The federal bureaucracy is over-reliant on Canberra for its workforce and needs to base more staff outside the national capital, a government report says.
- Government agency heads say the concentration of skilled and senior jobs in the ACT undermines recruitment
- The new government is still working out how many staff it employs via labor-hire and consulting firms
- For the first time, women now hold most senior executive roles
The Australian Public Service (APS) is in the midst of a recruitment crisis, heightened by the ACT’s extremely low unemployment rate, which is trending at 3 percent.
While only 38 percent of the APS’s 160,000 employees work in the capital, it is home to the vast majority of senior executives and political workers.
However, a group of government department heads say this “Canberra-centric” approach to staffing is undermining the APS.
They are preparing a location strategy, parts of which are detailed in the latest State of the Service Report.
That report says basing more senior jobs in Canberra discourages a wider search for the best candidate.
This poses “significant risk in attracting and retaining the right workforce skills and capabilities”, it says.
“As a consequence … recruitment does not target in-demand occupations where they are located (that is, in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland).
“This means the APS is missing out on opportunities to source talent, especially for in-demand occupations.”
A Public Service Commission spokesperson told the ABC the COVID-19 pandemic had “demonstrated our ability to work well at all levels from dispersed locations”.
“This includes performing all types of work, including political officers.”
Audit underway to measure hidden workforce
The APS is expanding under the new Labor government and will likely add thousands of staff in the coming years — if it can find them.
Before this year’s election, Labor committed to winding back the Coalition’s widespread use of labor-hire workers and consulting firms, and reinvesting some of the savings into the public service.
However, the government’s first step is to work out how many people it actually employs via third parties and how much it spends on them.
No one knows at present, so the finance department is carrying out an audit to find out.
While the government’s private-sector workforce grew under the Coalition, the APS shed thousands of jobs before the pandemic, until hiring constraints were eased.
In the Morrison government’s final year, it employed an extra 5,800 public servants, the most rapid growth in 15 years.
Coalition’s ‘bush push’ failed, but Canberra may cede jobs anyway
The Coalition also oversaw a controversial plan to decentralize the APS by moving public servants’ jobs from cities “to the bush”.
An entire agency, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), was shifted from Canberra to former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s electorate in regional NSW.
However, decentralization largely failed: on the whole, the Coalition removed almost 2,000 jobs from rural and regional areas during its nine years in office.
Geelong, the headquarters of the National Disability Insurance Agency, was an exception. But the main beneficiaries under the Coalition were Brisbane and Adelaide.
Labor was a fierce critic of the motives behind decentralisation.
However, Australia’s tight labor market is now forcing it to go “regional”, if not “bush”.
Last month, finance minister Katy Gallagher said four “APS Academy” campuses would be set up in universities in Newcastle, Darwin, Townsville and Launceston.
They would focus on recruiting and training staff with digital and data skills — the areas the APS struggles with the most.
“People have told us that they want to have careers in the APS but don’t always want to leave the communities where they live, simply to take up new training opportunities interstate,” Ms Gallagher said.
“That’s why we have decided to make these training opportunities available in some of our larger regional towns and cities.”
She also told the media in May she had “no problem” with decentralization where it was necessary.
“You should have a business case or some process that says this will be cheaper, more efficient [and] deliver better services if it was done here, than if it was done [somewhere else].”
The State of the Service Report notes COVID-19 “saw a seismic shift in perceptions of where work can be done, disrupting the nature of workplaces across the world”.
The APS location strategy will also explore giving public servants greater flexibility, such as working from home or remotely.
It will be finalized early next year.
Breakthrough for female leaders
The report also shows that, for the first time, most APS senior executives are women.
Women now make up 52 percent of the 3,000-strong senior executive service, and almost half of the federal department heads (seven of 16).
In the private sector, only one in five chief executives and one in three key managers are women, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
The report also notes large increases in public servants’ workplace satisfaction over the past year.
Most APS staff say they are strongly attached to their work and feel they have a secure job. Perceptions of bullying and harassment also fell.