Minister vows to revive ‘mothballed’ Australian Public Service reform agenda

By on 19/10/2022 | Updated on 19/10/2022
Minister for the public service Katy Gallagher said the current disparity of pay and conditions across the APS had led to a “Hunger Games approach to bargaining”. Photo courtesy Australian government, under the CC-BY-4.0 licence

Australia’s minister for the public service Katy Gallagher has outlined her plan to rebuild the Australian Public Service (APS) in a speech in which she blamed the previous government for neglecting to implement needed reforms.

The reform plan is expected to build on the 2019 Thodey Review, a landmark independent review of the APS which culminated in a 385-page report and 40 recommendations. Gallagher said the reform agenda created in response to the review had been “largely mothballed by the previous government”.

As a result, she said Australian citizens had come view government with “a jaundiced eye”, and that reforms were essential for regaining public trust. She pointed to the most recent Edelman Public Trust Barometer, which found that just over half (52%) of Australians trust government “to do the right thing” – down nine points from 2021.

“When someone is asking for help at their local Centrelink or using MyService to access support as a veteran, they don’t care which programme belongs in what portfolio,” Gallagher said. “They don’t care who the minister is or the departmental secretary for that matter. What they want is a system that works. They want to be treated as a human being, with respect, dignity, and fairness.”

Read more: Major review of Australia’s government service platform launched

Gallagher added that neglect of the country’s public institutions were due to “outsourcing, poor resourcing, clunky systems, and a decade of deliberate devaluing of the APS”, all of which meant that reforms would take time.

Drawing on recognition of citizens’ experiences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Gallagher said that the role of the public sector had appreciated in the last three years, but that actions taken to strengthen public services too often involved bringing in consultants, rather than building capacity within the APS. Weaning the APS off its use of consultants and contractors was one of Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s pledges ahead of the Australian federal election in May, which his party won, ousting the Liberal-National Coalition after nine years in power.

Read more: ‘Urgent’ need to streamline Australian Public Service, review finds

Gallagher said that under the previous government there had been “public downplaying of policy development, the devaluing or disposal of years of experience and knowledge, and a casualisation of the workforce [as well as] a lack of interest in investing, nurturing, planning of the public service as an institution in itself”.

Unfurling the agenda

In her speech, Gallagher touched on the four priorities of the APS reform agenda: integrity; putting people and business at the centre of policy and services; ensuring APS became a model employer; and making sure it had sufficient capacity to deliver.

Regarding integrity, Gallagher said it was the responsibility of every public servant to make sure the APS “uses [its] power to do well by others”, adding that “a unified vision that resonates with all public servants” was long overdue. She said Australians would be given full visibility of the feedback sent to APS, which would help to boost performance and public trust through transparency.

Read more: ‘The war for talent’: APS warns of challenges in attracting staff

Separately, she said government would ask parliament to “enshrine the responsibility of stewardship in the Public Service Act”. The focus, she said, would be to ensure continuity of values, knowledge and partnerships that could withstand “changes in government and societal shifts”.

On placing people and businesses at the centre of public service, Gallagher said: “We need to make it clear how we’ll bring services together to make interactions with us easier and outline how we design policies and programmes with the people they impact.” To aid this, government is expected to produce insight briefings that take consultation from communities, academia, industry and the not-for-profit sector to identify solutions to longer term policy challenges.

Read more: Australian Public Service prepares for “rapid phase of reform” as government responds to landmark review

In a bid to elevate its status to that of a model employer, Gallagher said government’s emphasis on people would have to apply equally to the public servants who deliver for citizens. Public servants were recently told they would receive an interim 3% pay rise, pending longer-term policy aimed at reducing disparities around pay and conditions across the organisation.

Such disparities, which she also blamed the previous government for, had led to what she described as a “Hunger Games approach to bargaining” across the APS.

Gallagher said boosting the proportion of First Nations peoples in the APS from 3.5% to 5% of the workforce, narrowing the gender pay gap, and developing public servants’ skill sets would also help to make it a model employer.

Read more: Australian Public Service staff to receive interim 3% pay rise

On the promise to improve skill sets, Gallagher affirmed government’s efforts to offer enhanced staff training through the APS Academy, which she said 20,000 employees had already attended. The Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) would also use its workforce and learning and development strategies to boost human resource and capabilities across the public service, she said.

Gallagher ended her speech by saying: “I want you to think deeply about your impact on the experience of all Australians – how you are influencing their life and how your actions can better support them. When it comes down to it, the Australian Public Service is made up of Australians helping other Australians.”

Read more: Australian Public Service ‘consistently struggles’ with reform, staff survey finds

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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