‘Quick sprint’ to reform promised for Public Service

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has knocked back recommendations to boost the Public Service Commissioner’s powers, introduce common pay scales and abolish the ASL cap, but has endorsed recommendations for change contained in the landmark report of the APS Independent Review.

David Thodey

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who last week announced a sweeping restructure of government departments, has agreed to most of the recommendations in Our Public Service, Our Future  and provided $15.1 million for the APS Secretaries Board and the APS Commissioner to launch “a rapid planning phase for reform” over the next few months.

The review, headed by David Thodey, is the largest of its kind in 40 years. His 385-page report, released on Thursday almost four months after it was handed to the government, contains 40 recommendations around better use of digital technologies and improved leadership, governance and culture in the APS.

It also calls for the appointment of a Transformation Leader and a dedicated Transformation Office to drive change.

The panel’s findings are unequivocal: The APS needs a service-wide transformation to achieve better outcomes.

In an open letter, Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Philip Gaetjens, and APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott, said the APS Board is setting up a unit within DPM&C to support delivery of the reform agenda.

“We will conduct a sprint in early 2020 to plan implementation and sequencing of reforms, and to determine any further funding needs to be considered in the 2020 Budget,” they said.

They said the report highlighted the need for the APS to adapt to change and provided a vehicle for change.

Ill-prepared for the future

The review, which began in May 2018, found the APS is not performing at its best and isn’t ready for the changes and challenges the nation will face between now and 2030.

“It lacks a clear unified purpose, and is too internally focused,” the report says.

“There has been long-running underinvestment in the APS’s people, capital and digital capability, while siloed approaches, rigid hierarchies and bureaucratic rules create barriers to effective delivery.

“APS leaders do not always act as a unified team.

“The panel’s findings are unequivocal: The APS needs a service-wide transformation to achieve better outcomes.”

It says the APS of the future needs to be open, citizen-centric and technology-enabled or its current weaknesses will turn into critical failures.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Appoint a transformation leader and dedicated transformation office
  • Reinvest a part of the annual efficiency dividend into APS capability and digital transformation
  • Abolish the Average Staffing Level rule
  • Amend the Public Service Act to give APS Commissioner powers to initiative investigations and reviews
  • A charter of partnerships to guide external engagement and collaboration
  • Work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with cultural competency training for all APS employees
  • Strengthen the DTA and consider transitioning digital functions into a standalone central department.
  • Conduct an ICT audit and develop whole of govt ICT blueprint
  • Make data open by default
  • Develop a workforce strategy and APS professions strategy
  • Move to common core conditions and pay scales
  • Strengthen role of Secretaries Board

Government response

In a reform agenda released on Thursday, the government agreed or agreed in part to most of the Independent Review panel’s recommendations.

However, it gave the thumbs down to moving toward common core conditions and pay scales, with a remuneration tribunal to determine pay ranges and common standard conditions for each SES band.

Scott Morrison

The report recommended that the APS move toward common pay scales and core conditions at all levels “with the intent of reducing complexity and administrative burden, bringing the APS in line with good corporate practice”.

However the government said current policies around APS pay and conditions were working effectively.

“Employees and agencies are agreeing to new enterprise agreements or productivity-based pay rises on existing terms and conditions, in an efficient and effective manner,” it said.

The report also recommended abolishing the Average Staffing Level rule after the APS has demonstrated
its workforce planning capability through a Work Force Strategy.

But the government said the ASL is working effectively and that it “will continue to manage the size of the APS through the Average Staffing Level rule”.

The government also slapped down a recommendation to provide own-motion powers for the APS Commissioner to initiate investigations and reviews.

The panel had recommended that the Commissioner take on a greater integrity role and called for legislative change giving the Commissioner the ability to “respond to corruption proactively”.

But the government rejected any amendments to the act, saying it considers the APS Commissioner has adequate powers to investigate and seek integrity information

The government also said no to establishing a legislated code of conduct for ministerial advisers and requiring at least half of ministerial policy advisers to have public service experience.

“The government expects all ministerial staff to uphold the highest standards of integrity and it uses a range of mechanisms to ensure they are held to account for these standards,” the government said.

“The government, and successive governments before it, have maintained a high number of policy advisers with public service experience and the Government does not consider it necessary to set a formal guidance about the number of advisers in each office who should have public service experience.”

The government also said there was no need to clarify and enforce APS leadership roles and responsibilities, saying “The Government considers that current roles and responsibilities of the Secretary of PM&C, the APS Commissioner and portfolio Secretaries work effectively in practice and there is no need to alter these or further clarify them in legislation”.

Not holding my breath for transformation: expert

Professor Stephen Podger, a retired senior public servant and Professor of Public Policy at ANU, said he wasn’t holding his breath for transformation.

He said the report was light on evidence, research and analysis and he doubted it would have a long shelf life.

He also said the $15 million over four years announced by the government didn’t come anywhere near the $100 million a year the report said was needed.

“By the time there’s a change of government, people may well have forgotten about this report,” he told Government News.

He said the government’s claim it was going along with most recommendations was disingenuous.

“I say they’re pretending because in large part they’ve left implementation issues to the public service,” he said. “They have not provided the resources which the Thodey Report says are required, so one wonders about the capacity of the Public Service to get on with it.”

He said many of the recommendations rejected by the Prime Minister related to the institution of the Public Service and its independence, including appointments and terminations of secretaries, strengthening the role of the Public Service Commissioner and the need for  a code of conduct for advisers.

“So together with last week’s announcement … you get the impression that the Morrison government is really wishing to make it clear that they see the Public Service as implementing what they want.”

He described the staffing cap as a “totally distorting and unnecessary mechanism” that represented an ideological view that ‘we don’t like the public service’.

“Not having a staffing cap has been recommended many times before,” he said. “The right way is to simply have budgetary control.”



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