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Public Service and the Australian Public Service

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stephen kendal

The APS is loosing its appeal to the average Australian and this has not gone unnoticed by Australian politicians. This is due in part to the diminished role the APS and other jurisdictions play in Australia, due to wide acceptance of the ideas of New Public Sector Management, established by Thatcher and other leading politicians, such as Blair and of course Australian leaders who have followed their approaches. The effect has been that public administration is becoming a minority experience for Australians and has been perceived as lacking sufficient ability to fix problems identified by Ministers and the community.

The lack of electoral consequence that this now means for APS and those agencies of other jurisdictions is that public administration is not high on the priority for enhancement by politicians and that solutions for policy are sought beyond such jurisdictions. There is now the danger that the APS and similar agencies will loose relevance entirely.

We could have reached the end of an era and the continued future of public administration is under question. The development of this such widely held perception has become prevalent in recent times as for example through the increasing variety and good quality of reports, prepared for Ministers and Government by experts other than public sector managers which were once relied on as the premier source of this work. Private for profit lobbyists and consultants are becoming the accepted experts, for the development of new options for Ministers and Government and the originators of contestable ideas of present and past policy directions.

APS agencies for example have become increasingly given resources, opportunities and mandate to get right the mastery of routine program management approaches, which have diminished the APS role of service to assuring compliance with Ministerial wishes and parliamentary legislation, originated in a recent parliamentary term and past policy. This has meant for the APS and similar jurisdictions a restriction in role because canvassing future options has become diminished or no longer a concern.

It appears that the result is for the APS and similar jurisdictions to leave alone arrangements which continue to work in the background to current events and to play increasingly a demeaning role in the development of fresh approaches, as these are now increasingly the domain of Ministerial staffers, consultants and lobbyist because these supporting staff, are all usually better connected personally and politically to Ministers and future Ministers and can benefit often substantially for original work.

In addition the APS for is no longer an institution guaranteeing security in employment. Current legislation for example now provides increasingly for dismissals and inefficiency proceedings are also becoming more common, which can have serious damaging effects on an individual’s situation, especially in gaining further employment opportunities, which necessarily require supporting references unobtainable in most disciplinary situations and then mean alternate job opportunities evaporate.

References are a necessary requirement in most jurisdictions and in the private sector’ to gain the support of another agency or private employer and it can be that supporting references may not be available to public sector managers caught up in the disciplinary approaches, outlined here for a considerable period with the result that such managers are unemployable. This now means that public sector managers now need to take out income insurance protection policies, to protect their interests against such measures, which have also now also become highly litigious and a feature most observers use to attribute only to countries such as the US. Litigation is now a feature of work in public administration and likely to stay.

Damage to security in employment is not restricted to the effects stemming from new disciplinary approaches adopted to manage for example APS managers’ performance. Emphasis on very high performance expectations or APS staff in meeting deadlines is common place, has now meant that established privileges such as flex time go increasingly unrecognised, as the requirement to meet deadlines has overridden such entitlements in practice and there appears little can be done to restore the flex time benefits made available as a result of APS and similar agency certified agreements.

Indeed APS managers now often work increasingly for many hours beyond standard working hours and are not being compensated later for their efforts, with time in lieu, because of the widely held perception that this is necessary for APS managers to first protect personal reputation and thus avoid inefficiency or similar proceedings (a possibility that can now arise) and increasingly utilised by senior management, bringing about at significant costs to the healthy performance of individual managers, because of much additional stress which results, especially as agencies now have insufficient support staff to give a hand to the managers to do quality checks when meeting deadlines.

We are all aware of the immense steps taken since Hawke and Keating and for example in the Howard years to reduce APS staff often explained relying on ideological ideas, as an effort to reduce the burden of the APS on the taxpayer and on the functioning of the wider community. The approach usually meant offering generous redundancy packages, to as many as possible to reduce for example APS agencies to very lean organisation reducing the role of public administration in the community.

In this regard many APS personnel for example were keen to accept packages sometimes believing that funds would not be available to repeat the exercise if they waited to see if even better times were on the horizon. Many Canberra based APS personnel who accepted the packages, needed other employment but the exercise of their redeployment to other areas of Australia and possibly elsewhere in Canberra was undertaken through reliance on the voluntary acceptance of the packages, without the assistance of a structural adjustment agency, which one might expect given the scale of the change involved, but not provided for by the APS or similar jurisdictions. Such an agency could have provided data as to where these personnel were finally relocated and also give greater transparency as to APS and similar jurisdictions management of the downsizing, which resulted.

Nevertheless the overall exercise appears to have been a success but the issues surrounding the competency of the former APS managers and any difficulties they had in finding new opportunities (through being left to their own devices) to find new situations, even though they would have had perceived deficiencies in many management skills and experience required to find new opportunities required especially by private sector bodies does not appear to have been researched sufficiently, or have proven to be a major barrier to their successful placement in new situations, many of which must have been private sector bodies.

