Public servants returning to their jobs are grappling with a rapidly spreading coronavirus variant, preparing for a federal election, while expectations for evidence-based advice and acting with integrity are in sharp focus.
Hints of what’s to come for the APS in 2022 vary among experts, yet better intergovernmental relations in response to COVID-19, increased APS capability, and the economic recovery are front of mind.
Former Australian Public Service commissioner Andrew Podger wants the sector to reflect on its values and responsibilities.
For Podger, robodebt, sports rorts, non-transparent car park grants, and senator Rex Patrick’s fight with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to receive FOI documents from the national cabinet are among red flags of poor practice.
“The public service should be careful not to think it’s doing things very well, when in fact there’s evidence of serious problems it needs to address,” Podger says.
He is critical of the 2021 state of the service report for praising APS achievements amid the pandemic without identifying problems and lessons to learn.
“When I was commissioner we had just had the children overboard exercise, and I can assure you I reported on that in the state of the service report as well as that there were lessons that needed to be learned,” he says.
One measure of success will be a promised federal anti-corruption body, after government legislation stalled last year, and how it interacts with the auditor general, ombudsman, APSC and the parliament.
“A serious issue is how to design that new organisation in a way that doesn’t leave gaps or have unnecessary overlaps,” Podger says.
A series of inquiries and strategies have sought to address capability gaps in the APS, but for Podger and former ANU Sir John Bunting Chair of Public Administration, John Wanna, this extends to intergovernmental relations.
Reflecting on the coronavirus crisis of the past two years, Podger sees reluctance from the Commonwealth government to take responsibility for quarantine, among other areas, as disappointing.
“It needs to think carefully about its capability into the future; if there were a future pandemic, what should the Commonwealth be able to do that it has proven not be able to do at this current time?” he asks.
“I have just been surprised at how reticent it has been about taking that leadership role.”
For Wanna, bickering between federal, and state and territory governments is a sign of eroding intergovernmental relationships.
“It looked at the beginning of March 2020 to until about June-July they were starting to co-operate as joint governments on issues, but then it started to fracture,” he says.
“States need some guarantee of federal finances beyond what they are getting now, particularly with things like health, education, some of the big areas of expenditure for the states.”
As the election nears, Podger says public servants need to carefully consider what big issues either party would need to consider in government for the next three years.
Health, energy, gender equality, the economy and defence will loom large this year and require input from public servants regardless of the election outcome.
Public service minister Ben Morton told The Mandarin at the end of 2021 that data-driven policy advice would be a theme of 2022.
“If we are going to make a case for something, if we are going to give advice to government, what is the best data we can find that backs up what our advice is?” he said at the time.
Wanna wants to see “massive reforms” in the health sector, with local health networks given more power to make decisions about communities.
Pathways for public servants to deliver net-zero will be different depending on the outcome of the election, with Wanna yet to be convinced either party has got its energy policy right.
Public Service Research Group UNSW Canberra associate professor Sue Williamson says gender equality activists will also be eager to ensure the momentum of the past few years continues.
“I’ll be interested whether the major parties do focus on this, or whether with all the developments in the last year and the last Jenkins report the issue has been seen to be put to bed for the government,” Williamson said.
With March 4 Justice rallies planned for late February, Williamson says women’s safety will be in the spotlight as the election nears.
The economy will loom large for all department and agency decision-making as the March 29 budget nears.
Wanna says as well as recovering from the pandemic, the trillion dollar debt accumulated during the crisis will be front of mind for governments and voters.
“The fiscal issue is going to be huge,” he says. But with income taxes unpopular and few lucrative government services to privatise, Wanna believes inheritances and charges for services such as aged care and university are likely to be under consideration.
“It is a backdoor way of taxation without increasing things like income tax,” he says.
Podger says realistic views about revenue and prioritising government expenditure will be necessary to return to surplus and address the debt.
A bipartisan analysis of 20 state and federal policies last year found governments used evidence and consultation only loosely, with just six of 20 policies receiving high praise.
Wanna has a simple request for public servants following a year of border closures and working remotely – “leave the office”.
He believes departments and governments need to engage in more thorough consultation before making decisions.
“Because a lot of agendas are too difficult and governments can’t deal with them – we have to start going back to some of the old ways of making policy with much more open consultation,” Wanna says. “Not just with the big stakeholders but with the broader community.”
He wants to see parliamentary committees develop policy rather than engage in a process of “political embarrassment”.
Many public servants have returned to their jobs for 2022 from home as the Omicron variant rapidly spreads, and employers and unions are grappling with differing advice across states and territories.
Williamson, a researcher in human resources management, says hybrid working will become more formalised in 2022.
“There will be an increased focus on hybrid working and trying to get some systems in place to make sure that it works well rather than being reactive as we saw in 2020,” she says.
“In 2021 those systems were starting to be implemented and I think we will see a bedding down of those systems in 2022.”
She said while the speed of the Omicron variant had taken workforces by surprise the APS needed to take the opportunity to develop consistent guidelines on working from home.
“You just can’t be too careful because there could be the next variant of COVID just over the horizon,” Williamson said.