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Verona Burgess: bursting the Canberra public service bubble easier said than done

Overcoming the barriers to working in the APS outside the capital cities is proving harder than many realise.

Other than the ongoing saga of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority’s move to Armidale, little has been heard about public service decentralisation since former Nationals deputy Fiona Nash disappeared in the dual-citizenship debacle.

Perhaps all will be revealed in the budget — but meanwhile, spare a thought for some facts about the Australian Public Service’s regional workforce.

The Australian Public Service Commission’s State of the Service Report roadshow is nearly over for the year, with just Melbourne, Hobart and Darwin to go.

The sessions showcase the goldmine of workforce data the commission holds from the annual employee census, the annual agency surveys and the fabulous APS Employment Database.

As the head of the workforce information group, Helen Bull, said at the session in Canberra on February 22, “We have demographic data on every public servant who’s worked for the APS since 1966. It allows us to do a lot of trend analysis and see over time how we’ve changed in a lot of these areas.”

Few people outside Canberra understand that of the 152,095 APS staff, 62% do not work in the national capital.

Yet Commissioner John Lloyd said that of the 62%, only 14% (up from 12% five years ago) are located outside capital cities.

There are clear distinctions both in the type of work and the workforce.

“Effort in the regions is squarely focused on service delivery,” he said. “Forty-three per cent of staff indicated that they worked in service delivery in the regions while only 3% of staff in Canberra nominated service delivery. The most common job family of employees in Canberra is strategic policy [15%], closely followed by 14% who nominated ICT.”

Only 2% of regional staff worked in strategic policy and less than 9% in ICT. As expected, ACT-based staff had more senior roles, not just in the Senior Executive Service, but also double the number of executive level staff.

In the regions there was a great deal of direct contact between staff and public service clients.

“There is [also] a higher number of female employees in the regions. Canberra staff, 57% are female. Some states are as high as 65% female. There is a tendency for Executive and SES staff to have a higher proportion of male employees than [in] Canberra. More employees outside Canberra are non-ongoing staff and more are casual. In Canberra 4% of staff are non-ongoing and 2% casual. In the regions, the proportion of non-ongoing staff is up to 8.7%, and casuals at 9.5%, quite a distinct difference.”

Lack of mobility

Then there is mobility, or lack of it. An internal APSC program, rather optimistically called “Operation Free Range”, is examining ways of removing the barriers.

The APS, Bull said, faced discrete skills shortages, an ageing population and a fiercely competitive labour market, all within a tight fiscal environment that continued to demand seamless service delivery.

It needed strategies to attract and retain the best people and to keep people engaged by making it easier to move to new challenges and opportunities.

“Some skill mixes are also changing as we experience things like technological expansion. This means we need a better way of getting the best from our workforce. Increased mobility is a smart strategy and an investment in the future capability of the APS.”

Yet every year only about 2% of APS staff moved to a different agency. That rate has not changed much in 15 years.

In addition, 92% of promotions in 2016-17 were internal to the relevant agency.

Large numbers of staff had worked in only one agency for their entire career, while mobility rates were substantially lower outside the ACT.

“So you might be sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, I didn’t think it was that bad’. But it is significantly different.”

There were fewer mobility opportunities outside Canberra, especially in regional areas.

Often, the Commonwealth agency was the only or the main employer and there was limited opportunity to move jobs, other than by relocating to a capital city.

This became difficult for shorter-term placements and there could be significant relocation or travel costs.

The wording of job advertisements seemed biased towards those already in the area, while managers were sometimes reluctant to release employees due to difficulties in backfilling, or talent hoarding.

However, informal tap-on-the-shoulder mobility worked very well and was used frequently.

“Mobility also tends to be more effective when it is managed centrally and brokered, and we know that there are a number of agencies across the service who also have their own internal programs.”

Operation Free Range was also looking at using centralised arrangements to assist mobility.

Mobility was particularly successful where it was seen as part of professional development and linked to performance agreements.

“We acknowledge that mobility is difficult and, for some places, promotions may also be hard to come by. Therefore, development is increasingly important.”

Yet the uptake of learning and development courses the APSC facilitated was very low in the regions and they often had to cancel them.

“We are keen to know why this is, and how we can improve in terms of the offerings that we have in this regard,” she said.

All of which adds to the evidence that it is easy to whinge about the “Canberra bubble” but far harder to burst it — if you want a high-quality public service.

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.