Scale, time, complexity, wellbeing – the APS’s budget challenge

By Helena Cain

Wednesday October 7, 2020


Even after learning multiple lessons, building new capabilities and realising a new level of professionalism through its pandemic response, this year’s budget may present the APS with several challenges, writes Helena Cain.

Many Australians are taking a ‘wifm’ (what’s in it for me) look at this year’s budget, happily noting personal income tax cuts, upgrades to local infrastructure, cash handouts and a suite of business tax-related benefits.

At the same time, I suspect that Australia’s public servants are using a different ‘w’ acronym this year as the government releases the ‘biggest budget since WWII’ – which means there’s going to be a lot of work to do.

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In this ‘jobs first, second and third’ budget, focused on ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects and multiple mechanism to get cash circulating and people working, it’s now down to our public servants to ‘make it happen’.

That really means ‘make it happen NOW’, because socially and economically, ‘now’ matters more than ever.

Already asked to go above and beyond during 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems the pressure will not be easing. Even after learning multiple lessons, building new capabilities and realising a new level of professionalism through its pandemic response, this year’s budget may present the APS with several challenges.

Firstly, there’s scale:

Budgets 2017, 2018 and 2019 allocated $460 billion, $487 billion and $500 billion respectively. Completely unaware of the black swan ahead – the 2020 Budget forecast projection was $536 billion. (How sweet.)

Our new reality sees a 2020 budget spend of $703 billion. At this stage that enormous number is just a promise, and it will be largely down to the APS to allocate and pay out those billions of dollars so they can work their economic and social magic.

We have some evidence that the Australian Tax Office can deal with scale, as per the JobKeeper rollout. I’m feeling confident that adjustments to the personal and business tax dials, instant asset write offs and loss-carry-backs will run fairly smoothly through their established systems, or as smoothly as they have ever done, so scale shouldn’t impact them too much. They felt unable to comment on their capability for a larger-than-usual budget, even in general terms, prior to its release.

However, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment was willing to assert that it had gained ‘experience over the past six months delivering the now $2.8 billion Supporting Apprentices and Trainees measure, as well as …’, which according to their spokesperson, means that ‘the expertise and capability to deliver this program is already in place’.

A lot went into preparing their very formal media response to my questions, so I’d like to add from this department that ‘as a result of COVID-19, the past few months have provided an opportunity to demonstrate the Australian Public Service’s capacity to deliver for government when it’s needed most’.

I’m reading between the lines, that the $1.2 billion Apprenticeship Wage Subsidy measure announced in this year’s budget is manageable, despite its scale, and they are feeling confident. Good.

Then anyone who knows anyone who works at Services Australia knows they stepped up to the plate during the early days of the COVID crisis.

Hank Jongen, Services Australia spokesperson states that they were ‘at the forefront of the Australian government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and bolstered their workforce capacity by hiring thousands of additional staff so Australians could quickly get the support they needed.

In the space of 55 days, staff processed 1.3 million JobSeeker claims – that’s the number normally processed in two-and-a-half years’. They also redeployed sections of their workforce, training staff in critical roles as quickly as possible.

We know this is all true, one of my Services Australia friends had never worked harder in her life and actually enjoyed the challenge – so I think this all stands as evidence that Services Australia will manage the scale of this budget … they have been practising.

The second screamer is time

A key focus of this budget is to get people into jobs, which means the money is no good sitting in the bank – or on a spreadsheet, or in a plan. It must be allocated, managed, invoiced and paid quickly, to support local industry and their anticipated growing number of employees.

Beyond the instant payments that can be managed via existing systems, this will take many public servants, many procurements, and time. And we know that ‘time’ falls into a state of paper-bag breathing when it is in the same sentence as ‘procurement processes’.

There has been some streamlining over recent years for ‘lower value’ procurements, which should help with the purchase of services, but procurements for large acquisitions or infrastructure rarely have a single stage, and each stage usually takes several months.

This feels like a challenge that will be difficult to overcome when we are talking large sums of money and an unforgiving public when things go wrong – so the APS will need to deal with this ongoing tension between speed and the six golden rules of the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines.

On that note, it would be interesting to see if there has been a spike in ASIC business name approvals this past week, aligned with budget measures – I checked – GrannyFlatsRUS or WeEmployApprentices Pty Ltd are both still available.

The third point of concern is complexity

With $1.3 billion to be co-invested with industry across six manufacturing sectors, how easy will it be to develop, manage and govern these programs, especially over the extended timeframes – and how experienced is the APS in doing so?

Typically, in public-private partnerships the public partner focuses on strategy, objectives and ongoing alignment with these, while the public partners focus on planning, design, delivery and ongoing innovation to improve the return on its own investment.

Negotiating who carries which risks is a big deal, especially when ownership and decision rights are often separated, and it is not always clear who can fully assess and control the risks. Then the contracts must be agreed, written and effectively managed – over the long term.

The comprehensive set of National Public Private Partnership Policy and Guidelines carry latest publishing dates of October 2015, and we all know the world has changed since then. It may be time for some new approaches to collaboration, negotiation, risk-management and agility if this $1.3 billion Manufacturing Modernisation Initiative is to make its way into the economy quickly – and I don’t think anyone thinks these PPPs are going to be easy.

That’s where the Commonwealth Investment Framework (February 2020) comes in, that brings together policy and best practice guidance on different types of commercial investment and financing options… most likely with this budget in mind.

Also, there’s no doubt that there is strong contract management capability within the APS, the question now is if there is enough to cover the demands of this Budget.

The fourth challenge is around wellbeing – code for workforce sustainability

“Everything has been on steroids for months” according to one Assistant Secretary not wanting to be named. “People at all levels have been working long hours, over weekends, really trying to respond to the COVID-19 crisis as best we can. It’s a bit better now, but there’s fatigue. It’s hard to maintain this level of activity, and it’s hard to keep our teams motivated.”

Hank from Services Australia reassures us that ‘the wellbeing of our staff and customers is always our top priority.  We’re working hard to balance the needs of our staff while delivering critical payments to the millions of Australians relying on us.

‘We have been piloting measures beyond our usual employee assistance programs to support staff who have been particularly on the front line during the bushfire season and into the COVID-19 pandemic response.

‘Our leaders continue to support our staff virtually – we have rapidly adopted and adapted to the latest virtual technology, so our leaders remain connected with staff working from home and in the workplace.’

I hope Services Australia staff are feeling all that love.

In the face of the COVID, the APS mobilised well. Within very short timeframes they added almost 6000 extra (non-ongoing) workers and focused the workforce on the most critical government services.

There’s going to be some big spending, all to be driven by the APS – and the APS will no doubt step up again, and deal with everything that this new budget brings – despite the scale, time, complexity and wellbeing challenges.

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