Public servants aren’t all rushing to get into a minister’s office and here’s why that’s a good thing

By Chris Johnson

June 6, 2022

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Administrative arrangements have ANAO sitting as a portfolio agency of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. (Bong/Adobe)

Don’t be fooled, not everyone around you is applying to join a minister’s office inside Anthony Albanese’s new Labor government.

The federal government has put the call out for a string of ministerial advisers, as new governments always do, but the ‘hiring’ sign is not the compelling invitation to public servants as some might be suggesting.

A cohort of senior public servants has already been (and is still being) seconded to ministers’ offices to assist with the vital post-election transition to government.

Before each federal election, expressions of interest are sought from within the Australian Public Service for temporary roles in ministerial offices to help the new-look government settle in.

Those roles become more crucial when, as has just happened, the government changes hands to a different political party.

The positions are often filled from the ranks of the EL2s, although not exclusively from that level.

They are good opportunities and are seen as providing an excellent experience for rising public servants.

Being inside a minister’s office provides a whole new perspective on government.

But these roles are only temporary — usually ranging from a couple of weeks to a couple of months — while the new government finds its feet. It is basically an extension of the incoming government briefing process.

Similarly, secondments of various durations occur regularly throughout the life of parliament or government term. But again, they are temporary postings.

When it comes to actually leaving the APS to join a minister’s office on a more permanent basis — that’s a whole new ballgame and a much rarer occurrence.

It does happen, of course, but more often under arrangements where the APS employee can have their job kept on hold (leave without pay) to undertake a stint in government.

When moving into a parliamentarian’s office, even temporarily, employees operate under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act and are referred to as ‘MOPS’ employees.

MOPS are employed to assist an MP with carrying out their parliamentary and/or ministerial duties. They are not there for party-political purposes.

But the mere fact that their new boss’ position is overtly political makes the working environment extremely different to that of the department.

“The minister is your boss and has ultimate power for a start,” says one senior public servant who has been seconded many times to various ministers’ offices.

“That also means they can terminate you at any time without reason. They can just say ‘leave the office now’ and you have to.

“Think about that for a minute. That’s part of the problem. That’s why so many young women feel vulnerable and fear for their jobs in ministerial offices.”

Along with the insights and career experience to be gained, salaries and significant overtime allowances are also attractive pull factors for work inside an MP’s office.

None of this, however, is enough to see public servants applying en masse to join a minister’s office for anything more than short secondments.

“There are a whole bunch of factors and one of them is you’ve got to be committed to the cause to work permanently for a particular minister or stripe of government,” the contact said.

“Most advisers are stitched up from within party ranks and by people they already know and trust.

“There are always people too in the public service who have returned from adviser jobs and have just been keeping a low profile until their party wins government again or their minister who might have been dumped returns to the ministry.

“There have been cases where people have burned bridges in the public service when leaving for a minister’s office. But there have been cases also when that behaviour has backfired badly. There was more than one senior public servant who thought they would be going to work for a Bill Shorten government after the last election and they let that be known — and of course, they didn’t.”

Albanese and his Labor team have sparked a fresh interest from inspired public servants wanting to be part of a new era in Australian politics and governance.

But most who might be aiming for a minister’s office are only wanting to be there on a short-term basis.

That sentiment appears to be backed up by the applications being received for the positions the government has already advertised.

A government source has confirmed, without specifying numbers or percentages, that public servants are not necessarily the highest group of people applying for adviser roles.

“An experienced public servant is always a sought-after person, but we get a lot of interest from other areas like journalists, consultants, and other areas where people have been exposed to policy,” they said.

“It’s not a natural thing to say ‘we want public servants as ministerial advisers’.”

Back to the public servant who has undertaken numerous secondments, for a final word: “There’s not going to be a whole flood of APS people wanting to go up to work in parliament, and very few will put their hands up to go there permanently,” they said.

“If you’re doing a good job in the department, you’re an asset for a minister’s office. It’s good for them and it’s good for you. But it all works best when such arrangements are temporary.

“Bring that experience and greater understanding back into the department.

“More often than not, the ministers don’t want public servants because they don’t trust them. That’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It makes for a better public service.”

 


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