, five and 10 years, then publish the results — but this would also be politically risky, in the event of major challenges like those faced by the APVMA.

The response says the government “supports appropriate, timely evaluation of decentralised entities” but then oddly suggests ministerial oversight is somehow a substitute for independent evaluation:

“By creating a decentralisation cabinet position and appointing the first ever Minister for Decentralisation in August 2018, relocation of government agencies is consistently being considered at the highest level.”

Fashion moves in circles and that is certainly the case with government decentralisation. The relevant minister, Bridget McKenzie, claims 239 government jobs have been “announced for relocation outside Canberra, inner Sydney and inner Melbourne” since the Coalition decided to give it another try in April 2017.

“This includes regional jobs at the Australian Maritime Safety Organisation, Australian Space Agency and Aboriginal Hostels Limited – taking the number of Australian Government jobs moved to the regions to more than 1200 since 2013,” she states, promising the Coaltion will continue to look for opportunities to move APS jobs outside big cities.

The opposition believes the Department of Human Services, with its nationwide network of shopfronts, is a better option and recently promised to create 300 new permanent full-time DHS jobs in North Queensland if elected.

In many cases, the government’s decentralisation drive has shifted jobs to large satellites within the broader metropolitan areas around the major cities, and to state capitals with similar or larger populations than Canberra. The response to the committee report adds more details on some recent moves:

“In November 2018, the Government announced the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) will move up to 69 new and relocated positions to regional areas, including a new regional headquarters at Coffs Harbour and a new office in Airlie Beach. This expands AMSA’s existing regional footprint by 16 positions in Hobart, Cairns, Gladstone, Mackay, Darwin, Geraldton, Karratha and Port Hedland.

“In December 2018, the Government announced that the newly-created Australian Space Agency would be established in Adelaide, moving 20 positions from Canberra.

“The Government further announced up to 40 new positions will be created across the regional hostel network of Aboriginal Hostels Limited in Brisbane, Rockhampton, Mackay, Townsville, Cairns, Thursday Island, Mount Isa, Darwin, Katherine, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Perth, Kalgoorlie, South Hedland, Broome and Derby by December 2019.”

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