The Australian Public Service (APS) performs a critical role in supporting the executive government of the day to develop and deliver government policy. It provides advice and support to Ministers across all portfolio areas and in many cases is directly responsible for delivering services and outcomes to and on behalf of Australians.
As outlined in submissions to this inquiry by Government Departments, the task of ensuring that the APS has the capabilities to fulfil its role to a professional, high standard is ongoing, core business for Government and the APS itself. To that end, agencies within the APS have collaborated to deliver a significant transformation agenda since 2014.
As the Department of Finance outlined in its submission, this agenda has had a focus on lifting the capability of the APS through a range of initiatives covering financial management and accountability, recruitment and talent acquisition, procurement and grants administration, delivering new operating models and shared services, providing ICT platforms for use across the APS, and supporting APS entities to deliver Government priorities and services at best value. APS leadership has a primary role in driving change and reform across the APS.
Over the last two years the APS, like the whole country, has faced particular challenges in dealing with the ramifications of COVID-19. As the evidence provided to the Committee demonstrates, this has involved new and complex challenges for the APS workforce, both in relation to internal working arrangements but also in maintaining and improving its functions of service delivery and policy advice during uniquely challenging circumstances.
Evidence provided to the Committee demonstrates that the APS rose to this challenge effectively. The Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet (PM&C) noted that the Australian National Audit Office had assessed the management of the APS workforce in response to COVID-19 and concluded that management of the APS workforce was effective in implementing the Government’s COVID-19 priorities. At the same time, it was noted that the COVID-19 response did impact on the planned APS reforms – while some areas of reform were accelerated or continued as planned, others had to be paused or slowed due to the need to focus all available resources on addressing the health and economic emergencies.
It is important that this reform work continues, and it is encouraging to hear the commitment from PM&C that the APS will continue to have a culture of continuous reform and mechanisms. A number of mechanisms within the public service have been established and/or tasked with leading this work, including the APS Reform Office established in PM&C.
In recent years significant funding has been provided to progress reform initiatives, including the $500 million Modernisation Fund to ensure the public service can operate at the highest levels in a rapidly evolving world. The investment facilitates a number of modernisation projects and has improved how the public service works, providing new technologies, datasets, analytic systems and collaborative tools.
Initiatives funded through the Modernisation Fund include the Data Integration Partnership for Australia (DIPA). DIPA is a whole-of-Government collaboration involving over 20 Commonwealth agencies, designed to provide a single, coordinated approach to data integration over a range of portfolio areas, including health, education, and welfare. The DIPA has been essential in the Government's coordination of responses during the pandemic, aided by the real-time reporting of COVID cases across the country.
With over 150,000 employees across dozens of Departments and agencies, it is inevitable that there will be occasions when the APS falls short of internal or external expectations. It is important that there are robust mechanisms in place within the APS to minimise these occurrences to the greatest extent possible by identifying potential risks and shortcomings and proactively taking action to address them. The evidence supplied by various Departments indicates that this has been a key focus of APS leadership in recent years, and it is important that it remains a top priority in the years ahead.
Regrettably, many of the recommendations proposed by Labor Senators in the Chair’s Report to this inquiry represent little more than a wish list for the union movement, which represents a minority of the APS workforce and only a fraction of Australian taxpayers who fund the public service.
Many recommendations have been lifted directly from union submissions and have ignored the evidence provided by APS agencies to the inquiry. Notably, many of the recommendations from Labor Senators would significantly increase the workload for various agencies and their APS employees for no demonstrable gain in outcomes for the Australian public. These Labor and union proposals would require significantly more taxpayer funding to be injected into the APS, yet they have been recommended by Labor Senators in the absence of any explanation about what the full cost would be and how these increased costs would be funded by taxpayers.
Coalition Senators on the Committee do not agree with this approach. Evidence shows that the APS reform agenda supported and funded by the Government is achieving results and that there are processes in place to continue the rollout of essential reforms. The APS should continue to be supported to continue these reforms, which will not be assisted by many of the politically-motivated recommendations made by Labor Senators on behalf of the union movement.
Senator Claire Chandler