15 May 2023

Beginning of the end? Budget delivers a whole new meaning to APS consulting

| Chris Johnson
Join the conversation
blurred office scene

The APS is looking to forge new partnerships beyond traditional consultants. Photo: File.

Consulting as we know it could be a thing of the past, at least as far as the Australian Public Service is concerned.

At a minimum, it will undergo a dramatic change.

The Federal Budget has detailed a string of measures the Government is pursuing to build APS capability and to break the over-reliance on external consultants.

“It will mean rethinking who the APS interacts with and what people-centred public administration means,” the budget papers state.

“It means consulting beyond traditional participants and locations to provide government with a range of perspectives and on-the-ground experiences of all Australians.”

In short, it suggests the government is moving away from the tainted practice of outsourcing almost everything it does.

External consultants will no longer be the answer to APS workloads, and the government will not be the cash cow it has long been for the big contracting firms.

Reimagined partnerships will surface, with “this is the way we’ve always done it” no longer an acceptable mindset.

“The government is committed to ensuring the APS works in genuine partnership with the community to solve problems and co-design the best solutions to improve the lives of all Australians,” the budget states.

It’s the end of the world as we know it – just not yet.

Nothing is going to happen tomorrow.

Reviews, surveys, discussions and developments still have a way to play out before any noticeable changes are implemented.

Committees within committees are busy at work.

READ ALSO Labor senator blasts PwC over government consultancy breach

A new “partnership priorities sub-committee” of the secretaries board has been established to further embed partnership culture and behaviour in the APS, including place-based partnerships.

The government is looking for opportunities to support secondments between the government, business, and community sectors.

The sub-committee is developing a charter for partnerships and engagement, to provide a clear view of how the APS will work in this brave new world.

Capability reviews are already underway at the Australian Public Service Commission, the Department of Health and Aged Care, and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts.

That’s just the beginning.

A series of reviews will spread across the APS to focus on building the capability of individual agencies.

The government also appears committed to establishing an in-house consulting capability, and has provided almost $11 million towards its development.

Once established, it is hoped it will provide a new source of high-quality consulting services for the APS and at a lower cost than external firms.

“The in-house consulting capability will strengthen internal capabilities and bring critical work back into the APS,” the budget states.

An audit of APS employment was recently conducted across 112 agencies and found that in 2021-22 the service had an external labour workforce of 53,900 staff.

“This translates to around one in every four dollars spent by agencies for departmental purposes being directed to external labour services,” the budget says.

“The audit found that around 69 per cent of the spending on external labour was on outsourced service providers.

“Contractors and consultants accounted for close to 27 per cent of expenditure and labour hire accounted for around 4 per cent.”

READ ALSO Too many public servants and too many gambling ads, says Dutton in budget reply

The audit’s findings have informed discussions about the use of external labour roles.

And Labor has used its second budget to express its continued focus on reducing spending on external labour.

A total of 3314 positions in 2023-24 are being converted to APS roles.

The reduction in expenditure from conversion is $811m over the forward estimates.

The government is also more closely expanding its use of the Survey of Trust in Australian Public Services, a national survey measuring public satisfaction, trust and experiences with public services.

This closer scrutiny of APS integrity has been largely forced on the government from the fallout of the illegal Robodebt automated debt recovery scheme.

The public service’s role in the scandal, including how external consultants were used, has been as much a focus of inquiries as the political decisions taken.

Meanwhile, the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme has sought, and been granted, another deadline extension.

It now has until 7 July to present its report, a week later than its 30 June deadline, which itself had been extended from 18 April.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

Really looking forward to earning 20-25% less than what I currently am in a city that is already too expensive for single-income households. Can’t wait for the next 10% inflation year where the APS staff are forced to decide if they want to eat that week or heat their apartment.

Most consultants are a waste of money, and don’t actually know anything more than the stuff they have, rather than training anyone just easier to get an overloaded consultant in

HiddenDragon8:08 pm 15 May 23

This should be a nostalgic trip down memory lane for some of the older, longer-serving departmental secretaries who will recall how the APS operated back in the days when they were upwardly thrusting woodchucks – i.e. beyond the innocuous (and un-sexy) areas of staff development, “planning days” with butchers’ paper and/or white-boards, and facilitation of relatively tepid organisational change, consultants were fairly rare beasts – particularly in the development of policy and programs.

