Super departments cut down to size? APS carving organisational layers

By David Donaldson

October 6, 2016

Large bureaucracies have a tendency towards extensive tiers of delegation, but too many layers can be costly and hinder effectiveness and accountability. Consequently, the federal government has been pushing for more efficient organisational structures in the public service.

This pressure appears to be having an effect — according to the forthcoming 2016 APS state of the service survey, around 40% of federal agencies are currently reducing the number of organisational layers, while another 20% are planning to.

The issue has risen in priority in recent years. After the 2014 National Commission of Audit called for broader spans of control and fewer management layers, the Australian Public Service Commission released the APS framework on optimal management structures outlining how to make this happen. The framework requires agencies to have the fewest reporting layers possible to be able to perform effectively. It’s expected more direct reports and fewer layers will enable changes to be adopted more quickly, facilitate clearer communication and minimise silos.

The APSC argues the ideal number of organisational layers is between five and seven. For comparison, some large departments like Defence have had up to 12 layers, causing some public service grades to span several tiers of the organisation. In some areas of the department, an EL 1 could be promoted three times up tiers of the organisation before reaching an EL 2 graded position.

The current average organisational layers for the whole of the APS is 5.3, according to the survey, which will be tabled in late November.

There is, however, considerable variation based on size at present. The commission concedes that the optimal number for an individual agency may differ — particularly depending on the size, complexity and geographic distribution of the entity. “Extra small” agencies have an average of 4.2 reporting layers, compared to small (4.6), medium (5.6), large (4.9) and extra large (9) agencies.

No, that wasn’t a typographical error. Large agencies in the Commonwealth have, on average, fewer layers of control than medium-sized agencies.

In the survey, over half of agencies said they were working on broadening spans of control, with 44% indicating they were already taking action to increase the number of direct reports to supervisors, and 18% saying a plan was in development. Examples include re-evaluating job roles and reviewing the size and composition of teams.

Specialists won’t be immune to managerial duties

Specialists usually don’t have as many direct reports as generalists, and often won’t have had the same emphasis on managerial development. those without at least three direct reports, may find themselves caught up in their department or agency’s next restructure.

The Commission of Audit found significant variation also in spans of control. At EL2 level for specialist and policy and research roles, the number of direct reports ranged from two to 12 people; at EL1 the range was one to 10. The APS framework lists the benchmark number of reports for a specialist policy position as three to seven.

Some have raised concerns about an overzealous approach to the push for broader spans of control, however, with claims of specialist public servants being burdened with management roles they are unprepared for or uninterested in.

The APSC also wants to ensure decisions are made at the lowest practical level. “A range of classification levels can exist in the same layer,” it notes. “Layers should reflect decision-making and accountability in line-management reporting arrangements.”

At present 54% of agencies are acting to improve decision-making delegation, and 15% claim no action is necessary. Common actions include restructuring, reviewing delegations and providing decision-making training.

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