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Labor’s alternative APS: less efficiency cuts, but stop flying around so much

As well as removing the Australian Public Service staffing cap, a Labor government would forgo  nearly $400 million in planned efficiency dividends, cut travel costs by 10% and employ 1200 more permanent, full-time staff at Human Services.

Shadow Finance Minister Jim Chalmers has outlined the opposition’s alternative plan for the Australian Public Service in a speech this afternoon at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, as part of a discussion of the APS Review hosted by the Australia New Zealand School of Government.

“While the additional efficiency dividend may have served a purpose in the past, it’s now had its day,” he said. “It is a blunt instrument that hinders the public service’s ability to deliver the services and policy advice Australians rely on.

“I make the point that we don’t propose to reverse previous efficiency dividends or remove the base efficiency dividend that has been in place since 1987.”

Chalmers suggested the foregone additional efficiency dividends, which would otherwise strip 0.5% from agency budgets over one financial year, will preserve about 550 jobs, and said the cost of about $394 million would be offset by agencies cutting back on employing contractors and consultants.

From looking at contracts reported on AusTender, Chalmers said it appeared that spending on hired help in the APS had risen from $307.6 million in 2013-14 to over $1.1 billion in 2017-18. Finance has suggested that the procurement website was not designed to provide this kind of information accurately; if that is so, it should be “fixed” and made more transparent, according to Chalmers.

A Labor government would put all “government spending and procurement data” into a central database for “contract reporting and consultancy spending” with agencies required to use clearer and broader definitions of “contractors” and “consultants” in order to capture accurate data, including records of sub-contractors.

“Of course, there’s a role for external expert advice, but it’s gotten out of hand, and it’s not a radical idea to say that public service work should predominantly be done, where possible, by public servants,” the Shadow Minister said.

The proposed crackdown would focus on “contracts for management, business professionals and administrative services” and agencies would be asked to make sure APS employees play a bigger role in IT projects.

As for travel, he expects that teleconferencing and videoconferencing can be used more often, arguing: “We have record and growing debt and public servant numbers have been slashed, yet travel spending has climbed to well over half-a-billion dollars a year.”

The 1200 new jobs for DHS would be spread across the country — “decentralisation done right” according to Chalmers.

“These are in addition to the targeted investments Labor has already announced, in the ATO to implement our fairer plans for taxation; strengthening the competition watchdog; implementing our FutureAsia initiative and our Advanced Manufacturing Future Fund; and putting in place a National Integrity Commission,” he added.

Chalmers agreed with the decision to hold the APS Review and said the opposition was keen to make the most of it, although its members would have liked to have been involved in setting it up.

“Panellist Gordon de Brouwer has spoken about a risk-averse tendency for decisions to be elevated to senior managers, meaning more junior officers weren’t getting the experience they should, and the importance of encouraging bureaucrats to think outside the box.

And, perhaps most critically, the need to gain the public’s trust by talking to them differently and avoiding ‘bureaucratese’ – giving them the information they need to make informed judgements and decisions.”

He also commented on the value of institutional memory, and confirmed it is Labor’s view that “machinery-of-government changes to suit ministerial ambitions have damaged real efficiency and effectiveness” in recent years.

He noted that recently, “three political staffers were appointed to senior positions in the bureaucracy, including Scott Morrison’s own chief-of-staff to head up Treasury” — clarifying that he did not see the new APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott as a similar political appointment — and said Morrison had jeopardised the reputation of the Treasury by “dressing up dodgy figures generated in his own office” as the department’s analysis.

The speech also covers the Shadow Minister’s own experience of working in the Queensland public service and the APS, starting in 2000, when:

“Even with a PM&C Secretary nicknamed ‘the axe’, there were relatively more resources, less outsourcing, and more consistent policy skills across agencies. Officials could build long-term careers in a service less prone to the loss of talent and politicisation of contemporary public administration.”

Later, he spoke of what he took from working with “some of the greats” including former Treasury secretaries Ken Henry and Martin Parkinson, especially during the global financial crisis:

“The GFC response required political leadership, but it was also one of the APS’s finest hours: clear eyes, cool heads, corporate memory, policy courage, and with ordinary Australians front and centre.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.