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WA state of the service: declining workforce, but strong indicators

As the Western Australian bureaucracy prepares to shed another 1500 jobs, figures in a new report reveal the public sector workforce declined by 1.4% over the 12 months to June.

The State of the WA Public Sector report says a year that saw 1000 voluntary redundancies marked the largest decline of any state aside from Queensland and Victoria. But WA leads the country in female participation, the report shows, though it also has the oldest public sector workforce in Australia.

A worsening budget prompted the state government to apply another 1% efficiency dividend to government operations last month. Public sector commissioner Mal Wauchope announced details of a “targeted voluntary separation offer” last week for the 1500 workers “surplus to requirements”.

In his overview of the service, Wauchope says despite fiscal restraint the public sector has “much to be proud of”. The report focuses on benchmarking WA against other jurisdictions, a comparison Wauchope says shows the state in a good light:

“Many of our areas of expertise have global implications, particularly food security and production, medical science, mental health, education, public policy and governance. Our leaders regularly engage with significant social and scientific challenges and our key initiatives have been applied successfully for the benefit of both the state and global community.”

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Wauchope says rescaling the service while maintaining delivery standards is “the most visible milestone and also our most urgent challenge”:

“Fiscal constraint is one certainty we face, with revenue sources becoming less stable  and expenditure continuing to have upward pressure. In this equation, the critical cost drivers are our people. It is important we view our current and forthcoming limits as an opportunity to optimise our resources, build on existing good practice, foster innovation and collaboration and develop consistent and evidence-based practices. History shows that limiting our investment in professional development will undermine longer-term workforce planning. Accordingly, we must continue these activities with a greater emphasis on seeking efficiencies and ‘a mind’ for sharing our knowledge across the sector.”

Wauchope highlights greater engagement of employees (“we need to be much more strategic about the employment relationship as a whole”) and focussing on future needs in attraction and retention, increasing the mobility of staff to respond to emerging trends (“this requires a fundamental shift
in public sector culture and one which we intend to pursue into the future”).

He has also signalled a commitment to graduate programs, traineeships and internships to aid professional development. In an interview with The Mandarin last month, Wauchope explained his approach to a more strategic development program through a new Centre for Public Sector Excellence.

He wants to lift the rate of employment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (only the Northern Territory employs a higher percentage) by “knowing more about the systemic barriers faced by these employees”.

And he warned the workforce on the “increase in public scrutiny of the private use of public resources and the effective management of the receipt of gifts, benefits and hospitality, as well as the management of sponsorships”. A transference of the minor misconduct function from the Corruption and Crime Commission to the Public Sector Commission will “strengthen the integrity, accountability and performance of our sector”:

“These events are a reminder that the risks to the integrity of our sector are real and cannot be ignored. It is my view, that while the vast majority of our employees do not engage in deliberate misconduct, the ethical health of our sector depends upon each public officer’s commitment and capacity to do the right thing.”

As of June 2014, the state employed 137,944 public servants, or 108,999 full-time equivalents. The 1.4% decline in staffing levels came as the population grew by 2.5% and the broader WA workforce expanded by 3%.

Some 509 SES-level leaders were employed (compared to 510 last year), making up 0.4% of the total workforce (the lowest percentage aside from Queensland). Their average age was 53.

Overall, 25.5% of the workforce is aged 55 years or over — the highest proportion of any state. But WA also had the highest proportion of women working at 72%, ahead of Tasmania (70%) and South Australia (67%).

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An employee survey found 65% of staff believe their agency is well managed, while 65% also believe communication between senior managers and employees is effective. Some 60% believe senior leaders are effective. A little over half (55%) believe change is well managed in their entity.

Job satisfaction is improving, climbing to 84% this year. Four-fifths of staff said they were proud to work in the WA service.

The WA Treasury and Premier’s office is currently determining the agencies targeted in the voluntary separation program. Wauchope said in a memo last week:

“The number of separations available to applicable agencies will be determined on a needs basis following consultation between the relevant agency and the Department of Treasury. I am advised that the Department of Treasury will be providing further advice in this regard.

“Decisions to offer a separation package will be determined by employing authorities of targeted agencies subject to my approval. Employing authorities will be expected to determine the impact of a separation request on their agency’s operations and service delivery, and in the case of a fixed term employee, demonstrate a clear net benefit to Government.”

More at The Mandarin: Learning in the West: commissioner on a culture of excellence

Author Bio

Jason Whittaker

Jason Whittaker is managing editor of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has written for and edited political, business and culture publications for a decade. He spent two years as editor of sister Private Media publication Crikey.