Those who chose to exit the APS were left to develop there own development solutions, something that would have no doubt been catered for, had there been provision of a structural adjustment agency. The absence of such an agency, clearly resulted due to the lack of electoral significance for government and other politicians overseeing the changes, even though the changes involved for those choosing the exit option was considerable.

The APS staff who left their jobs in the 1980s and 1990s, must have been convinced they could do better and that the APS was a fizzer, when it came to the provision of long term benefits, such as a generous pension on retirement, once the principal attraction to commit to a life long career, which was an attraction which probably dates from the the depression years. More importantly the community has seemed broadly in tune with approaches of the Howard Government and earlier agendas, these changes went forward without public opposition. Perhaps it now the end of an era in APS public administration and that of other jurisdictions.

For example some of the beliefs and prejudices of the public sector reformers of the 1980s and 1990s and especially in the Howard years appear to have won endorsement from the wider Australian community. It was perceived that the APS and indeed other jurisdictions are not successful showpieces of management practice and leadership and not capable now of showing the way for the nation to be led.

Consistent with this belief major policy development questions in recent years have been outsourced due in part to the decreasing ability of for example the APS to provide the advice functions required.

This was in part due to the failure to establish within APS structures the benefits of the entrepreneurial spirit, which could free up development of policy options, which is so well recognised in the private sector. However APS and similar jurisdictions have both the function of wrestling with contestable ideas and compliance with the Ministers and Parliament and lack of success in reconciling these two aspects of public service has proven to be a major weakness at least at the present time.

 

The APS and similar jurisdictions in recognisising the importance of serving the established requirements of Ministerial leadership and responsibility have not adequately provided for the need of APS managers , to meet the requirements of public service and nurture its role, as an important vocation which can establish the public good, that lay beyond existing agendas and Ministerial requirements, and connect with the requirements of conscience and discernment and become an aspect of leadership of the community, embracing and endorsing the public service as a profession and not just a service provider to government and the wider community.

 

Programs for example the APS developed to support staff development, similar to those undertakings of other jurisdictions, include leadership programs based on well intended management development ideas and models, similar to those available from American texts, which clearly endorse good leadership and good practice of leadership, as a principal management function at all levels of responsibility, and enable the informed selection of good leaders and coaching of those seeking important management roles needed to deliver APS programs.

 

The benefits argued here, that might be looked for in establishing many more leadership opportunities for staff, than those that are restricted to the business side of public administration by also including desirable ends, such as reconnecting the links between personal inspiration (especially conscience) and factors such as community minded public service competencies, to then be used to select and promote effective public service leaders (a desirable end of public administration), especially when mangers are prepared and tolerated to look beyond the immediate concerns and restrictions of the requirements of the Minister and top management and the work place, despite the potential this can mean for occasional conflict when considering the development of the common good and the agendas of the public domain, which can arise especially because of the limitations of short term electoral concerns of a Minister and the other politicians established in public affairs of the day.

 

There is also increasing reduction in scope for supportive but apolitical public service in the APS because of the present emphasis in APS practice of for example of focusing only on the routines of agency functions, with the result consultants and lobbyists and Ministerial staff have become estblished as a clear alternate to APS activities. The net result has led to a severely reduced role and legitimacy for inspired thinking to public management and public sector reform in the APS and similar jurisdictions in Australia by public sector managers. This trend may not be able to be reversed unless there is significant rejuvenation of the role of the APS and similar jurisdictions.

 

The APS staff and those of other jurisdictions are by all accounts highly educated for their role in public administration, and this has long been a feature of public sector management in Australia. However it may have become counterproductive because of the small ask by top management to utilise all the skills available to such highly educated staff in the work place of today. The limited scope for benefiting from the highly developed and especially the brilliant aspects of the education of APS staff members thus, has a terrible consequence for the large number of APS personnel because of present restrictions to focus only on program management functions bringing about disappointment to most and result in a challenge to their personal development and public service capability while it continues.

 

It can as also argued here that this situation if not corrected, can lead to a less than adult approach in the work place, which has the effect of preventing much self realisation a goal supported as needed by many management theorists as desirable and seen as the principal factor underlying productivity in the work place.

 

Also top management in the APS and similar jurisdictions has fewer benefits than available to private enterprise counterparts and this can mean top management for example in the APS, is in fact inferior to private enterprise, because the talent needed to support the APS agencies is not sufficiently rewarded, and top public administration managers soon know they should move on. They are first class performers who are better provided for in the private sector. The attraction and rewards to top management in the APS and similar jurisdictions should not be based on philanthropic commitment and the broader public service considerations alone. The present situation is not viable and should not be continued.

