Tight limits on public service workforce growth can make life difficult for agencies whose services to the public experience ever-growing demand, in line with normal and quite predictable population growth.
Population growth is a simple concept but also one politicians choose to take account of, or ignore, as it suits them. The current government’s terse response to anyone questioning its arbitrary average staffing level (ASL) cap is one example.
Most public service budgets for education, health and so on grow each year, as does the tax revenue that funds them. When that growth trajectory is reduced to save money, ministers will invariably deny they have cut the budget. The standard debating tactic for the party in government is to simply argue they are spending more on the particular portfolio than any government ever before, regardless of the growth in need for public services.
Population growth, bolstered by migration, is a key underlying factor behind the long run of economic growth for which generations of Australian politicians have claimed credit. It also takes some of the shine off one of the big achievements the Turnbull government has claimed so far this year: one million new jobs created since 2013.
In this context, public agencies are expected to constantly find efficiency gains, perhaps through technology, as Commonwealth Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe observes in his latest report.
Manthorpe’s investigators were looking into delays at shipping container inspection facilities, where the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources and Australian Border Force check for biosecurity risks and contraband.
Some delays are reasonable, Manthorpe notes, but he reports “instances where containers sit at the terminal for extended timeframes awaiting inspection” that are caused by “reduced operational capacity” at peak times, as cause for concern.
The new report suggests the Australian Border Force (ABF) targets for the number of containers checked are over-ambitious in the light of its resourcing, and that the agency doesn’t pay enough attention to how quickly containers get across the border.
“The requirement for simultaneous physical examinations at times when staff are unavailable due to surge redeployment was also identified as a significant cause of pre-inspection delays,” Manthorpe reports.
“The ABF, like the Australian Public Service more generally, is currently subject to a cap on average staffing levels (“the ASL cap”). There are growing numbers of containers entering Australia, just as there are growing numbers of passengers, visa applicants, and other volumetric challenges confronting the ABF and the wider Department of Home Affairs.
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“A critical challenge for the whole Department, therefore, is how to manage increasing volumes across its business, so much of which present risks of harm to the Australian community, while living within the ASL cap.
“This requires smart and increasing use of technology, relentless examination of business models and being very clear about what tasks are prioritised over others.”
In terms of technology, the ombudsman’s report says the ABF could keep getting bigger X-ray machines, and provide new “plain English” guidance for the freight companies about how they can receive electronic alert messages when a piece of cargo has been cleared, if they have the right software.
DAWR and ABF inspectors could also work out a more efficient system for when they both need to look at the same container, Manthorpe recommends, among a few other ways to speed things up a little.
Being more realistic when setting performance targets — in this case, the number of containers to be checked — is one way to manage the legitimate expectations of stakeholders, the ombudsman suggests.
“The ABF should consider introducing a timeliness target for performing its scrutiny of containers because this will ensure that it does not lose sight of its facilitation role in the performance of its border protection mandate,” he proposes.
“Similarly, if it can’t meet the volumetric target for container examinations because, for example, airport operations are of a higher priority on a given day or more generally, then it should reduce the target rather than delaying trade for limited effect.”
On the stakeholder side, Manthorpe also notes most companies can join the Trusted Trader program and enjoy light-touch monitoring, assuming they meet the requirements to achieve and maintain accreditation.
From cargo to call centres
Much has been said about the federal government’s limit on public service staffing levels, and whether this simply leads to contractors filling gaps, like Serco staff manning Human Services phone lines with more contracts on the way.
That issue came up again in Senate estimates last week, as the opposition raked over the decline in the performance of the agency’s contact centre under the Coalition. The latest statistics show more calls are getting through but waiting times have increased — although the statistics started looking very sad well before the parties last switched places.
Human Services expects the number of callers who get the busy signal to drop by 10 million, year-on-year, to 45m for 2017-18. The Community and Public Sector Union notes in its latest statement against outsourcing DHS call centre work, this comes after the number of busy signals has “absolutely ballooned” in recent years.
“Four years ago the figure was 22 million and that had rapidly grown to 55 million last year,” CPSU secretary Nadine Flood said. She also argues Serco workers cost more, have poorer pay and conditions, and are not trained as well as public servants to provide the service taxpayers are funding.
On the other hand, when it comes to average waiting times, a dramatic drop from under two minutes to more than 12 occurred under previous governments. Human Services Minister Michael Keenan has hurled the opposition’s criticism right back at them, arguing they “slashed the department’s average staffing level” and that is why the waiting times got out of hand.
His opposite number, Linda Burney, blames the reduction of the department’s workforce by thousands of jobs for the contact centre’s declining performance over the more recent period. So both the minister and shadow minister have argued that staff cuts have led to poorer performance (over different periods of time and in different ways).
“Centrelink needs permanent, full-time staff who are properly supported and equipped to manage the complex issues facing income support recipients,” said Burney, who also argued the government would be better off giving permanent jobs to Centrelink’s casuals.
The critics of the cap on annualised average staffing levels across the Australian Public Service argue that it often means the taxpayer spends more on outsourced labour to keep the machinery of government ticking over.
Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann has a standard response: the cost of federal government administration as a proportion of total spending has continued to drop under the Coalition, in line with a very long-term trend.
Even if this trend of falling administrative costs continues, critics argue that spending slightly more while putting less in the pockets of employees just to get around the arbitrary ASL cap is illogical and wasteful.
The Labor opposition and the public sector union believe this is the case for Serco’s employees, since the job of answering Centrelink’s phone lines is not an unforeseen, short-term need.
The CPSU has also criticised DHS for spending $430,000 over a year for a consultant to review the DHS set-up and help fix the call centre issues by simplifying the extremely complex system.
Keenan told The Australian he thought most people wouldn’t care where the person answering the phone worked, as long as the service was reasonable. He has pointed out that private call centres already do a lot of public service work and said “that’s one of the sensible things the Labor Party did when they were in government”, but no clear explanation of why there is an advantage to hiring contractors over normal staff has been provided.
Flexibility is one often deployed in favour of using contractors. Although agencies have a lot of options to directly employ staff on a casual or short-term basis, and with various conditions through individual flexibility arrangements, recruitment takes significant time. Labour-hire firms are ready and waiting to cover a rapid surge.
This does not apply to Human Services answering phone calls or Border Force inspecting cargo, however, and many other government services to the public where demand — or need — does not fluctuate wildly and unpredictably, but grows in line with the population.
Border control agencies can probably squeeze more efficiency out of technology and the number of phone calls to DHS might one day plateau and even decrease, as self-service digital channels gradually improve. But there’s little sign of that happening anywhere near as quickly as hoped, or quickly enough to outpace population growth as yet.