The Centre for Policy Development has released an occasional paper as part of its Public Service Program, The State of the Australian Public Service: An alternative report.
The report’s key findings include:
a widening gap between the anti-public servant rhetoric of some politicians and commentators and the positive attitudes held by Australian citizens about public servants and the services they deliver and
a decline in the ratio of public servants per capita in contrast to claims of public service ‘bloating’.
There’s a lot in the report to stimulate debate. That’s probably particularly the case as Barry O’Farrell’s first months in power have been characterised by attempts to restrict access by public servants to fair collective bargaining rights, and Joe Hockey has apparently been applying his mind to finding $70 billion worth of ‘efficiencies’ in public spending.
The report’s principal author, Dr James Whelan, points to an inconsistency between some of the objectives contained in the Public Service Act which link security of tenure to organisational capacity and cohesion and a reality of constant and ceaseless restructuring, downsizing and upsizing. The presence of such an objective, however dishonoured in practice, is in itself a reflection of earlier concerns about the need for a ‘career service’ to ensure institutional distance from politics: “frank and fearless advice” and all that.
One of the ironies of the move away from a ‘career service’ (though it’s not without reason) is that the first departures from relative institutional independence came with the Whitlam and Hawke governments, concerned ostensibly with political bias and a sclerotic policy conservatism. Something similar happened, belatedly, with the advent of the Goss government in Queensland.
The rise of the ‘Contracting State’, discussed in the report, is a parallel phenomenon.
The public sector reform debates of the 1980s and 1990s seem to have lost their momentum. This report may provide the opportunity for returning to some of the founding principles of such debates, articulated by thinkers like Peter Wilenski, who wanted to ensure that the public purpose of the public sector was well examined. We need a debate about that again today, and it would be very valuable to take some of the propositions and findings in this report about public opinion as a jumping off point.
Similarly, one of the other answers to the question which is implicit in the territory the report traverses – “what are public servants for?” (policy?, ‘front line service delivery’?, ensuring equity and access to public goods?) – might also prompt some reflection. The report discusses the degree to which APS employment reaches equity and diversity objectives.
This facet of public sector employment, again, derives from attempts under Whitlam and Hawke to enshrine the public sector as a ‘model employer’. Security of tenure, a long term approach to skills formation and an ethos of service, might be very worthwhile things to promote in a society too characterised by short term gain and by precarious and insecure employment.
We’ve heard much of the way attachment to the labour market promotes individual aims. We need to hear more about how stable and strong ties, mediated through work with a social purpose, promote societal cohesion and resilience.
So, much to think about. There are links to the debate stimulated by the report at the CPD’s page here.