Sep 18, 2013

Same-old, same-old for an APS dealing with constant change

Public servants know what to expect from an incoming Coalition governments. But the cuts will be on top of a long period of Labor downsizing. Change is in the air in Canberra ...

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

The arrival of the new Coalition government will be a little different for the public service compared to the arrival of the last two governments. In 1996, John Howard started with a bang, sacking half-a-dozen secretaries, but the big cuts to Australian Public Service numbers didn't start straight away; they came after the government announced the budget situation was much worse than expected and big spending cuts were needed. That's when redundancy offers began flying around departments, inducing much fear and loathing among many -- and delight among the few who realised it was a great way to finance an extended holiday or a major renovation before returning to the APS down the track. In 2007, Kevin Rudd has promised to take a "meat axe" to a public service that had bloated to deliver John Howard's spending programs, but ending up holding off after a change in fiscal strategy dictated by the emerging financial crisis. In 2013, the APS knows that the Coalition has promised to slash 12,000 from their ranks, but it comes on top of successive rounds of efficiency dividends imposed by Labor, including one explicitly aimed at curbing the fastest-growing sector of APS employment, the Senior Executive Service. Some departments, like Health, have been cutting staff since late 2011. There'll be many more cuts to come, even though the Coalition has abandoned its "budget emergency" nonsense and adopted the same fiscal policy as Labor, and is now even talking about stimulus. Plunging the Canberra economy into recession carries no political cost for a conservative government. And these cuts, at least, stand a chance of genuinely removing bureaucratic deadwood. The great APS tradition is that it's the talented who take redundancies, leaving an on-average poorer quality public service behind. But after Labor's cuts, the low-hanging fruit has all been picked. Long-serving duds, who've relied on the APS' byzantine performance management "system" to stay on the public payroll while underperforming, might now be found out. While that process is ongoing, there'll likely be some restructuring occasioned by the Administrative Arrangements Orders, to be issued today (update: here they are).  The AAOs basically assign functions across the public service, with different departments and agencies given different Acts to oversee. Ministers are also supposed to receive a "charter letter" from the prime minister outlining their responsibilities and priorities. Early in the Howard years, ministers were supposed to reply to their charter letters, a task so sensitive it was often abandoned. For public servants who find themselves in new departments, life on the ground doesn't change much. Relocation plans might be drawn up for eventual implementation but budgets are tight and leases hard to break. Areas moving departments -- such as Aged Care, which will switch to the rebadged FAHCSIA, now known as Social Services -- have to be switched over to other IT networks, which can be a major challenge, especially if different IT providers are involved (thank you John Fahey). Tony Abbott today announced three secretaries were going: Don Russell, Blair Comley and Andrew Metcalfe. Treasury chief Martin Parkinson will stand down mid-next year. Lisa Paul steps in as Education Secretary, Paul Grimes will head up Agriculture, and Glenys Beauchamp takes on Industry. Gordon de Brouwer is the new Environment chief, and Renee Leon is the Secretary of Employment. New secretaries, appointed to replace those knifed, or existing ones given new or additional responsibilities, will come around to meet their new charges, stand awkwardly at a morning tea or address a meeting. Some particularly enthusiastic ministers will do the same (to their lasting benefit -- public servants react positively to occasional interaction with their primary client). New ministerial advisers will start poring through the incoming government briefs carefully prepared prior to the election. For some departments, this will be their third or fourth minister in a matter of months. But APS life will go on, even if there are fewer warm bodies at desks for the next couple of years.

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10 thoughts on “Same-old, same-old for an APS dealing with constant change

  1. wilful

    Bernard, your 5th paragraph makes no sense at all. I’ve tried reading it several times and I’m still not sure what you’re saying. Is it that everyone competent has already left the building, so there are only incompetents left, so cuts will be better this time? Erm, the logic is escaping me. Perhaps we should keep on cutting to make sure that all the deadwood is removed, abolish the APS?

  2. Gavin Moodie

    I think BK’s para 5 is saying that departments have made all the voluntary redundancies already and will now have to identify compulsory redundancies. He implies that compulsory redundancies will be identified by performance, but I’m not so sure.

    A department could identify redundancies by the old principle of last hired first fired, suitably adjusted not to breach any ground of discrimination. This would achieve a target number of redundancies at least cash outlay since briefer serving employees have lower redundancy entitlements. But it wouldn’t necessarily cut out poorly performing officers, long serving or otherwise.

