Inside the latest Australian Public Service statistical update

By Stephen Easton

September 26, 2017

The latest Australian Public Service statistical update shows total headcount has been kept down and the long-term trends continue towards an older workforce with more part-timers, less staff in the lowest pay grades and more women, including in the senior executive service.

One graphic accompanying the latest stats (right) could help inform the discussion around further decentralising the Commonwealth’s public sector workforce, by illustrating how the APS is mostly an east-coast operation, with staff outside of its base in Canberra generally spread according to where most people live. 

The Australian Public Service Commission reports there were 152,095 APS staff at the end of June, after a decline of 2.3% over last financial year. It says this is the lowest figure since 2006 — although it isn’t much lower than the June 2015 estimate of 152,253 while a graph based on APSC figures and published by Fairfax Media’s Public Sector Informant suggests it was even lower in December 2014, at 151,355.

The commission’s statistical updates all say previously reported data can be revised in subsequent reports (the June 2015 headcount above is revised to 152,240 in the latest table) and it has removed all the reports earlier than 2015-16.

Treasury’s larger figure of the federal government’s total average staffing level (ASL) excluding the military was 167,247 for 2016-17, and estimated to decline to 167,064 averaged across the current fiscal year in the May budget.

Arguments aside, the overall picture is clear enough. The total APS body count was about 155,000 a decade ago, and grew to a peak of 167,331 in 2012 before dropping precipitously over a couple of years to roughly where it is now.

Today’s update, which was reported exclusively by The Australian newspaper shortly before it came out publicly for the first time we can recall, shows the major cuts pursued by the Coalition government since 2013 have mostly occurred in the ranks of ongoing employees.

Ongoing staff now make up 90.2% of the APS, but in the past year there has been a slight change in this regard. The number of non-ongoing staff has increased by more than 3000 over the past decade, but in 2016-17 it actually dropped as a percentage of the total, from 11.4% to 9.8%.

APS Statistical Bulletin 2016-17 – data tables, Table 1a

At last count there were a further 14,840 who fit in neither category — 6698 “employed for a specified term or task” and 8142 on the books for irregular or intermittent work.

While the APS has grown and then contracted again by roughly 10,000 bodies in the last decade, full-time work has declined by 4% so the proportion of federal public servants working part-time now stands at 15.8%.

Other long-term trends continue as well. Now only 17% of federal public servants work at levels 1-3 on the classification scale, compared with 24% in 2007, while the number aged over 50 has grown from a quarter to 32%.

And the latest figures show women now account for 59% of the total and 43% of senior executives. Women outnumber men at all levels below Executive Level 1, where their numbers are roughly even. Men are still in the majority at EL2 and above.

Part-time work is also far more popular among women; 23.7% take it up compared to only 4.7% of men, meaning that 87.7% of the part-time APS workforce is female.

There are now 4821 Indigenous public servants in the APS, making up 3.2% compared to an estimated 3935 who made up 2.5% of the APS 10 years ago.

The latest figures show 5846 people with disability, down from 5602 in 2007 but the same fraction of the whole, 3.6%. The proportion who didn’t grow up speaking English has stayed about the same in the past five years.

Well over half of the total are in four departments — 22.4% of the APS work in Human Services, 13.6% in the Tax Office, 12.1% in Defence and 9.1% in Immigration and Border Protection — each of which have over 10,000 on the payroll.

In the statistical sample of 95 APS agencies, there are 20 more with at least 1000 staff, 25 with between 250 and 1000, and 46 with fewer than 250. (Those with under 100 are considered “micro-agencies” and excluded from the surveys although there have been two attempts to look at them separately in the past.)

An appendix shows how many staff moved around in machinery-of-government changes over the past year once again, and there is an interesting breakdown along functional lines.

Specialised agencies are the most numerous, making up 44% of the total, but they only employ 6.3% of public servants. On the other hand, about 20% of agencies are operational in nature and they collectively employ 70% of the APS.

About a fifth of agencies are policy-focused and also employ about a fifth of the workforce, while regulators are the fewest in both number and staffing.

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