Things are about to get real on the APS reform front with a powerful senate committee recommending changes to the law governing the public service be accepted.
The Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee has urged the Senate to pass the Public Service Amendment Bill 2023, which aims to implement parts of the government’s agenda to reform the Australian Public Service.
Changes sought to the Public Service Act 1999 include enshrining ‘stewardship’ as an APS value, preparing an APS purpose statement and banning ministerial interference in individual employment matters.
The bill also seeks to empower lower-level employees in decision-making, require capability reviews of each department and some agencies, and require agencies to publish the APS Employee Census results (with limited exceptions).
The bill also removes the existing requirement in the Act to seek the Australian Public Service Commissioner’s consent to delegate powers and functions to Australian Defence Force members.
According to the bill’s explanatory note, the amendments sought would create “an APS that acts with integrity in everything it does”.
“Initiatives in this area will build public trust and strengthen standards of integrity in our federal government,” the bill states.
The bill was introduced into the House of Representatives on 14 June 2023 and passed in that chamber on 1 August, after which it was introduced into the Senate.
The Senate referred the provisions of the bill to the committee for inquiry and the committee delivered its report on 30 August, recommending the Senate accept the bill.
“There is no question that serious concerns have been raised in recent years about the conduct and the culture of the public service,” committee chair and Labor Senator Louise Pratt said in the report.
“This bill presents a legislative tranche of reforms to change aspects of the public service that the committee considers are largely unobjectionable.
“While acknowledging concerns raised about stewardship by some submitters, the committee is reassured by the level of consultation that the Australian Government carried out on stewardship and whether it should be an APS value.
“Given the recent findings of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, which showed that in a number of instances it was lower-level public servants who raised concerns about the scheme rather than the Senior Executive Service, the committee takes the view that every public servant should be required to uphold a value of stewardship that requires them to understand the long-term impacts of what they do.”
The committee was convinced the APS itself should develop an APS purpose statement to form a vision statement that could be updated as required.
It also agreed that legislation should require agency heads to create a work environment that encourages decisions to be made at the lowest appropriate level.
Capability reviews, insights reports and action plans arising from APS Employee Census results, however, should be subject to increased parliamentary scrutiny, according to the committee.
“It was the Senate that referred an inquiry into the Robodebt Scheme long before a Royal Commission was established by the executive branch of government, or made findings that called into question aspects of the conduct and the culture of the Australian Public Service,” the report states.
“It is the Senate that calls departmental officials before it, at both estimates and public hearings for individual inquiries, to answer for their conduct and their expenditure of public money.
“History suggests that there have been failings when the public service and the executive branch of government have been left to review or question themselves and that this trend cannot be expected to change without external accountability measures.
“As such, there are reasonable questions to be asked about whether the public service should set and administer its own reforms without an appropriate level of parliamentary oversight.”
The committee wants capability reviews to be undertaken in all agencies and has asked the government to explain why only the Australian Public Service Commission, Services Australia and the Australian Taxation Office – along with all the departments – have been singled out in the bill.
The Greens support the bill but think it could have been “more ambitious”.
The Coalition will try to amend the bill in the Senate to require more ministerial oversight of capability reviews, but overall, the bill looks set to pass.