CSIRO staff ask chief executive to defy government over staffing levels

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday March 13, 2019

Australian Public Service leaders have to work within a strict cap on average staffing levels, even when it seems absurd, but why are independent statutory agencies also applying the limit?

The CSIRO Staff Association, a division of the Community and Public Sector Union, wants chief executive Larry Marshall to stand up to the government and reject its staff cap, since he alone has the legal right to determine the size of the agency’s workforce, and a large chunk of his budget comes from sources other than taxpayers.

CSA secretary Sam Popovski argues “there is no way that CSIRO should be subject to staffing caps or restrictions by government or government departments” and wrote to Marshall in December, asking why he continues the “rigid application” of the government’s policy to cap the general government sector workforce, excluding the military, at its 2006-07 level.

The independent agency sits in the Industry, Innovation and Science portfolio but is not part of the APS, as it operates under its own separate legislation, which clearly states the CEO can appoint whoever he believes he needs to fulfil the organisation’s legislated purposes and determine the terms and conditions of their employment.

In a response, Marshall points out the act also binds CSIRO staff to “comply with all applicable laws, regulations and Australian Government policies” through their own special code of conduct, which is quite similar to that of the APS.

“As the Federal Government is so fond of stating when jobs are being cut: staffing decisions at CSIRO are for CSIRO alone”

The chief executive is not just any old CSIRO officer, but one whose role is explicitly defined by the act as including the responsibility for staffing. Popovski argues it is “solely” Marshall’s job. “As the Federal Government is so fond of stating when jobs are being cut: staffing decisions at CSIRO are for CSIRO alone,” he observes.

However, it is unlikely that Marshall has any desire to challenge the government’s right to impose the cap — a term he refuses to accept, referring instead to the ASL estimates that have appeared in the budget for many years and the government’s 2015 “commitment” to put a lid on its total non-military workforce.

In the public sector there is a big difference between what a public official can do on paper—even a nominally independent one—and how far they can realistically go against the express wishes of the government of the day.

Hell hath no fury like a group of politicians scorned, especially when they hold the keys to the ministerial suites, and governments can and will deploy a range of strategies to make life hard for independent agency heads they perceive to be working against their key policy agendas, before getting rid of them at the earliest opportunity.

A big chunk of the agency’s funding comes from research partnerships rather than the government—about a third, according to the the CSA secretary, who argued Marshall was restricting its ability to expand its footprint and participate in new projects by failing to invest enough in staffing.

“Any caps or restrictions are ridiculous when … CSIRO has the funds to employ people to perform the emerging work of the organisation.  …

“If CSIRO is successful in attracting more non-appropriation income, including from industry, then it clearly needs to be able to use these funds to employ staff; to fulfil contractual obligations; obligations to collaborate and assist Australian industry under the Act; as well as to achieve the very objectives set up by this Government under the National Innovation and Science Agenda.”

Popovski went on to argue the application of a pre-determined cap in this organisational context was “bewildering and alarming” and had led to “the complex and innovative work that is the hallmark of the organisation” being farmed out to contractors and consultants, when the CEO could arguably employ staff directly.

This reflects the biggest criticism of the staffing cap from the opposition and the union: that it leads to external labour filling gaps even when it makes no sense because it costs more, leads to inferior outcomes and generally means the workers themselves are paid less. The government maintains its line in the sand as a symbol of its commitment to fiscal restraint and has faith that any higher costs are a fair price to pay for workforce flexibility.

“CSIRO’s partners expect us to employ the best and brightest, to value and treat staff well and to foster sustained, trustworthy relationships,” Popovski told Marhsall. “Put more crudely, short-termism does not cut it in the business we’re in. We’ll fail quickly if we attempt to outsource the work that we do.”

He adds that CSIRO researchers had been “turning down contracts with industry and university partners because of the staffing cap” which amounts to the agency missing opportunities to do more for the nation at no extra cost to the public.

“CSIRO is essentially rejecting new business precisely because it can’t employ the staff it needs (because of the staffing cap) to fulfil the contracts and emerging work CSIRO is seeking and being asked to do.”

Marshall said there were “300+ recruitments underway across the organisation” in his reply, adding the leadership team was pleased to have been able to put on a few more staff since 2015. “Business units have been encouraged to continue to work with the partners on new and current activities,” he added, later promising to explain how the current ASL is divided by between the organisation’s business units.

The CSIRO’s small but feisty union division has become somewhat dismayed by the agency’s leadership of late and made this known following the criticism it received in the scathing report of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and its response.

Popovski strongly criticised the internal damage-control measures taken after the searing report hit the news and called on unnamed members of the CSIRO leadership to consider their positions in the wake of the controversy.

“Science integrity is an enormous challenge with a leadership that has proven either incapable or unwilling to push back against political interference,” he wrote earlier this year. “This has been coupled with the increasing pressure from the Executive to preferentially perform research that is funded by industry and vested interests.”

If Labor wins the election, the union hopes to see an inquiry into the agency’s operations and management under the current policies that have seen it focus more on commercial outputs than pure science, the re-introduction of a “science integrity charter” and a seat on the board for a staff-elected director.

The Mandarin contacted CSIRO on March 11 to see if it had any further comment on the CSA’s recent statement.

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