A senate committee has added to findings that the Australian Public Service’s rising reliance on external contractors and hired labour is partly due to staffing caps introduced six years ago.
An interim report of the senate committee on job security, released this week, also flags the public service has no centralised way of counting people employed through labour hire.
Previous senate committees, Labor and unions have criticised the government’s Average Staffing Level cap since its introduction in 2015-16.
The ceiling limits the number of employees in departments and agencies to keep headcounts in line with 2006-07 numbers.
But the latest senate committee report argues the caps result in more temporary workers, deliver poor outcomes for non-APS workers, do not deliver cost savings for taxpayers, and degrade overall services. The government argues temporary workers are the best way to address surges in demand for services.
Employment data shows temporary jobs make up the highest proportion of APS staff in the past 20 years, and a number of public servants are raising issues about relying on consultancies and recruitment agencies for staff.
The committee, which includes a majority of Labor and Greens members, has added to previous recommendations that the government should immediately remove the cap, and develop plans for in-house workers to fill skills gaps.
“The evidence provided to the committee clearly states that the use of external employment arrangements has increased, in part due to the Australian Government’s arbitrary ASL cap and is delivering significantly worse outcomes for the external workers,” the report says.
“It is also clear that these external arrangements do not deliver cost savings for the Australian taxpayer.”
It also recommended that a transfer of knowledge between external workers and APS staff should be encouraged, and limits should be placed on consultant spending.
The report recommends an APS-wide policy that requires agencies and departments directly employ staff unless the work is “genuinely short term”.
The committee heard that the Australian Public Service Commission could not count how many staff were employed through labour hire because its data only included those employed under the Public Service Act or known through agency surveys.
“There is a lack of transparency around the engagement of labour hire and other external workforce arrangements in the APS,” the report says.
The report recommends a requirement for the APSC to collect and publish agency and public service-wide data that includes contractors, consultants, and labour hire workers, and the Department of Finance publish data on the cost difference between direct and external employment.
Liberal and Nationals members said in a dissenting report that the committee’s findings were a “staged political farce by Labor and the Greens … campaigning for big government control” of Australians in the workplace.
The members argued that labour hire was the best method available to manage the ebb and flow of demand in some areas.
“Public sector service demand fluctuates and so workload changes accordingly. It is highly appropriate for that additional employment to meet that surge demand. This is crucial in delivering the necessary services to the Australian public at the standard expected,” the report said.
“Surge demand being managed with temporary, flexible employees is the best outcome for efficiency of taxpayer funded services, for those employees valuing the dynamic and flexible contracts.”