Consultants are entrenched, so what will Labor do?

By Chris Johnson

May 24, 2022

Senior APS leaders' capabilities must include being collaborative, influential, and entrepreneurial.
A contingency workforce of contracted consultants is now very entrenched in the APS. (Image: Adobe/alotofpeople)

A contingency workforce made up of contracted consultants is now very entrenched in the Australian Public Service.

It has looked for some time like it’s been here to stay. The Australian Public Service Commission has said as much. So too did the former minister for the public service, Ben Morton. He lost his seat in Saturday’s wipeout of the Morrison government.

While the public sector will never be consultancy-free, the new Labor government has a few views of its own as to just how much the important work of the APS should be contracted out – and how much taxpayers’ money should flow to expensive consultancy fees.

The internal versus contingency workforce debate has raged inside and outside the APS for years. All the while, external contracts have increased to keep up with workload demands.

Labor has promised to slash the spending on consultants and thereby increase the number of actual employed public servants.

But that might be easier said than done.

“Regardless of the policy, I’m not sure how they could unwind the interdependencies now,” one high-level public sector source told The Mandarin.

What is likely to happen is there will be a lull in requests for quotes and approaches to market for new contracts.

The issue there though is that the APS workload is extremely high.

Here are a couple of examples of just how entrenched consultants are in government departments.

The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment has set up a ‘Delivery Partner’ arrangement, as it has almost openly acknowledged it has far too much work to deal with without external contracts.

DAWE has about eight times the normal level of program delivery required of it by budget allocation, but with no increase in average staffing level.

So the department has taken a structured, performance monitoring way to manage this dilemma. It has gone down the path of seeking a true partnership approach with industry.

Agencies inside the Department of Defence also have models that embed a contingency workforce. The Chief Information Officer Group, for example, has a triangle model that outlines responsibilities. The layers, from the bottom up are Delivery, Manage, then Plan — all of which are through industry delivery partners. 

The apex of the triangle is the strategy component, and that is the APS’s side of things — i.e. it’s Defence’s job to get it done.

Plans across various agencies are all intended for the APS to manage contracts properly, but when so much is outsourced, things can (and do) fall apart.

“They lose scope, value and control,” the contact said.

“If the capability in the APS is there, they often get hamstrung to deliver by decision-making sitting in the wrong places”.

It’s not always because individuals don’t know what to do, but there is sometimes, according to numerous sources, a lack of courage and influence and confidence at EL2 and SES1 levels that prevents them from taking things on in a brave and holistic way.

“So piecemeal stuff gets done but the problems don’t get solved.”  

No one really knows, yet, the answer to the right balance. 

There’s an RFQ out right now for someone to work it all out in the ICT space. 

Answers will be found in each agency’s budget allocation, workload, demands, and project lengths. The APSC provides some information on appropriate spans of control, but not so much guidance on the internal/external balance. 

For many, the workload has multiplied significantly, with no extra resources made available. 

That has been the burden of the APS under a decade of Coalition government. Labor just might have a different approach that everyone hopes proves workable and affordable.


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