Momentum for a reset of the previous Abbott government’s hardline framework for enterprise bargaining negotiations across the Australian Public Service (APS) is quietly building after months of strikes and deadlocked negotiations.
Productivity gains based on innovation and smarter working could soon potentially enter enterprise bargaining mix, as new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gradually spells out his expectations for a modernised, digitally enabled government and public service.
At least that seems to be the hope of a growing number of senior federal and state public servants, not to mention industry.
Behind closed doors there is cautious optimism that ideas for reform based on merit and evidence will be given a more open-minded hearing from the top when it comes to productivity and pay negotiations.
The growing shift in sentiment comes after two years of cuts and bitter disputes over dilution of APS conditions and pay that have put the government and public sector unions at loggerheads.
At the heart of the row is the narrow definition of productivity under the Australian Government Public Sector Workplace Bargaining Policy – which essentially mandates labour cost savings to the exclusion of other initiatives – and was chided by the Productivity Commission, prompting a sharp retort from Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd.
Just where the APS Bargaining Policy is now headed given its previous chief protagonists Tony Abbott and Senator Eric Abetz have been catapulted from Cabinet is very logically open to question.
One clue is there appears to be growing confidence that public servants prepared to bowl-up fresh and creative ideas focused on simpler, cheaper and more effective solutions to administrative and policy challenges will a genuine hearing further up the chain of command.
The potential for innovation-based productivity enhancements could provide a much needed circuit breaker and a catalyst to kick-start moribund bargaining talks.
The bottom line, some in the ranks of government and the public service say , is that there will be more a lot more on the table to trade if the definition of productivity is widened to include more than straight labour cost savings. There’s also a sentiment that the narrow constraints of the bargaining terms represent a missed opportunity that can now be realised.
As the Productivity Commission observed in August this year (much to the annoyance of the APSC) “exchanging entitlements for cash simply trades one form of compensation for another with little gain to either party (assuming the worker is compensated exactly for the loss of the entitlement) or to productivity.”
“A genuine productivity increase requires a change in the way a public sector organisation uses its resources to better perform its core activities, including improved quality of its outputs. This relates more to the adoption of new processes and technologies, rather than simply working harder or changing the mix of entitlements in a worker’s overall compensation,” the Productivity Commission wrote.
While there has been some nominal latitude given to departmental secretaries in terms negotiating with unions on productivity, the bulk of offers have produced little momentum other than boosting membership of the Community and Public Sector Union.
One scenario put to Government News is that if an outcome or task can be performed using fewer people, in less time and using more efficient ways of working or technology, it makes more sense to put this into the negotiation mix rather than employers simply trying to extend working hours and strip out conditions.
Conversely, trying to sell an effective pay cut is more likely to produce a ‘clock-watcher’ mentality that discourages public servants from exploring new ways to do their job better for the benefit of the public and the nation they serve.
One public service veteran suggested that the core narrative of what the Abbott government expected from the APS was doomed from the start because neither the former PM or his former public service minister, Senator Eric Abetz, could bring themselves to link successful policy outcomes with good public service performance.
But when things went awry – such as the damning Audit report into call waiting times at Centrelink – public servants roundly copped the blame irrespective of any frank advice they offered back to the government.
Predictable enough, but the bitter aftertaste still lingers.
Another clear sign that encouraging public servants to work smarter (rather than longer and harder) has moved up the management agenda is the return of the Digital Transformation Office into the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio, a location that suggests its role will be championed from the top.
A key message from the DTO to the wider public services is that it wants to instigate change in cooperation with the public service rather than foisting it down from the top.
Just as importantly, DTO has outwardly acknowledged that people join the Public Service to make a positive difference to society and the nation, even if the digital delivery of services has fallen well behind that of the private sector.
The automation of many of the public sector’s most dreary administrative tasks – like manually processing forms or re-entering data from one system to another because of software incompatibilities – will undoubtedly free-up public servants to fulfil more productive and valuable roes; but it will naturally eliminate some positions in the process.
The big question now is how the Community and Public Sector Union will respond to that in the event that public servants are asked to come up with ways to make their roles and workplaces more productive in consultation with their employers.
It will be a very different conversation, and one unlikely to drive-up conflict and union membership in the same way Eric Abetz did.
But it’s a conversation that still needs to be had.
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