Hidden price of APS cutbacks and uncertainty: staff and clients hit by anger and distress


Big number statistics attributed to mass redundancies and the millions of dollars they can save by thinning out the ranks of the Australian Public Service have dominated the headlines since before the last federal election, but the hidden and all too human cost of ongoing job cuts is finally coming to light.

Faced with an uncertain employment future and a paucity of hard detail or specifics over the Abbott Government’s actual plans for the bureaucracy over coming years, evidence is now surfacing that public servants are becoming increasingly demoralised, angry and distressed about being kept in the dark over their own futures, with department heads forced to play industrial relations hardball with their own trusted staff.

That was grim picture painted by the National Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, Nadine Flood, as she gave evidence to the Abbott Government’s Commission of Audit Select Committee last week, frankly conceding that the emotional burden of living with uncertainty is now taking a real psychological toll on the ranks of government employees.

“It is easy in this forum for us to be talking about analysis, evidence and public policy questions and actually forgetting the human part of this. This is a bunch of real people with real families, mortgages to pay, bills to pay and rent to pay, many of whom are incredibly scared about what is going to happen to them,” Ms Flood told the Committee.

For many career public servants with family commitments to where they live who are unable to move, the prospect of a forced redundancy could mean the end of full time work for the foreseeable future, especially in regional centres and Canberra where alternative work can be difficult to find.

Ms Flood said that the union’s call centre was now “dealing with a much higher rate of emotional distress and is referring people to employee assistance programs” and that CPSU staff were now having to deal with “people in tears and who are very angry and distressed” – often for the first time.

Part of the growing anger in public service ranks stems from the prolonged period of uncertainty over the actual scale of cuts and where they will hit.

The already high state of ambiguity has been elevated by the fact that it remains very unclear whether the Abbott government will lump together its own pre-election ‘natural attrition’ target of 12,000 with the fallout from Labor’s efficiency dividend that is calculated to eliminate 14,500 jobs.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the agencies with the biggest numbers of frontline staff that have to deal with the public that are copping it the hardest – both in terms of staff cuts and dealing with the increasingly frustrated public.

More disturbingly, the incidence of public servants being on the receiving end of abusive client behaviour is now also on the way up despite decades of work to find ways to avoid unproductive confrontations by trying to re-humanise often difficult interactions with government officers in areas like social security and child support.

Ms Flood said there was evidence that suggested that both waiting times “and the increased level of client aggression” was having a serious impact on Department of Human Services employees.

“We have seen a 37 per cent increase in the level of client aggression in DHS. That includes things from verbal abuse on telephones, after waiting in long queues, to serious incidents of clients attacking staff in a range of offices around the country. So these are very serious issues in that department.”

But getting a picture of how bad the situation is getting harder.

Ms Flood said that the Department of Human Services had “pulled the capacity of staff” to access “information previously available” to its own staff in relation to incidents and that there was “less transparency on this matter than there would have been.”

In 2013 before the election, Human Services staff were frankly conceding that life on the frontline for their staff would necessarily become more challenging because the implementation of automated reporting through web technology and smartphone apps would result in a higher proportion of more problematic customers needing to come into offices.

But that challenge has now been amplified by a big efficiency push and what some increasingly feel is a desire to suppress bad news.
At the same time the CPSU is attempting to collectively negotiate a new pay deal for public servants ahead of the expiry of the public service’s main industrial relations instrument in June 2014.

There was tangible anger that following the lodgement of a bid for a 12 per cent pay increase over 3 years by the CPSU, modelling of how many more jobs might need to go to afford the increase were reported by the media prior to being provided to the union by the government.

“The government chose, rather than to deal with and discuss with their employees and unions, to release some modelling to the media that alleged that our four per cent a year pay claim would cost more than 23,000 public sector jobs,” Ms Flood said.

Ms Flood said it was “simply ludicrous” of the government to suggest that a four per cent wage increase “would equate to 14 per cent of public servants being sacked.”

“That is frankly ridiculous. Even if every dollar of a pay rise came through jobs, and none of the productivity savings and improvements that are occurring across the Public Service were recognised, that would not be the case.”

“It is deeply disappointing that in March, less than four months before enterprise agreements for 160,000 federal government employees expire, the government has still chosen not to discuss with the CPSU bargaining arrangements and how we actually deal with these issues,” Ms Flood said.

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