The Australian Public Service is a large and complex set of agencies and departments, constituting more than half of the total Australian government administration. It employs a workforce of about 164,000. Contrary to assertions that APS staff levels have “exploded”, there are now about as many people employed in APS agencies as there were in 1990, despite the Australian population growing by more than 16%. Following the retrenchment of almost one-third of APS employees between 1991-99, the workforce has gradually grown back to its former size.

Since 1990, the APS has become more top-heavy, with a growing and male-dominated senior executive service and a corresponding reduction in the lower employment bands. There are enduring gender-based employment disparities including a higher proportion of women in lower-ranking positions and in non-ongoing and part-time employment. Despite most APS agencies adopting programs to achieve equal employment, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, people with disabilities, Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders are severely under-represented in the APS workforce.

The future of the APS is far from certain. With a change of government widely predicted in the 2013 election, the stated policy of the alternative government is to reduce the APS workforce by 12,000 in its first year in office: to retrench 7.5% of the staff who deliver services, develop policies, make rules and laws, monitor and enforce laws and regulations, collect taxes and manage government finance. These staff cuts will inevitably have a significant impact on the capacity of the APS to fulfil these responsibilities, and on the recipients and beneficiaries of services.

The opposition’s determination to reduce the size of the public service is based not on a considered appraisal of the effectiveness and efficiency of existing arrangements, nor a detailed argument that a smaller workforce can meet the needs of the community and government. Instead, it appears to be fuelled by a belief in small(er) government, and in the capacity of private and community sector organisations to deliver services that, in Australia, have traditionally been the responsibility of public service agencies. These arguments resemble those of conservative governments in other Western democracies and, especially, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” vision and its corresponding contraction of the state. The opposition’s pledge to retrench public service employees is also explained by its determination to return the budget to a surplus, a determination shared by the incumbent Labor Party.

Other than the protestations of the union representing these workers and a few Labor backbenchers, this stated intention has generated surprisingly little analysis or debate. In fact, the APS receives very little attention in public policy debates despite its important social role and function. This is evident in the general lack of interest in the current wave of APS reforms being implemented following the wide-ranging Moran review of the Australian government administration, which concluded in mid-2010. Although the review generated interest, debate, many submissions, and a set of strategies for change that were widely endorsed, there is a little ongoing interest and involvement in the implementation of these changes beyond the confines of APS agencies.

The Coalition’s desire to reduce the size and cost of the Australian Public Service taps into “small government” movements that have been prevalent here and in other Western countries since at least the 1970s. The values, visions and policies of these movements are currently expressed by the Tea Party in the United States and “Big Society” in Britain.

The appeal of these movements confounds community attitudes. Only 20% of Australians share the view held by the government and Coalition that public sector funding should be cut in order to restore a budget surplus. Attitudinal research conducted during the past 20 years provides reliable evidence that citizens:

  • Support government as the best instrument for promoting the general interest of society
  • Have a clear preference for public (rather than private) sector provision of community services
  • Hold greater confidence in the institutions of the public service than in major companies
  • Support increased social spending even when that means forgoing income or tax cuts and
  • Believe public servants are committed to serving.

Conversely, Australians hold less favourable views towards government administration and towards public servants who are not engaged in “front-line” delivery of public services such as health, education, policing, housing, roads and transport. We support public services, but are positively disposed primarily towards those public servants and parts of the public service we associate with the most tangible and immediate benefits. Administrative functions and staff are less valued for their role in fulfilling the range of purposes for which the APS was established. This contributes to an unrealistic view that public services only require front-line staff. This dualistic view allows Australians to simultaneously value public services, while acquiescing to populist attacks on public servants and their negative stereotyping in parliament, the media and popular culture. This concurrence of views creates opportunities for the policies of the Tea Party in the US, for Big Society in the UK and for the arbitrary retrenchment of thousands of public servants here.

Decisions about the size, role and structure of the Australian Public Service are decisions about the kind of society in which we live. They warrant active and inclusive deliberation and a strong evidence base on the performance, efficiency and capability of the APS. These deliberations should be informed by a robust assessment of citizens’ attitudes towards, and experience of, the APS. The proposed citizen survey would measure this in a more reliable, systematic and objective way than the existing agency-specific feedback mechanisms. But data alone will not engender the kind of debate that this important matter of public policy warrants: the beneficiaries of public services and public sector advocates need to be much more actively involved if citizens are to influence the outcome.

*Dr James Whelan is the public service program research director at the Centre for Policy Development, who recently published The State of the Australian Public Service: An Alternative Report