18 May 2021

PM rejects call for return to core pay and conditions in united public service

| Ian Bushnell
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Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the government has accepted most of the Thodey Review’s recommendations but those to do with staffing, pay and conditions have been rejected. Photo: File.

More outside recruitment and partnerships, a return to common pay and conditions, and an accelerated take-up of digital technology are part of the prescription for an Australian Public Service that may not be broken but is in need of serious repair, according to the Thodey Review released on Friday (13 December).

It has made 40 recommendations, most of which Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the government has accepted, instructing the Secretaries Board, led by the Secretary of PM&C and supported by the Australian Public Service Commissioner, to lead the reform effort beginning with a “rapid planning phase’ over the next few months at a cost of $15 million.

The review calls for a more united, flexible and flatter public service with greater collaboration across agencies, agile teams and a move back toward common core conditions and pay scales over time to reduce complexity and improve efficiency, but this last recommendation has been rejected.

It says the APS lacks a clear unified purpose and is too internally focused.

“There has been long-running under-investment in the APS’s people, capital and digital capability, while siloed approaches, rigid hierarchies and bureaucratic rules create barriers to effective delivery,” the review says. “APS leaders do not always act as a unified team. Most of all, the APS is not changing fast enough to meet government expectations and deliver for Australians in a changing world.”

It says at least $100 million a year in dedicated funding is required to kick-start the transformation and at least $1 billion a year is needed to support better services and outcomes through digital transformation and to sustainably fund other public capital.

This need not be new funding, with the review identifying savings, re-allocations and the efficiency dividend as ways to pay for the reforms.

However, the public sector union says the Prime Minister has already rejected key recommendations in his recent announcement to slash the number of departments.

The CPSU welcomed the review’s findings on staffing, pay and conditions, and funding.

National Secretary CPSU Melissa Donnelly said the Government received the report months ago but had flaunted its disregard for it just last week by slashing departments and creating mega-departments.

“What we have seen today is the government’s own report join the many calls to lift the Average Staffing Level Cap and fix the broken public sector funding model. This is but one of many recommendations the Morrison Government has rejected,” she said

”It’s time for the government to invest in the services it keeps promising Australians.”

Labor’s public service spokesperson Senator Katy Gallagher said the government’s response was weak and non-committal – fully agreeing to just 15 of the 40 recommendations and providing a miserly $15.1m to ‘initiate reform’.

She said the true colours of this government were on full display when they have rejected important recommendations which call for:

  • Abolition of the ASL (staffing cap) after implementing a new workforce strategy (rec 19)
  • Moving to common pay and conditions for public servants (rec33)
  • Improvements in integrity and transparency (rec 7, rec 30, rec 38, rec 39a)
  • Working more closely with the States and Territories (rec 12)
  • Robust processes to govern the termination of secretaries’ appointments (rec 39c).

“Today marks a a major missed opportunity to modernise the APS and ensure it is properly equipped to deliver for Australian into the future,” she said.

In what will be seen as a red flag to journalists and other concerned about government secrecy, the review says materials prepared by the APS to “inform deliberative processes of government” should be exempted from release under FOI laws, so the APS can advise the Government “freely and robustly”.

The review says the APS is behind the curve when it comes to the use of digital technology and needs to catch up with the rest of society in adoption and skills so it can deliver better services and release staff to customer service roles.

It says the APS needs to look outward more, recruiting more employees from outside the service to broaden experience and perspectives, and working with more external partners – “going beyond traditional participants (and beyond Canberra) … to provide ministers with a range of perspectives and the on-the-ground experiences of all Australians”.

The review proposes a Charter of Partnerships, developed with APS partners, to help achieve this.

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