ACT counts the dividends of efficiency, and the cost of efficiency dividends

By Stephen Easton

Thursday June 8, 2017

The ACT government expects its public service workforce to grow slightly overall by about 300 full-time equivalents over the course of the coming financial year, while it extracts savings from several agencies through an efficiency drive.

Although the agency staffing table shows little change for the coming financial year, Treasurer and Chief Minister Andrew Barr believes he will see savings start to flow as public service jobs evaporate “through the expiration of programs or technology change” — adding up to about $9.6 million spread evenly over three years from 2018-19.

The “excess staff” will be in line for redeployment “or other options” — those are left to the reader’s imagination in the 2017-18 ACT Budget, released on Tuesday.

Two new agencies will take the work of just under 100 full-time staff to run, with 20 FTEs budgeted for the City Renewal Authority and 77 for the Suburban Land Agency. Proportionally, the biggest workforce reduction will be in the electoral commissioner’s small team, which is slated to shrink by 25% from 12 FTEs this financial year, down to 9 for 2017-18.

As Barr’s team tallies up the potential dividends of its efforts to squeeze more efficiency out of the ACT public service, they see the federal government’s efforts to do the same as a key risk to the local economy, along with the Nationals’ push for decentralisation, warning:

“The coming year will see significant increases in the APS efficiency dividend begin, and continue over the medium term.”

Significant savings will be found by upgrading the machinery of several portfolios: Health; Transport Canberra and City Services; Justice and Community Safety; and in the centre of government, the Chief Minister, Treasury and Economic Development Directorate.

The central agency’s expenditure review division will target community care and protection services, and libraries, asking whether “services are delivered in a sustainable manner” and the territory’s residents are getting bang for their bucks. The expense control squad will also pursue “a range of other projects and analytical work” once they get their priorities in order.

Sometimes you need to spend money to save money, and “improving the efficiency of government” will cost the chief minister’s department about $1m, spread fairly evenly over the next three years.

Savings from streamlining, efficiency and the like are spread across the rest of government. The Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate, for example, is expected to see combined savings of well over $2m over four years, from more efficient “biodiversity management” as well as streamlined customer service and master planning processes.

In total, efficiencies in the Justice and Community Safety portfolio are to deliver $4.89m in four years, and more than $5.2m over the same period is predicted to be shaved off the Transport and City Services portfolio.

Three other Budget items appear under the banner of “smarter government spending” including an extension of the ACT’s “Smart Modern Strategic” procurement reform project. The first deliverable, a single online system to manage labour hire contracts across the whole government called Contractor Central ACT, was planned to go live in late March but is still in the works.

The reform program will now expand into procurement of property maintenance, medical goods and services, and ICT systems. According to the Budget, this will cost about $2m over two years and generate savings of $16.5m over three years, starting from mid-2018.

The $14.5m in net savings “relate to more efficient spending on goods and services by directorates” and the 2017-18 Budget Review will detail how this money will be re-allocated.

The territory government will spend $3.1m over two years on a plan to “consolidate the management of non-specialised property assets into a single property management division” tasked with managing centralised contracts for services like cleaning, security maintenance, and utilities. The Budget shows this generating savings from 2019-20 and delivering a net benefit of around $3.78m by the end of the forward estimates in mid-2021.

Another $22m is forecast to come from selling off properties the government doesn’t need, or barely uses anymore, by the end of the out-years. The money saved on overheads for these sites will also be allocated to individual directorates in the 2017-18 Budget Review.

The ACT Ombudsman — which is a function of the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office — gets a funding boost due to recent reform of the territory’s freedom of information system, while $2.78m is allocated to giving citizens more say in government decisions.

The government promises “a pilot deliberative democracy project which will pursue policy reform opportunities through a citizens’ jury” as well as reforms to consultation and communication channels.

Comcare workplace insurance premiums are expected to go down by $15 million for 2017-18 and the federal agency is pleased that the territory government has now reversed its 2015 decision to exit the workplace insurance scheme as as result.

The federal agency’s chief Jennifer Taylor said “better return to work outcomes and fewer claims” were behind the drop and expects to close out this financial year with the scheme’s asset to liability ratio at 100% for the first time since 2010.

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