State of the service report offers APS snapshot for 2021

By Melissa Coade

November 29, 2021

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For the sixth time, the ANAO has gone looking for evidence our public service departments are executing cybersecurity basics. Again, they’ve been disappointed. (TPG/Adobe)

The 24th report on the state of the Australian Public Service (APS) has revealed strong engagement across the workforce of more than 153,000 employees, as well as some troubling data on sexual data complaints in the past 12 months. 

The report was tabled in parliament on Monday and showed that while breaches of the APS Code of Conduct were ‘proportionally few’, the number of recorded sexual harassment complaints more than doubled this year since 2019-20 (from 32 to 78).

This year’s data also showed that the number of recorded complaints for bullying and harassment had increased (increasing by a further 166 complaints since 2018-19 to 588 complaints made in 2020–21), while the perception of bullying and harassment had declined by more than five points from 2015 (17.2%) to 2021 (11.7%).

According to the report, the commission’s approach to preventing and responding to gender-based harassment and discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault and bullying will be taken up in an updated APS Gender Equality Strategy due to be released in the coming weeks. This, in addition to new annual reporting from APS agencies on gender equality measures to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), would go some way to better identifying and addressing gender equality challenges in the public sector, the report said.

In a statement, APS commissioner Peter Woolcott said the annual reporting offered transparency about the composition of the public sector, and how it was delivering government priorities and serving the community. In particular, the commissioner said the report showed how the public sector had worked through contemporary economic, social and health challenges, and also what it was doing for the future. 

Over the past year, the APS faced a critical juncture where we chose to scale solutions arising from the pandemic and to better prepare for the complex future ahead,Woolcott said. 

“I am confident that if we continue to operate as one-APS, grow the skills and knowledge of our people, promote an inclusive culture and welcome new and diverse talent, we will be well placed to meet the needs of Australian government and people,” he added, also noting that the first whole-of-APS workforce strategy was focused on lifting capability to meet the complex challenges of the future.

The report is informed by responses to the 2020 and 2021 APS Employee Census, and draws on the APS Employee Database, the APS Agency Survey, and other data collections and research to evaluate the APS in the past 12 months.

Overall, the workforce grew by a modest 2.3% of staff from June 2020. And the percentage of full-time, part-time and casual employees comprised 80.6%, 13.9% and 5.5% of the APS, respectively.

For the first time ever, the state of the APS report documented that women in the workforce reached and, in most cases, exceeded parity with men at every level up to and including the collective senior executive cohort. Women pipped men at trainee level (55%) and slightly more men occupied SES Band 2 & 3 roles, with 55.4% of positions. Since 1999, the overall profile of the APS has been skewed towards women when they became the majority of employees. The report adds that in the last 10 years the proportion of women in the APS workforce has grown by more than three points from 57.7% to 60.2%.

An analysis of the same data for people living with a disability, public servants with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island background, and employees from non-English speaking backgrounds found APS rates of representation had remained flat in the past few years.

“While much has been achieved, there is more work to be done – I want inclusion and diversity to be a part of everything that we do,” Woolcott said. 

Other APS workforce trends identified in the latest report showed a sustained rate of strong employee engagement, with nine out of 10 public servants reporting they saw how their work ‘contributed to delivering results for the Australian people’ in 2021.

Strengthening the capability of the APS workforce continues to be the cornerstone of the APS reform effort. It is the common thread across all of the priority reform areas,the commissioner said.

This year has shown that system-wide approaches have served Australia well through the pandemic. We need to lean into contemporary organisational design, and remain flexible to agency needs, to emerge stronger as we navigate increasingly difficult public policy issues and prepare for the future of work.

This year, a new permanent APS Surge Reserve was enacted to mobilise more than 3,000 employees to help roll out the government’s response to COVID-19. 

The commissioner pointed to this example of collaboration as the enterprise mindset that he said he wanted to see the public service embrace more. He said this was also the focus of the Secretaries Board and the Chief Operating Officers sub-Committee of the Board, which was striving to further develop a ‘one-APS’ approach.

One of the successes of this period has been the ability of the APS to work together, with new opportunities for different parts of government to come together and more staff reporting that they are working as a team,” Woolcott said.

“The changing mindset – from individual agencies to one-enterprise – is critical for us going forward.”

By location, the greatest number of public servants worked from the ACT (38.2%), followed by NSW (17.6%), Victoria (16.9%), Queensland (11.8%), South Australia (6.4%) Western Australia (4.7%), Tasmania (2.5%) and the Northern Territory (1.2%). Another 0.8% of personnel were posted overseas.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities to inject new flexibility and resilience into public service operating models across the world,” Woolcott said.

The large-scale shifts to home-based work, necessitated by health orders, has proven a more distributed model of work is viable without undermining productivity. Substantive questions remain about how greater flexibility can support both employee wellbeing and operational needs, including ensuring the strength and quality of networks, teamwork and collaboration.

However, greater flexibility offers clear benefits for the APS in its capacity to recruit and retain expertise from wider labour markets,” the commissioner added.

Additional information about the APS workforce can be found in the 2021 APS Employee Census, which was released earlier this year in March. 

Commissioner Woolcott will be joining The Mandarin’s managing editor Chris Johnson for a special Mandarin Talks on Monday at 1pm to discuss the findings of the report. Find out more here.

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