19 December 2022

APS kept busy in an extraordinary year

| Chris Johnson
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Jim Chalmers

It was a big year for Budgets. Photo: Supplied.

As years go, 2022 has been a big one for the Australian Public Service, full of challenges, turmoil, pivots and progress – so business as usual, really.

Well, not really.

For starters, it was an election year. But that’s not where the year began.

So as it draws to an end, let’s look back at some of the highs and lows for the public sector in 2022.

It’s been a budget-fest with not one but two federal budgets handed down this year.

One was delivered early by a political party hoping to cling onto power, and the other out of schedule as a realignment of priorities from a new stripe of government.

Budgets don’t just affect those working in Treasury and Finance. Every agency has significant work to do in preparation for an annual budget.

So when an annual budget suddenly becomes biannual (even just for one year), the workload is tremendous.

And let’s not forget that the two budgets this year have followed a couple of years of pandemic-induced additional and out-of-schedule budgets.

READ ALSO Davis says APS must value their stewardship: ‘Public service without purpose is bureaucracy’

There might have been a caretaker period in the lead-up to the May election, but the APS was working frantically on those red and blue books.

Preparing incoming briefs for either a return of government or a change in government is a monumental task.

Once the election was decided, the relevant books (they’re not red and blue, BTW, that’s how they are described) were tweaked further and briefings took place across all portfolios.

And it only got busier after that, with an energised Labor government pushing a fresh agenda.

Pacific neighbourhood relations, action on climate change and international engagement took immediate priority and kept the bureaucracy diligent.

With a new government came a new boss for the APS – Glyn Davis being appointed secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet .

New secretaries and envoys were appointed, while others were shown the door.

Also shown the door were thousands of contractors to the APS, not just those working on ICT projects at Services Australia.

APS Reform has been the mantra, with a high degree of introspection from the service itself and a concerted push (orders even) from the ministers in charge.

The APS is truly in the middle of a shake-up. What’s left and what it will look like once the shaking settles down remains the great unknown.

The independent APS Hierarchy and Classification Review was delivered in August, with most recommendations being embraced but not the actual ones challenging the status quo of the classification system itself.

Senate Estimates are another recurring nightmare for the public service. Those held after the election uncovered little more than details of an SES urinating at an Armidale party and the backlog of passports and visas being processed.

READ ALSO Public Service Minister is stealing Canberra’s Christmas

Royal commissions, we’ve had a few.

The Robodebt Royal Commission is helping to confirm just how hard it is for some public servants to push back against their political masters – and just how much blame-shifting occurs inside and outside of the service.

That one, as well as the other ongoing royal commissions (defence and veteran suicides; and the abuse of people with disability), have exposed varying levels of our national shame.

The national audit office has been busy and called out irregularities across several agencies – most notably some very dodgy procurement practices at the Digital Transformation Agency.

Scott Morrison could have made more work for the APS with all the extra ministries he took on, except few people knew about the power grab.

Once that came to light following the election, an inquiry and a parliamentary censure gave the former prime minister another dubious honour.

The COVID pandemic has continued to consume a lot of focus, as have natural disasters and regional tensions (not to mention actual wars further afield).

And working from home continues to be a hodgepodge approach across agencies.

The highs and lows have been many – almost in equal measure – yet the sector remains intact and reliable.

It’s just as well because next year will see an even more concerted effort by the Albanese government to push its policy and legislative agenda.

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I look forward to significant sackings of senior managers at Centrelink/Services Australia arising from the Robodebt royal commission. There are a number who have shown themselves to be seriously unimpressive in the hearings.

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