Restoring a Frank and Fearless Public Service - Speech

Public Service Amendment Bill 2023
House of Representatives, 20 June 2023

One of the pleasures of being appointed an assistant minister in the Albanese government has been to work with the extraordinarily capable public servants in the departments of Treasury and Employment and in organisations such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Every day, Australians interact with the Australian Public Service—a cafe owner calling Services Australia asking for help after their business has been damaged in a flood; a high school student requesting a book so they can work on a research paper and therefore touching base with experts at the National Library; a new parent accessing parental leave payments through myGov; a teenager applying for their first tax file number after getting their first job; a retiree receiving their medical rebates when they see a doctor. And then there's the work, which is so important, occurring behind-the-scenes—CSIRO researchers exploring cutting-edge science, cybersecurity experts keeping Australia safe from the latest attempted cyberattack.

Those people don't much care about the structures that underpin the Australian Public Service, but, when those structures are right, the experiences of Australians are better, and our APS reform agenda is targeted at ensuring the Public Service works best for Australians. We understand that people need to be treated with respect and dignity. We understand too that, when the Australian Public Service is itself treated with respect and dignity, it will do a better job of serving Australians.

During the nine years of the coalition government, I was shocked sometimes to hear the way those opposite talked about public servants. I remember one Liberal member referring to public servants as people who ‘feed on others’, and I remember successive Liberal governments using the Public Service like their own private ATM, a way of making cuts to fund programs elsewhere. Under the Liberals, we saw the Public Service during those initial years of the coalition government literally decimated. There was a period where the Public Service was down a 10th in job numbers since the coalition had come to office, and, as a result of those Public Service cuts, we saw harm done to Australians' ability to access services.

The robodebt debacle came as a result of a coalition government that thought that it could make savings by allowing computerised systems to send out debt collection letters, taking the human out of the process. The robodebt royal commission has laid bare the damage that that approach to the Public Service did to Australians. We saw the blow out of waiting times for Veterans' Affairs. We saw the problems of the National Disability Insurance Agency, with people being unable to get the expert support they needed. In agency after agency, the arbitrary Public Service staffing cap meant an overreliance on outside consultants and contractors. Now, there will be appropriate times to use consultants and contractors, but when consultants and contractors were used for policy development or for the delivery of core services, that simply harmed Australians and undermined the ability of the Public Service to build up the expertise it needed.

The Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, led by David Thodey, concluded that the APS lacked a unified purpose, was too internally focused and had lost capability in important areas. These problems were demonstrated by the approach of former Prime Minister the member for Cook, who made clear to the Australian Public Service that he saw them simply as a delivery arm. He didn't want frank and fearless advice from them; he simply wanted the execution of coalition policies. That undermining of the professionalism and integrity of the Public Service meant that, under the former government, the Public Service was not sufficiently responsive and agile to meet the changing needs of government. We need an Australian Public Service that is honest, truly independent and empowered to provide the frank and fearless advice that government needs to defend legality and due process. We need an Australian Public Service which is confident and capable, which can demonstrate thought leadership and which is transparent about the state of the service and its ability to deliver.

Our government's APS reform agenda has four priorities. First, an APS that embodies integrity in everything it does. Second, a Public Service that puts people and business at the centre of policy and services. Third, a Public Service that is a model employer. Fourth, a Public Service that has the capability to do its job well. This bill, the Public Service Amendment Bill 2023, supports each of those priorities. It is about restoring the public's trust and faith in government and its institutions. We understand the complexity of the Public Service, with tens of thousands of people working across dozens of different departments and agencies. The work of the Public Service is extraordinarily varied and diverse.

This bill enshrines a new APS value of stewardship. The notion of stewardship has a long history among First Nations people. Within the context of the APS, that means that the values will articulate the culture and operating ethos of the Australian Public Service. That stewardship value has been developed through consultation, with responses from over 1,500 Public Service staff across the country, ranging from graduates to senior executives. The stewardship value means:

… the APS builds capability and institutional knowledge, and supports the public interest now and into the future by understanding the long-term impacts of what it does.

Stewardship involves learning from the past and looking to the future.

The APS will also have a single unified purpose statement, providing a common foundation for collaborative leadership, aligned services and shared delivery. Under this bill, agency heads will be required to uphold and promote the new purpose statement as well as the APS values and employment priorities.

