19 March 2024

It's a trend – proportionally fewer public servants working in Canberra

| Chris Johnson
Join the conversation
parliament building and surrounds at night

Canberra is changing and can no longer be considered just a public service town. Photo: File.

Canberra’s relationship with the Australian Public Service is getting a tweak from both ends, with the ACT Government and the federal bureaucracy flagging changes ahead for the capital.

In his 2024 State of the Territory address, Chief Minister Andrew Barr suggested Canberra could no longer be considered purely a public service town.

He said the proportion of APS employees in the ACT workforce had dropped significantly (31 per cent to 24 per cent) in the 10 years between 2011 and 2021.

And the private sector grew at a much faster rate than did the public sector during that period.

That trend is continuing.

“We have an increasingly diverse, dynamic and growing labour market,” Mr Barr said.

“The Federal Government is still clearly the main employer and its presence in our economy is a very significant factor.”

The Chief Minister added that the city itself was changing and his government had a strategy to reinvigorate the CBD while also expanding further afield.

READ ALSO Committee report: Barr rejects any more planning changes before election

That means looking at the state of the city’s infrastructure.

“We face a dual task of needing to build new, but also needing to replace some of that ageing infrastructure,” he said.

“We want more people living in our CBD, but we will also need new suburbs.”

Meanwhile (the very next day), a federal departmental secretary has stressed the need for the APS to look beyond the capital city to build its workforce.

Department of Health and Aged Care Secretary Blair Comley told an Institute of Public Administration Australia event that flexibility in the workforce had changed so dramatically that many public servants could work remotely.

That means more APS employees located outside of the ACT and more people spending more time working away from the office.

“Now we have a conversation about whether it’s too inflexible to ask someone to come in for one meeting a week in the office, because we’ve really had this massive transformation,” he said.

In his own department, there are now 10 per cent more people working outside the ACT than there were a year ago.

The secretary said that was a trend that would continue because the workforce was increasingly located outside of the capital.

“We have this massive hybrid working environment and I think that’s a big change,” he said.

“I think we’re still in the transition point.”

The recent capability review of the Health Department, published late last year, revealed that middle management there had struggled to deal with a high level of workplace flexibility.

The review suggests they haven’t been trained for it and there was an evident frustration at not being able to bring teams together like they used to.

But it’s not just in Health. These are commonly shared problems across agencies.

And while most public servants have been eagerly anticipating the start of their new rights to work from home more often, or to work from outside of Canberra, some government agencies are still scrambling to embrace the fresh approach to workplace conditions.

READ ALSO Treasurer moves to lower expectations over upcoming Federal Budget

Departments are having to restructure ICT networks to accommodate the new arrangements. In some instances, systems have been or are being entirely replaced.

Rostering staff is also shaping up to be somewhat of a potential nightmare for public service bosses. Flexible working arrangements for employees were secured in APS-wide bargaining negotiations last year.

Agreements at agency level are currently finalising and being positively voted on.

And as previously reported by Region, fewer APS employees located in the capital – combined with the slash to external consultants to the sector – has already impacted the ACT’s bottom line.

Payroll tax has taken a huge hit following the $3 billion cut to Federal Government spending on consultancies in the APS.

Mr Barr recently said the slowdown in spending due to higher interest rates and inflation also meant GST payments for the territory would be reduced.

The payroll tax slump from the engagement of fewer consultants adds to the pain and what is expected to be a bigger-than-expected deficit.

It all adds up to a $189 million hit to revenue in 2023-24 and $99.2 million over the four years to 2026-27. However, the ACT Government expects the deficit to be temporary.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

I agree with BeeBee. Speaking as a previous senior leader through the pandemic lock-downs, WFH does make operating as a supportive and cohesive team difficult, and makes it easier for some to hide poor performance. As a result, it puts greater load onto managers to ensure that staff do not become disconnected and have sufficient guidance to work more autonomously. Such arrangements should not be viewed as a common solution to all roles but for suitable ones only, and maintaining regular on-going physical team contact within the office is critical. The unfortunate situation is that now WFH has been demonstrated as possible, many people view it as a right rather than an opportunity.

Further, as g4george has pointed out, WFH implemented by government offices within the CBD has virtually killed trade within that area. I know a number of businesses struggling in the Canberra Centre, for example, because they don’t have the walk-by numbers they had pre-pandemic. The Canberra Centre management doesn’t help encourage shoppers to the CBD either with their policy of charging for parking from Minute 1 – it’s just a blatant money grab. They need to follow the same approach as Westfield does i.e. the first 2 hours free. More casual shopper would make the trek into the CBD then.

Sounds like the managers need to stop living in the past, and adapt to the new way of doing things. Businesses and departments who have adopted a new way of doing things are exceeding productivity, and employees are far happier in those roles. It’s only the “old guard” managers who are wanting people to come back to the offices, because they need to hover over them to. Manage staff properly, arrange for mental health check-ins, encourage staff to come together once a week. If they are struggling to get work done, performance manage them and/or move them on.
As for businesses, this again is where they need to adapt. Business models based on foot traffic of workers are outdated, and COVID lockdowns showed that the businesses who were able to adapt and use a new model thrived. While initially impactful, will anyone really miss having a coffee shop every 20 meters in the city?

Between federal Labor and local labor we can’t even provide decent internet.

They’re revising up the number of fibre to the house and fast internet across australia in the technology change upgrade.
The target is at least 90%, however in the ACT the target is 50%.

Why? Because we have telephone lines on poles, anywhere with undergound phones get the upgrade, those in the older suburbs miss out.

NBNCo were happy to install but Evo energy said the poles are too old and need replacing. Whats the ACT government doing?

While bar flags that lower payroll tax and gst, the government is also handing out record welfare and payments. Which directly contributes to the inflation.

Incidental Tourist5:37 pm 18 Mar 24

Past working culture had some charm. Traffic jams while people having breakfast, doing make up, or shaving in cars, 9 to 5 work in the office, formal dress codes, regular drinks on Fridays, manager going around with pay checks, mail pigeon holes, interoffice envelopes, private desks, cubicles, offices, desk nameplates, individual stationary, business cards, desktop phones, Password123, free cookies and tea in the kitchen, smoking areas, and even “tea lady”. When everything goes what’s left is work from home and shared desks. A pesky camera is still on meetings though. But I guess someone will soon complain that camera invades privacy? And “camera on or off” choice will soon become a new bargaining frontier. And the rest will be ChatGpt ready.

As a former PS, the WFH culture made team collaboration extremely difficult and frustrating. Overall productivity suffers. The overly flexible culture now allows behaviours that never would been allowed to stand 10 years prior. Moreover, the businesses in the malls surrounding the departments are suffering terribly. The pendulum needs to find a more sensible balance.

As a current PS, the flexibility to WFH is one of the key aspects that keeps me in my current role. Forcing people back to the office will achieve nothing, other than boosting the coffers of Wilson parking and coffee shops. All studies show that WFH had zero or positive effects on productivity, workers are happier, and have a better work/life balance while also reducing carbon footprints massively. The only ones wanting higher levels of WFH are middle managers who need to physically watch what their employees do so they can micromanage and justify their jobs.

I have a suggestion for revitalising Civic. Stop charging for parking after 6p.m. and on Sundays. Last time I went to Braddon to sample their wares on a Sunday (some time ago now), it cost more to park than it did to buy my coffee. That’s the reason I don’t go in there.

Michael Dawson10:20 am 18 Mar 24

Its time that we should develop and build canberra from the lens of a non public servant

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.