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ACT public sector reform: new governing arrangements

A change is coming to the ACT public service. After turning 20 earlier this year, the service is getting a new governing bill creating a new senior executive service, a new framework for principles and values, and a new independent commissioner to oversee it all.

The person currently in that role, and helping shape what all that will look like, is acting commissioner Bronwen Overton-Clarke. “One of the primary reasons for the new act is to modernise it,” Overton-Clarke told The Mandarin.

The new bill will clean out redundant employment standards and regulations that have since been overtaken by enterprise agreements. Conditions, already being covered by enterprise agreements, won’t change, but compulsory values and behaviours will now explicitly apply to the whole public sector. Those values include respect, integrity, innovation, collaboration and best practice.

The new Office of Public Sector Standards Commissioner will be responsible for overseeing that practice. The role isn’t fully “nailed down yet”, Overton-Clarke says. One complication in designing the new role is that unlike the Commonwealth or the other states, the ACT position is part-time, and has switched back and forth between being independent and a current member of the public service.

Overton-Clarke says the new bill makes her independence and impartiality much clearer, while supported by the governance of the Chief Minister’s directorate.

“That’s been the push through the Assembly to have that independent commissioner so it can have that oversight but also independence at the same time,” she said.

“What we’ve got so far is it’s about the promulgation of the values and behaviours across the service. How that pans out, whether they’re decision-maker on investigations, or whether they’re [specifically focused on] systemic issues across the service, we will carefully design to make sure the job is only three days a week.”

In line with the recent trend among many public service commissions across Australia, the ACT is looking at making sector reform a key part of the role. Overton-Clarke said: “I don’t think in reality they’ll be decision-makers in these investigations, because that would bury them down in the detail. But in terms of systemic changes, I do think it will be part of their role.”

The executive level in the ACT public service is also looking at a significant shift, with the creation of a senior executive service that will combine contracts with flexibility of at-level movement.

“In a sense it’s back to the future,” Overton-Clarke said of the shift away from appointment. “We’re on fixed-term contracts, so senior public servants in the ACT don’t have tenure. They are contracted to a particular job, unlike in the Commonwealth where they’re given a job and they’re appointed to the service.

“Through the bill we’re attempting to create greater flexibility by appointing them to a level and not having them appointed specifically to an office or a job in particular. They will be recruited to positions, but their contract won’t necessarily restrict them to a single position over the time of their contract. We’ve sort of done that by having the same executive capabilities for all jobs, with expectations of senior executive skills and capabilities but then appointing them to very specific positions.”

Overton-Clarke released her first State of the Service report in September. In it, the acting commissioner identified a shortfall from the “ambitious” recruitment targets of diversity groups, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those with a disability.

“We’re going to need to ensure we have more designated positions. We had it as a fairly voluntary response in the past, but we’re going to need to mandate more from my position and the head of service position and we’re in a position to start doing that now.”

The new Public Sector Bill 2014, based on a recommendations of the 2011 report Governing the City State by Allan Hawk, will be introduced in November.

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.