This bill will limit ministerial directions to agency heads. An impartial Public Service maintains public trust. This bill will strengthen the relevant provision in the Public Service Act to make it clear that ministers cannot direct agency heads on individual Public Service staffing decisions. That will reaffirm the apolitical role of the Australian Public Service and provide confidence to agency heads to act with integrity in the exercise of their duties. We will not see, under our government, the sorts of behaviour that resulted in the conflict between the member for New England and his departmental head, an issue that finally came to a head when the member for New England attempted to change the Hansard, which undermined the integrity of the Public Service. This bill embeds ongoing measures to build Public Service capability and expertise. We need to build the capability of staff and ensure that that expertise is broadened in areas such as data literacy. I want to commend the head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Dr David Gruen, for his leadership in the APS Data Profession and the way in which professionalisation of data expertise has been so important in the Public Service. We've seen this also in the APS Human Resources Profession. The notion of a profession is that it crosscuts departments, builds up expertise across the Public Service and allows high-quality hiring and the nurturing of talent within the Public Service. I hope too that, ultimately, under the Australian Centre for Evaluation that is being established in Treasury, we're able to set up an Evaluation Profession across the Public Service.

This bill will make regular, independent and transparent capability reviews a five-yearly requirement for every department of state, Services Australia and the Australian Taxation Office. These capability reviews are independent and forward-looking. The Thodey review called for the Public Service to strike a better balance between short-term responsiveness and investing in deep expertise. This bill will build expertise by requiring the Secretaries Board to commission regular, evidence based, long-term insight reports.

This bill will also ensure that the APS employee census, an annual survey, is published in aggregated form, along with an action plan from each agency responding to those results. Again, that's building the culture of transparency and accountability for continuous improvement.

This bill will require agency heads to implement measures that enable decisions to be made by APS employees at the lowest appropriate classification level. That ensures that decision-making is not raised to a higher level than necessary. That's about improving decision-making processes, reducing bureaucratic bottlenecks, empowering staff and fostering professional development.

The Australian government recognises too the importance of a Public Service which is free of discrimination. We know that employment of people with disability in the APS has reduced in the last 30 years, and we need to do more to attract and retain employees with disability. Representation of First Nations people in the Australian Public Service is currently 3.5 per cent—a figure that has hardly budged in two decades. It is government policy that the Australian Public Service meet an ambitious target and increase First Nations employment to five per cent. That involves ensuring that First Nations people have careers in the Public Service of the same duration as non-Indigenous employees. Right now, First Nations people tend to have shorter Public Service careers. There needs to be genuine opportunities for promotion for First Nations people within the Public Service.

We need to ensure too that people from non-Anglo backgrounds have the same opportunities for promotions as those who are of an Anglo background. New analysis by economists Robert Breunig, David Hansell and Nu Nu Win studied promotion prospects within the Public Service over a 20-year period, from 2001 to 2020. There are more than 100,000 public servants in their data set, so their data set runs to literally millions of observations. Their analysis asks the question: 'Who gets promoted?'. They find that at every promotion point, Anglo people had the edge. From APS4 to APS5 and APS5 to APS6, the gap is about a tenth. From APS6 to EL1, Anglo applicants were a quarter more likely to win promotion. From EL1 to EL2, Anglo applicants were around 50 per cent more likely to get promoted. From EL2 to SES, Anglo applicants were about 60 per cent more likely to get promoted. The Public Service minister, Katy Gallagher, has asked the Australian Public Service Commission to develop a culturally and linguistically diverse strategy, which will address some of these issues. It is of significant concern that non-Anglo public servants in the past had been less likely to win promotion.

We are committed to an in-house consulting model. The Australian Centre for Evaluation will increase the evaluation capability across the Public Service. A report prepared for the Thodey review found that evaluation capability was low and ‘piecemeal’. So we've established the Australian Centre for Evaluation within Treasury not only to talk about evaluations but to do evaluations. These evaluations will include robust randomised trials. The Global Commission on Evidence, on which I served as a commissioner, has pointed to the need for improving evidence systems around the world. One of the ways in which we're implementing those findings of the global commission on evidence is to establish the Australian Centre for Evaluation in Treasury. Through conducting randomised trials, quasi experiments and other high-quality evaluations, we will raise the evidence bar. We will get a better sense as to what works and what doesn't. That will allow us to scale up effective programs and to redirect funding from ineffective programs towards things that work.

A 'what works' philosophy isn't ideological; it's practical. It is about ensuring that the Australian Public Service works for all Australians. Through this in-house consulting model, and through improving the quality of evaluation right across agencies, we are able to do a better job of ensuring that Australians' tax dollars are spent as effectively as possible and that government has the maximum impact on improving the lives of every day Australians. I commend the bill to the House.

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  • Andrew Leigh Mp
    published this page in What's New 2023-06-20 16:43:23 +1000

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.