A new whole-of-government workforce strategy under development by the Australian Public Service Commission and the Department of Jobs and Small Business will be finished by year’s end and “have regard to the findings” of the independent APS Review, according to the budget papers.
Members of the review panel say they are broadly on the same page as the Secretaries Board about how the employment of public servants should evolve, so it’s unlikely their final report will lead to a drastic change of direction in this regard.
Joined-up government is the aim, according to Minister for Finance and the Public Service Mathias Cormann.
“Many modern public policy challenges don’t fit neatly into the responsibilities of just one portfolio or the boundaries of a particular agency. They also cross into other jurisdictions and may benefit from the use of private or not-for-profit sector expertise,” he observes.
“Considering ways to rotate public servants through state governments and other sectors offers a way to ensure the public sector benefits from a freer flow of people, ideas and perspectives that help build a depth of understanding and improves the quality of advice to the Government.”
Public servants will rotate through state governments and organisations outside the public sector on the basis of a new framework that has been developed by a cross-agency taskforce, led by the APSC. “A pilot approach to secondments will occur during 2019,” according to the minister.
More public service jobs would be moved to regional areas in future under a Coalition government, and the APS workforce would continue to be augmented by external staff.
The cap on average staffing levels remains in this budget, of course. Cormann argues this policy “strikes the right balance between a talented, core workforce of permanent public servants and selective use of external expertise” and lists procurement as a standard way of acquiring and maintaining personnel, alongside training and recruitment.
He also includes an unusually detailed defence of the use of consultants and labour-hire contractors in the APS, setting out a distinctly different view to the opposition, which has said it would remove the cap if elected and allow agencies to directly employ more staff.
“A contractor or consultant may efficiently address the need for specialist skills that could not be expected to be held in-house, or additional temporary or project-specific support (while avoiding the ongoing costs which would result from recruiting additional permanent public servants).
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“The appropriate use of external specialists is an efficient way to keep the overall cost of government administration low when the business need to access such expertise is temporary. This includes where specialist ‘surge capacity’ is required to manage peak workloads, or where particular expertise is more efficiently obtained and maintained in a dedicated private sector business.
“When public servants and external specialists work together on projects, there is a two-way transfer of skills and experience, and a greater opportunity for diversity of views.”
The alternative view is that due to the staffing cap, there are cases where agencies would prefer to hire permanent staff but have to hire contractors instead, costing them more but paying the contracted workers less than APS staff would get doing the same work.
The government’s usual rejoinder to this is to point to the long-term trend of administrative costs falling as a proportion of total expenditure. According to this budget, the total cost of public administration is estimated to drop to 5.4% of expenditure in 2022-23, from 7% in 2018-19.
Cormann boasts the government has been “agile in directing talent towards areas of emerging need” while keeping a lid on staffing levels.