  3. MJPC

    Nothing like a journo to comment on working in the APS that they know nothing about.
    Firstly, “Action” Abbott has made the comment (prior election) that redundancies will not be offered, but will be through ‘natural attrition”. This may or may not be true. As for deadwood being left and brightest leaving, that comment is just so much crap. The redundancies are most beneficial to those officers who have been in the PS the longest (2 weeks pay for every year of service up to 24 years I believe it is plus accrued leave) have the most experience and have the most to continue to give (also, they are not looking to leave after 5 minutes in the job for a better offer) over the young whippersnappers who reckon they know everything, but actually very little.
    So what happens is that the most technicaly experienced leave and what is left is the most inexperienced. Combined with retirements, it has often meant departments with stuff all direction and a workforce that lacks leadership to determine just what their goals are. Add to it cubacks in recruitiment, and functions are not performed which adversley affect front line services.

  4. oldskool

    MJPC- you do know that Bernard is an ex Public servant, right?

    And no, with redundancies- you are wrong.
    I was going to go into an explanation, but I just couldn’t be bothered.

    I am a PS.

  5. bluepoppy

    As a sometimes public servant (contracted) the constant change within the APS is a bit of a joke. This is different to the changes as outlined in the article which inevitably come with change of government but changes (reforms) that are instigated by senior public servants to justify their roles and have a litany of reforms to their credit on their CVs.

    Whether or not the reforms are actually sound, based on evidence/logic or even needed when a service is already optimal, is a non-consideration. This sounds cynical but it is a fact of life in the modern APS. Change CAN be good, but change for the sake of change and careerist aspirations defeats the purpose of good government and good service delivery. Any botch ups that end up reverting to previous processes are swept under the carpet. It has become an in-joke within the Canberra APS where ‘change management’ is often described as a job-creation scheme.

  6. bluepoppy

    As for redundancies – we can all guess where the cuts will be made as already demonstrated by the Centrelink cuts to call centre workers. I wonder who will now be answering the phones at Centrelink and how long will citizens have to wait to speak to a public servant to seek advice. Phone rage will indeed be rife and more public servants out on compo. When there are staff shortages there is usually a corresponding rise in bullying due to pressures at all levels and a tendency to point blame elsewhere. If a public service is to deliver services cuts should never be made to those who deal with the public face to face. It is against the idea of ‘service’.

  7. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    I’m partly with MJPC. I’m not sure about the longest serving being the most technically experienced though. Well ok maybe the most technically experienced but not always the hardest working. Working in the VPS (as a contractor) I’ve noticed some of the old guys going on a work slow hoping for a redundancy (our little fiefdom is exempt and we are busy). I’m happy to bow to their superior experience but I really don’t have time to help them to design their kids wedding invites on work time thanks. Mind you I have noticed that some of the older female admin employees who have left over the last few years aren’t easily replaceable and were effectively managing the business for the old dears. Interesting times.

  8. Serenatopia

    Managerialism has taken over the APS—this means that HR is over-populated, the technicians have been marginalised and failed administrators have been promoted…the deadwood has survived and the legal areas have been hijacked by the large private law firms…This has meant that deep corruption has been allowed to thrive…You only have to look at the Tax Department’s obnoxious spending on external consultants including private law firms to the tune of $100million annually, over $500,000 on psychiatrists to allegedly manage the deadwood and not to mention payments to the Australian Crime commission for surveillance on who knows who by the ATO to the tune of $2million…If there is going to be targeting of individuals for redundancies, it will be any remaining integrity and competence in the APS that will be targeted!

  9. Sailor

    Urrrgghh. Don’t think it’s just the public service that suffers from this, Serenatopia.

    You remind me viscerally of the 3 large ASX-listed firms I worked for over 4 decades (amongst several small firms, including my own) before I asked for redundancy at nr 3 while it was still possible.

    Nr 3 was a takeover of nr 2, and was the worst of the lot – even though the “clean-out” at the top meant the competent managers were all replaced by sociopaths & bullies from the Private Equity mob with only one aim in mind – divide, & sell off at a profit.

  10. Serenatopia

    Thanks for sharing that Sailor boy! I totally agree that the private sector is infected!

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