The public service continues to grow, despite many departments instituting a hiring freeze, the latest report on the bureaucracy shows. And there’s some helpful advice for tweeting pen-pushers.
While most public service departments downsize to accommodate the federal government’s quest for a budget surplus, the Departments of Defence and Immigration have offset the cutbacks, ensuring the total number of public servants continued to grow in 2011-12, the latest State of the Service report from the Australian Public Service Commission shows.
The overall number of Commonwealth public servants grew by over 2,300 in 2011-12 to 168,580 in June. The growth translates into around 1,200 full-time equivalent positions.
The bulk of the growth occurred — as it did in 2010-11 — in the Departments of Defence and Immigration. Defence put on more than 900 public servants, while Immigration added 650 to deal with the surge in asylum seekers. Defence’s extra public servants, according to its annual report, were “associated with the civilianisation of military non-combat positions and conversion of contractors to less costly APS employees”. The 5500 strong Defence Materiel Organisation added nearly 500 positions on its own.
What reductions there have been in the rest of the public service have mainly occurred at more junior levels. The numbers of more junior officers, from (the increasingly rare) APS 1 to APS 4 categories, all fell during the year. Departments also slashed their graduate intakes by nearly 13% — slashing graduate recruitment is the most pain-free means of keeping staff numbers down, but has a long-term downside as graduates are intended to be the next generation of middle and senior management.
In fact, rather than cutting back staff, the primary means of curbing public service numbers in 2010-11 appears to have been simply not hiring people — the number of engagements overall fell 12% in the year, compared to strong growth the year before, while separations actually fell slightly. But that only applies at more junior levels: for example, the Executive Level 1 category — the most numerous after APS 6 — grew strongly, by over 4%, on top of 6% growth in 2010-11.
Nor is there any evidence yet that Canberra is hurting as a result of cutbacks. Nearly 41% of the APS is now located in Canberra, compared to 39% in 2010-11 (and 33% in 1998).
The reliance on non-recruitment has some interesting consequences. It partly explains why traditional public service advertising sources The Australian and The Australian Financial Review were struggling even before the government moved to place most of its job ads online.
It also illustrates the problems with the opposition’s insistence that its own, ambitious target to cut 12,000 jobs from the public service can be achieved through a “recruitment freeze” — the public service has already been going in that direction for at least a year, but operational demands in Defence and Immigration have thwarted the impact (although, of course, the opposition maintains the fiction that they can tow boats back to Indonesia and Sri Lanka, so they’ll claim they can slash Immigration numbers).
The report includes some interesting comments from Public Service Commissioner Steve Sedgwick. Plainly stung by the James Button book (which earns a paragraph of its own in the report), Sedgwick devotes several paragraphs in his overview to the issue of public comment by public servants. Sedgwick continues to be highly risk-averse on the issue:
“This is an evolving area, especially as the role of the new media grows. The power of these media in facilitating public discourse and in disseminating information is strong, and growing. Governments are experimenting in using these new media tools to strengthen democracy and promote better policy outcomes for citizens. And we are all coming to terms with the robust, possibly even occasionally unpalatable, language of some debates using these forums. The approach advocated in the Commission’s guidance was initially deemed by some as excessively cautious (and worse). As Commissioner, I make no apology for this. There is much at stake here—including careers if an individual’s misjudgement has the effect of impugning their integrity or impartiality.”
What’s intriguing is the boundary that Sedgwick appears to set on public comment:
“The issue becomes much more contentious when the matters at hand are politically contested, or where an APS employee is perceived to have moved beyond explanation into advocacy. A number of examples could be cited. For example, some policy options in respect of climate change that were not originally politically controversial became so as the political context shifted. This example reinforces the importance of the exercise of prudence and good judgement by APS employees when being called upon (or considering an invitation) to discharge such roles publicly.”
In effect, Sedgwick appears to be saying that public comment by public servants on an emissions trading scheme, a bipartisan policy under Liberal leaders John Howard, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull, now should not be discussed publicly by public servants, despite it being government policy, because Tony Abbott reversed his own support for an ETS, leaving it as a partisan policy of the government’s.
Sedgwick also touches on an issue that prompted a flurry of interest when Wayne Swan’s office leaked a Treasury analysis of Coalition policies a month ago:
“… it is quite appropriate for senior public servants to be at least professionally curious about the merits of alternative policy proposals under debate—whether originating from a non-government party or any other source—subject to resource constraints and other priorities. These matters can become highly sensitive at times, especially in respect of ideas that are politically contested, or as an election approaches, albeit outside the caretaker period. Again, trust will be maintained when everyone involved exercises sound judgement in commissioning, preparing and using such material.”
If one didn’t know any better, one might read that reference to “sound judgement” in the “use” of such material as a barb directed at the Treasurer’s office. But surely not.