Some of the same secretaries might also recall that the other initiative outlined in this article – which sounds like a revival of the style of corporatism that was a hallmark of the Hawke-Keating era – generally worked well in broadening perspectives in policy and program development and administration, and was often very helpful at gaining “buy in” and heading off problems, but it was susceptible to group-think and an appearance of diversity of opinion when what was really being experienced was an echo-chamber with appealing acoustics.

Towards the end of the Keating government, the latter phenomenon was increasingly apparent and may well have contributed to the 1996 federal election result. This would certainly be something to be guarded against – particularly by a government which already seems to be at, or near, peak hubris, smugness and righteous certitude.

TruthinMedia6:36 pm 15 May 23

There seems to be a focus on getting rid of consultants all together but it’s a balance thing. I’ve never consulted to government in Canberra, my main client area was oil and gas, mining and heavy industry (globally) but did some work for the Singaporean and Hong Kong governments. They were happy to pay the expenses and fees because I had 30 years experience in a niche area they needed supported by continuous education, I worked alone without a bevy of expensive know nothing new grads (how consulting firms make their money) and finished the work as quickly as possible (to a high standard) so that their costs were acceptable. One client had budgeted 2 weeks for a job andI managed to finalise it for them in 3 days and that is all they paid for. Anyone who has worked in a department/agency for years on a contract no longer has a value adding skill differential and is simply an expensive ‘employee’

I can see these in house consultants being a bunch of unaccountable wankers who go around vomiting up buzzword enriched word salads of little to zero value.

Tom Worthington5:16 pm 15 May 23

An underutilized resource for the APS are interns, at Canberra’s universities. What they lack in experience they more than make up for in up-to-date technical knowledge. Many of the interns I mentor at the Australian National University School of Computing are in place at major international consulting companies, who are utilizing their expertise in cyber security, AI, and data analytics in projects for the Federal Government. The APS also has computer students as cadets, but they tend not to be utilized for their cutting edge knowledge.

My department has long term individual contractors. Some for over 20 years. Their daily rate is over $2000 per day. Good luck getting rid of them. They’re best mates with the executive

Queanbeyanite3:41 pm 15 May 23

Yes, let’s not utilise the skills of specialists, let’s rely on public servants who have never worked a day in the private sector.

It should be a requirement for EL2 to have worked for a private company, not servicing the public sector, for two years. They can take two years off without pay if necessary.

That’s a good idea, then they can see how much more money they can make, for less responsibility, in the private sector.

TruthinMedia2:24 pm 15 May 23

OMG – what a word salad! Firstly, anyone who is not on the APS payroll is a contractor because that is the mechanism by which they are engaged. There are only two choices – employee on payroll or a contractor (on contract of course). A consultant is someone with specific expertise (training, experience, methodologies etc) that you need for a specific outcome in a set time frame and that you don’t have in your own organisation. These can be obtained as an individual or organisation through a CONTRACT – either external or internal (work order). The latter is because even if you have an APS central consulting resource it’s staff won’t move onto the payroll of the client agency with its own awards etc. You need this internal contract to agree outcomes, timelines – call it a work order if you like but it’s still a contract. Secondly, practise BPR. Almost all agencies have their own systems (e.g. SAP) and WoG pricing does nothing for the massive duplication and waste of resources. The APS only needs 3 central system (e.g. SAP) hubs – one for policy agencies, one for operational agencies that receive or distribute moneys and one for security agencies. Do this and the need for IT consultants will greatly diminish. Use these consolidation projects to build skills.

Get rid of Big Four + MBB engagements would be a start.

The APS framework operates on a framework that isn’t appealing: no longer has a competitve package (nil defined benefit), SES executives are too focused on their careers with the bureaucractic framework, puppets for the Ministers, poor working conditions, poor culture, poor recruiting process, minimal career progression, CPSU will do whatever Albo Govt says and the framework doesn’t lend to innovative outcomes in an acceptable time frame.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.