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What happened to the skills? APS review hears all about the view from the bottom

An early taste of the feedback to the APS review has flagged the erosion of both core and specialist skills, crumbling and impersonal services, and a lack of alternatives when these services don’t meet individual needs.

The first 78 submissions to the independent review of the Australian Public Service have been published. They range from comments that could fit inside a tweet, through to essay-length.

Dealing with government is a pain, many reported — whether they’re starting a business, a job seeker or retired — with front line workers unable to keep up, phones going unanswered, and applications seemingly lost to the ether.

The elderly and others who cannot use computers independently are being left behind, as well as those outside the capital cities, report several of the submissions — perhaps hinting where the benchmark citizen satisfaction survey will begin.

The APS insiders, meanwhile, generally say they are passionate about their work, but don’t feel supported to do everything they feel they ought to. Some attribute this to insufficient opportunity to move or rise to where they feel their skills would best help, poor IT across government, or the centralisation of service delivery decision-making. Pay and conditions are raised in numerous responses.

‘A whole industry of contractors and consultants busily re-inventing the wheels’

The single most common concern across the submissions is that executive levels of the APS have become contract managers, instead of leaders of public service teams.

A subset is also concerned about depleting number of permanent jobs available, as positions are gradually removed from the organisational chart and replaced with contractors performing the same functions.

These contractors do the work of the public service, some report, without the innovation of a market-driven private sector, nor the accountability and ethos of the values-driven public sector.

Some submissions claim these arrangements are made to save money (at the loss of internal skills), while others cite examples where these arrangements cost more than building and retaining the capability in-house. That money, the latter claim, heads mostly to multinational corporations.

Government can’t attract information technology skills, especially cyber, some submissions say because they command in excess of $200,000 as contractors. “Why would they consider APS 6 or EL1 roles,” asked one contributor who suggested the recreation of the ICT professional stream.

Another reflected the sentiment of several submissions on the risks created by this skills shortfall:

“In IT, there is very little expertise left within APS agencies, following an explicit outsourcing push in the late 1990s. Agencies therefore have to contract out even simple tasks, at significant expense. Without internal expertise, agencies frequently do not have the capability to appropriately specify, evaluate or manage contracts. There have been some recent well-publicised failures resulting from this. There are numerous less-publicised failure.”

APS head Dr Martin Parkinson made pointed comments at the Innovation Month launch last week to agencies that use contractors to outsource not just to deliver services, but policy work too:

“But if you get to the space where you basically hand over thinking about policy development, policy prioritisation, to consultants, then you’ve actually given away your core business. And then you should ask yourself, what are you doing here?”

The deadline for submissions to the review has been extended.

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.