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Commonwealth tweaks diversity hires, transfers to fast track

Just days after the Australian Public Service Commission said it would “streamline” internal transfers and diversity hires during the interim hiring freeze on Commonwealth agencies, the federal government has released how much the redundancies are costing.

While the government is keen to reduce the size of the public service by prioritising transfers for displaced staff, last week it agreed to a few measures to help fill roles quickly when no displaced employee is appropriate. There was initially some confusion as to what specifically had changed, but The Mandarin has learned the tweaks are intended to reduce roadblocks to filling positions due to needing commission approval for all vacancy advertisements.

The modified arrangements — which are not a freeze, Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick reminded earlier this month — outline additional ways to fill vacancies without the need to seek the Commissioner’s consent. The new guidelines to agencies state:

“Agency heads may advertise vacancies internally, open only to ongoing APS employees, without the prior approval of the APS Commissioner provided the agency head is satisfied that the vacancy is essential to the operations of the agency and there are no suitable employees on the APS Redeployment Registers.”

Additionally, agencies may advertise externally for affirmative placements of indigenous Australians and people with disability without the commissioner’s consent, “to improve the representation of Indigenous Australians and people with disability within the APS using the affirmative (special) measures provisions provided in the APS Commissioner’s Directions 2013.”

The directive describes the ethos and legal-basis behind creating affirmative positions:

“These measures are designed to enhance the employment prospects in the APS of persons with an intellectual disability, and persons with a severe disability, who would otherwise be unlikely to obtain APS employment through the standard APS recruitment and selection arrangements, but who have the capacity to contribute to the work of an agency. The measures are also designed to assist such persons to gain skills and experience that will further their ability to participate in the workforce.

“The measures are also intended to counter the underrepresentation of both persons with disability and Indigenous people in the APS workforce.

“While the exceptions to the merit principle provided in these measures may limit the right under Article 6(1) of ICESCR that everyone should have the opportunity to gain their living by work which they choose or accept, this is outweighed by the competing interest of promoting diversity by affirmative measures.”

However, both affirmative hires and internal transfers will come with compliance checks to ensure that displaced public servants are considered first. The APSC warns that it may withdraw an agency’s vacancy advertisement if existing displaced staff were not genuinely considered for the role. In the case of persistent non-compliance the commission may also revoke that agency head’s authority to recruit at all without the commissioner’s approval.

This comes as there was seemingly confusion over the permissiveness of the Section 26 internal transfers. Earlier this month Sedgwick said he “encouraged this approach”, and the policy did not prevent agencies from entering into non-ongoing contracts of less than 12 months for critical positions.

The APSC advises that overall APS staff numbers are declining each month and the average staffing level of the general government sector is expected to reduce to 16,500 by 2016-17.

All other measures in the interim recruitment arrangements from October 2013 are retained for the time being, including targeted recruitment programs for graduates. The only comment offered by the APSC about the latest changes was simply:

“The government has agreed to streamline some of the operational aspects of the arrangements, without diminishing their effectiveness in meeting the target.”

The Final Budget Outcome figures released Thursday show the separations and redundancies payouts during 2013/14 have blown out to $580 million. In May this year they were originally estimated at $273 million. The impact of the correction will be minimal however, as the total wage cost of Commonwealth public servants came in $709 million cheaper than originally expected, at only $18.8 billion. The redundancy cost is also dwarfed by the $740 million spent on the another growing cost to public sector agencies: workers compensation premiums and claims.

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.