By Julian Bajkowski
Federal departments and agencies have been hit by an official hiring freeze as the Abbott government attempts to cull 12,000 public service jobs without resorting to redundancies as it tries to bring down government staffing costs.
The Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), the federal bureaucracy’s industrial umpire, has issued a notice that “recruitment activity underway is to cease, unless an offer has already been made to a suitable candidate” and that “no new non-ongoing arrangements are to commence, or existing non-ongoing arrangements to be extended, without agency head approval.”
Already widely anticipated, the freeze is the important first stage of public sector job shedding set out under the Coalition’s election policy and is aimed at eliminating as many of the 12,000 positions as possible without resorting to forced redundancies that would require often substantial redundancy payments.
Although the Abbott government has consistently maintained it should be able to meet its target through so-called natural attrition, unions and many public servants believe that the target is simply too ambitious to be realistic given the timings that have been set out.
That sentiment is being fuelled by the release last month of the Parliamentary Budget Office's post-election report which estimated that 6000 public service staff would need to go by the end of the financial year (30th June 2014) to reach a savings target of just over $300 million.
The financial year cut-off is also when all Australian Public Service Enterprise agreements expire, upping the stakes for industrial negotiations.
The problem that both the government and public service heads now face is that sustained staff turnover could be less likely to occur if people believe there is a real prospect of generous redundancy payouts is on the horizon.
Put simply, the imposition of a hiring freeze could result in equivalent inertia on resignations – a scenario that would either force the government’s hand on redundancies or lead to it missing its targets.
More immediately, the Public Service Commission has told agencies and departments that it is now putting in place “interim arrangements” that give priority to “the redeployment of existing staff.”
“In the first instance, agencies are required to consult the Australian Public Service Commission’s redeployment register,” the APSC said.
However both the government and the APSC have conceded that there will necessarily be exceptions for critical roles where replacement staff cannot be drawn from its existing redeployment pool.
“For essential vacancies, where no suitable employee at level is available, within the agency or on the register, agencies will need to seek the Australian Public Service Commissioner’s agreement to advertise.
“As a temporary measure, the Commissioner will issue a revised Commissioner’s Direction authorising the advertising of APS vacancies for filling by existing APS employees, by transfer or promotion, as the default mechanism for permanent filling,” the APSC said.
The union representing federal public servants, the Community and Public Sector Union, is predictably cold on the freeze that both follows and compounds Labor’s much maligned ‘efficiency dividend’ that had the effect of an ongoing budget cut that itself generated redundancies.
The CPSU immediately condemned the freeze, with National Secretary Nadine Flood warning that it will result in “backlogs, delays and the loss of regional jobs.”
“This decision is particularly tough on regional communities who will lose jobs because there isn’t another Commonwealth agency to provide staff to fill vacancies,” Ms Flood said.
“We call on the Government to change this new policy to allow agencies to fill vacant positions locally and guarantee regional jobs are not lost. The Government can try and dress it up any way they like, but this is simply a massive staff cut," she said.
The CPSU has similarly cautioned that the freeze will slam the door on new talent seeking to broaden their career experience by seeking a stint in the public service, especially in regional areas where government jobs are highly sought after.
That point may well be one of the few that the union and dryer conservatives privately agree on; albeit for divergent reasons.
A persistent complaint from parts of business and those keen to boost productivity is that career public servants can too often be out of touch with the effects of their administrative decisions in the commercial world, especially around procurement and regulatory policy.
A potential unwanted consequence of the hiring freeze is that it will prevent the recruitment of talent from the private sector to government roles in an effort to inject fresh thinking and expertise to improve productivity and outcomes.
A senior private sector source, who supports the Coalition’s broader agenda, told Government News that there is concern that a “flat freeze” will limit the tactical placement of new talent more “naturally aligned” with the government’s policies and a broader focus on productivity.
The source suggested that a freeze was a missed opportunity “to clean out dead wood” because less talented staff who are unlikely to find alternative jobs would naturally cling to their positions while those with better reemployment prospects would take redundancies where available.
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