18 October 2022

Public service reform needed, but getting it right will be tricky

| Chris Johnson
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Katy Gallagher

Minister for the Public Service Katy Gallagher signalling that reform is on its way. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The term ‘enduring reform’ has a certain authoritative ring to it.

Long-lasting changes that go to culture and the very way things get done.

Katy Gallagher has promised exactly that for the Australian Public Service.

Good luck.

The Public Service Minister is saying all the right things and appears to have a genuine commitment to improvement in and for the sector.

There is big picture vision as well as attention to more immediate minutiae in the little that has already been unveiled of Labor’s plan to effect serious change across the entire APS.

READ ALSO Ambitious and enduring reform agenda for APS

Work is underway on an in-house consulting model that will help reduce the massive spend on external contracting and build and capitalise on the APS’s own skills base.

The work that has typically and increasingly been undertaken by consultancy firms over the past decade – such as customer service roles, project management, events management, data analysis and strategic planning – will largely return to the domain of actual public servants.

That’s the objective anyway, but it’s a big ask.

“An in-house consulting model will give public servants the opportunity to develop expertise further, build relationships, collaborate with colleagues, and challenge themselves in new ways. It can create opportunities to work across departments to support One APS,” the Minister said at the recent Institute of Public Administration’s national conference.

READ ALSO Public servants need to learn more about the strength of soft power

The ‘One APS’ idea is also a great notion and another that’s easier said than done.

With wage disparity across agencies, it’s hard for anyone looking for a change but wanting to remain in the APS to believe it is really one public service.

A ‘no disadvantage’ approach to salaries only means an APS6 or EL1 in one agency won’t be offered the same level job in another that is paying $20,000 less.

And it is also currently seeing public servants from the lower-paid agencies applying en masse for the same level jobs in agencies paying much more.

But that’s only one obstacle in the path of achieving a reformed, united sector.

The reliance on consultants is now an entrenched trait of the public sector’s character.

The federal Labor government is only just grasping the enormity of reversing that attitude in the APS leadership.

READ ALSO Government working on a model to bring APS consulting in-house

It’s not just the previous Coalition government that thought outsourcing was the answer for the public service. Departmental bosses long ago embraced the labour-hire push. It’s now part of the APS psyche.

Replacing consultants with more full-time public servants is a splendid goal, but no one should hold their breath for significant change to be noticed any time soon.

Senator Gallagher has also talked about enshrining the public sector’s stewardship responsibilities in legislation.

“As servants of the public, we are all responsible and accountable for leaving the APS in better shape than we found it,” Senator Gallagher said.

The Minister might find stewardship to be a little hard to legislate for.

Requiring the workforce to adhere to public service values will be 1) tricky to define and 2) almost impossible to enforce.

Bringing back agency report cards to gauge how well the public is being served might only ignite antagonism from the public sector workforce towards the government.

The PM has tasked Senator Gallagher with instigating reform in the APS and she is the person to do it.

It is already clear that Labor has far more respect for the public service than the previous Coalition government had (that was blatantly apparent during the election campaign).

But amid all insistence on much-needed reform, the Federal Government needs to strike the right balance between improving the sector and the service it provides and keeping its workforce onboard.

The ambition is good and right-minded – so it’s a very genuine ‘good luck’.

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Only those born in Australia should be able to work in the Australian Public Service. And they should be permanent employees (not contractors).

devils_advocate4:56 pm 10 Nov 22

Alright I’ll bite – Why is a citizen by birth more capable or worthy of serving the Australian public than any other citizen?

Relying more on APS-internal expertise and capability instead of consultants is worthwhile. But, not only is outsourcing and using consultant/contractors in the culture so too is not having the expertise/capability. APS commentators have for many years criticised the lack of subject matter expertise particularly amongst the SES. It will take a lot of effort and a long time to deal with all the managers who don’t know the detail as well as incorporate a new culture.

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