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APS employment drop: Abetz will now ‘review’ hiring freeze

The Commonwealth’s interim recruitment freeze is under review, the government confirms, and Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd has also weighed in saying he’s been tinkering with the freeze’s “red tape” to ease the pressure on agencies.

Employment minister Eric Abetz seized on the latest snapshot of Commonwealth employees which shows the freeze has worked, reducing headcount of 14,414 public servants since the Abbott government came to power, declaring a success for the government’s promise to reduce the public service.

The original promise was a reduction of 16,500 from average staff level, and clarified shortly after taking office that 12,000 public servants would go though “natural attrition” with the aid of an interim recruitment freeze.

Abetz confirmed a review of that recruitment freeze was now underway, issuing a statement Wednesday:

“The government will now meet this target ahead of schedule. Accordingly it is in the process of reviewing its interim recruitment arrangements promulgated in October 2013.”

The December 2014 snapshot figures from the Australian Public Service Commission show the recruitment freeze is working, with the number of ongoing public servants reducing by another 4.3% in last six months of 2014. And it appears to be accelerating.

After years of efficiency dividends, this stricter “hiring freeze” approach has had a much more dramatic, rapid effect on overall numbers. 13,219 public servants left their positions, for a variety of reasons, in 2014, and the total footprint shrank by almost 11,000.

Public servants are retrenched at almost twice the rate of those choosing their own departure, and more than three times the rate they currently leave due to age retirement. Just 3813 chose the circumstances of their own departure from their agency, whether to another APS position or external, compared with 6954 made redundant.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is showing the way, with more than 12% of its employees made redundant in 2014, while the most decimated department in terms of total turnover was the Department of Communications which lost almost 30% of its 423 staff in one year following a “spill-and-fill” restructure.

Senior executive service classifications were the most shaved in the last six months, with 259 fewer SES employees at the end of 2014, down 5.3% from their numbers in the last annual State of the Service report. It’s an acceleration of the existing decline, having lost 9.3% of senior executives throughout 2014.

EL classifications are also significantly cut with 4130 or 9.6% fewer EL1 and EL2 employees over the same 12-month period due to the high rate of loses seen in the first half of 2014.

Source: APSC
Size of the Australian Public Service. Source: APSC

The hiring freeze, officially called the Interim Arrangements of Recruitment in the APS, has been a permanent feature of the APS under this federal government. It prevents positions from being advertised to candidates not already employed in the APS, with a dramatic impact on positions requiring particular specialist skills. There are very few exceptions in cases of priority groups, such as people with mental or physical disability or people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.

Abetz said it was pleasing to note that the same snapshot shows representation of indigenous Australians increased to 2.5%, people with disabilities increased 3.4%, and employees from a non-English speaking background rose to 16%.

New public service commissioner John Lloyd told an IPAA forum on public sector resilience on Wednesday that he has been removing the “red tape” around the government’s external recruitment freeze:

“Another thing we do at the moment is approve external recruitment — prospects, applications, proposals of agencies. Now when I arrived we had a three-page document for me to look at and approve. We’ve cut that back to one, and we’ve cut back the information that you have to give us from about six pages to one or two.”

Abetz has also proposed significant public service decentralisation. Despite some high profile agencies being moved away from Canberra, such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and a new agencies being created in other major capitals, there is little evidence yet of a significant shift away from the Australian Capital Territory.

Top 10 most decimated agencies

  1. National Competition Council: 87.5% of staff not retained.
  2. National Water Commission: 80.5% of staff not retained.
  3. Climate Change Authority: 60.7% of staff not retained.
  4. National Mental Health Commission: 45.5% of staff not retained.
  5. National Health Funding Body: 35.3% of staff not retained.
  6. Independent Hospital Pricing Authority: 34.8 of staff not retained.
  7. Office of the Australian Information Commissioner: 31.4% of staff not retained.
  8. Department of Communications: 29.8% of staff not retained.
  9. Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency: 29.7% of staff not retained.
  10. Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency: 28.6% of staff not retained.

Total employees in line departments

Department

End of 2014

End of 2013

Agriculture:

4550

5035

Attorney-General’s:

1816

1725

Communications:

423

561

Defence:

20524

21631

Education and Training:

1790

2160

Employment:

1825

1914

Environment:

2574

2814

Finance:

1842

1813

DFAT:

4799

5188

Health:

3502

3697

Human Services:

34342

34402

Immigration:

8433

8891

Industry:

4926

5584

Infrastructure:

1210

1253

PM&C:

2281

2611

Social Services:

3366

3639

Treasury:

1168

1326

Veterans’ Affairs:

1983

2091

The APSC advises that the figures are dependent on the accuracy of individual agencies’ HR systems:

“The Australian Public Service Commission continues to work with agencies to improve the quality and timeliness of the data they provide to APSED. Each year extensive audits and error checking of APSED are undertaken, to ensure that sound conclusions can be drawn from the data. Through this audit process, previously published data has been updated. The June 2014 data published in SOSR and the Bulletin has been revised.

“As in the Bulletin, a headcount approach is used in these tables—that is, people working part-time are aggregated with people working full-time without weighting. Data also includes inoperative employees. Employees’ classification in these tables refers to their base or substantive classification, unless labelled otherwise.”

More at The Mandarin: Lloyd’s law: APS commissioner looks to the private sector

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.