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Rabbit or duck? We need a sensible conversation about the public sector workforce

There’s a persistent ‘all or nothing’ current that runs through every discussion of Australian public service workforce capacity and capability.

It’s a bit like the rabbit-duck picture illusion. Some people look at the APS workforce and see a rabbit while others look at the same picture and see a duck.

At one extreme, the APS workforce is a cost to the Australian people that must be minimised. Greater efficiency is correlated with reduced workforce numbers.

The instruments of choice are often blunt. Efficiency dividends indiscriminately apply relentless pressure on cost efficiency without considering the flow-on effects on capability and performance.

The emphasis on reducing workforce numbers at all costs has negatively impacted every aspect of APS capability and performance. The pandemic showcased the short-sightedness of this approach as behind the scenes the enabling systems and functions that are critical to APS performance buckled under the stress of ongoing crisis.

The APS was barely held together by small cadres of dedicated public servants working together to achieve notable successes, such as the redeployment of thousands of employees within the public service to support the delivery of critical services. However, these successes masked deeper systemic flaws.

The other extreme argues that government policy, regulation and services can and should only be delivered by public servants. Here, the APS, exposed to market forces, has lost ‘core APS’ capability to labour hire, contracting and consulting firms.

This view neatly forgets that many of those in these industries are ex-public servants and others with deep experience of the public service who are committed to contributing to good administration.

This position also carries the fallacy that the APS could deliver major technology and infrastructure reforms without the support of industry. For example, is it realistic to expect the APS will deliver the over $35 million whole-of-government shared enterprise resource planning solution (GovERP) without substantial support from industry?

Myopically seeking to reduce government spending on industry capabilities ignores the major skill deficits across the Australian economy and the intense competitiveness of the labour market.

The ability to bring skills back in-house will not be as simple or easy as it might first appear. Reviewing the findings and implementation of the 2008 Gershon Review of the Australian Government’s Use and Management of ICT would be worthwhile.

We need to steer the conversation about APS workforce capability away from the extremes and focus on the actual problem.

APS workforce balancing contradictory demands

Every day, the APS performs a high-wire act. It’s continuously balancing the sucking gravity of perception and history and the unrestrained momentum of government and community expectation. The APS needs to be:

  • responsive to the government while maintaining deep management, technical and non-partisan expertise;
  • consistent and stable but also be agile and flexible, and ever ready to devolve, centralise or restructure;
  • responsible and accountable for due process but also have a results orientation that is not defined by bureaucracy;
  • cost-efficient and effective in delivering value to the government and the community but take no risks and never fail;
  • focused on delivering value in some of the nation’s most complex policy and regulatory environments but also be market competitive and commercial savvy in delivery;
  • ethical and maintain integrity standards but also provide flexibility and discretion in decision-making.

The historically attuned public servants reading this will hear echoes of the 1995 Report of the Public Service Act Review chaired by R.N McLeod in these observations. The forces shaping the current workforce capability challenges have a long tail.

These expectations of the APS have shaped its structure, operations and workforce. The APS and its workforce capability is a function of balancing these contradictory demands.

Just add a degree of difficulty, how well APS leaders manage this balancing act plays out in public forums such as senate estimates, where the extremes of the rabbit/duck mindset dominate.

The momentum of increasing expectations of public service performance is unstoppable. The economy needs greater value from government policy, regulation and service delivery.

The global and national economic forces of digitisation are driving greater integration, dependence and interdependence. The APS can’t stand apart from these forces.

There are valid questions about whether governments are the best and only bodies capable of providing policy advice or delivering government services. There are people outside government and the APS who are knowledgeable about and committed to public service outcomes who have specialist capabilities and experience the APS can’t acquire and shouldn’t maintain.

The APS maintains a rich and diverse workforce – the majority of which is not in Canberra. The total APS workforce is a mix of permanent, non-permanent and casual APS employees and industry (labour hire, contractors and consultants).

Realistically, to access the skills and expertise needed to deliver on government policy, the APS must work closely with a broad range of industry partners. As such, it needs to take a total workforce approach to deliver on government and community expectations.

There is a need for a more sophisticated conversation about how the APS builds and sustains the long-term workforce capability it needs. This conversation must avoid the extremes that undermine progress.

Finally, the response should reflect the unique capability needs of the APS rather than looking to mimic industry or getting lost in the nostalgia of the past. It will require leaders in government, the APS and industry to actively and creatively engage with the workforce capability that will be required to deliver high-quality public services in an increasingly uncertain environment.

It’s a conversation that has more in common with Rorschach’s inkblots than simple rabbit or duck illusions.

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