 

There should be a better deal for the way APS and other jurisdictions in the way they approach the reward for the many other managers in public administration work.

 

For a long time now, many who took up APS managers roles over the years, and indeed those of other jurisdictions, have been content to accept lower wages and access to fewer benefits resulting in public administration work compared to private enterprise counterparts, whose employment is more risky but have benefits such as a share in the equity of a private enterprise organisation or even a share in profits and intellectual property rights for original work. Such benefits have never been available through public administration work, and this situation seems unlikely to be corrected unless there is overdue change.

 

However for many in the APS and other jurisdictions opportunities such as great retirement benefits remained a compelling advantage for those doing public administration work for many years, but these have now been diminished through newer pension schemes enacted through government legislation.

 

There are even those who suggest that in the future Governments of all jurisdictions will not provide pensions at all in future years as these schemes will not be affordable for the tax payer in future years. The resultant responsibility would thus fall completely on community members to provide for retirement and old age using their own resources.

 

These changes to APS and the conditions of work in public administration more widely will have the effect of making such employment far less attractive as a career and indeed has done much to diminish past concepts of a career path especially for young people.

 

The present lean nature of many APS and similar agencies has also had effects on the productivity and potential for creative fulfilment in the work place. Many managers in the APS for example, are inevitably stuck at middle management levels even though they may have progressed from lower levels and are equipped for more senior responsibilities. They learn through the world of hard knocks that it is unlikely they can progress much further because they have reached a glass ceiling of opportunities, through which very few can pass, because of the much fewer opportunities that are available for staff beyond the middle levels even though many at the middle levels of management, if given the opportunity of promotion would be very successful.

 

This recognition of a ceiling, to future promotion gives rise to serious motivation and productivity issues, and to the recognition of the personnel concerned that prospects for opportunities in lobbyist and consultancy organisations may be the only alternatives to their present situation, and these opportunities frequently mean greater financial rewards and recognition including rights to intellectual property and other rewards simply not available in agencies. The public sector managers of Australia – are the poor cousins of Ministerial staffers, consultants and lobbyists and their reward structures are insufficient to harness their full capability especially the requirements of original thinking.

 

The need to look beyond existing agency opportunities can also result from other well-known considerations. The lean nature of many agencies has meant greater pressure on individual managers to meet deadlines without the benefit of support staff, often invaluable to do quality checks of important work, usually destined for the public arena and the outcome of which can greatly influence reputation. The fun and joy that could be a feature of the workplace has become insignificant.

 

In addition to what has been argued above, many so called public service jobs have increasing degrees of automation, significantly reducing the need for personal interpretation and value adding.

 

Centrelink is an example of this approach, but it is not alone. Many of its functions are highly automated, reducing a manager’s discretion in this agency to only a fraction of potential, despite wide ranging knowledge and insight into the needs of clients. The work place in these circumstances has only minor opportunities for creative understanding and much reduced satisfaction results, because of the emphasis of the automated support to the manager, resulting in reduction in discretion of the individual manager and significantly the sense of challenge, enjoyed by the manager – when providing a service to a client.

 

Furthermore the present emphasis, on the Minister choosing the public service as only one possible source of information and advice, has limited the advice function of the APS. No longer frank and fearless as once desired. This aspect has meant for many that the APS and other jurisdictions no longer have the trust of Ministers to do the job and a perception that public administration is loosing essential credentials to do work outside routine situations. There is no sign that this approach will change soon.

 

The transition of many managers to alternate employment, inside and outside their agency is not well supported, but opportunities for short courses to support personal development have been available for APS and other agencies for some years, and could possibly be of assistance but much research is needed to assist in the evaluation of these measures and their provision and to establish whether coherent benefits have resulted. Opportunities exist in the tertiary sector for example to enter the private sector or improve management skills for agencies and through courses in public administration and public policy or business, but this can be a big ask for most managers and may not be financially supported by the APS agency or other jurisdiction the staff member belongs to.

 

It is well established that upfront fees for such courses can be considerable, and there is at tendency for APS agencies and indeed other jurisdictions to focus on the immediate benefits stemming from the course for the work of the agency and not the development needs of the individual manager, with the result the staff member must finance his course on his own resources.

 

Consequently unless APS managers caught up in the glass ceiling to further advancement, can use training and education resources to develop management and leadership skills to find new opportunities, morale and productivity suffer. Furthermore with the requirement to meet deadlines now an established feature of the work place, with little prospect of time off in lieu for long hours of work, personal health must suffer, and individuals even reach the stage of burnout . The result is that the APS work place looses its attractiveness and does not sustain life time commitment, a feature of earlier years in the APS, once considered a condition of service.

 

Solution to these dilemmas needs to be found by the APS authorities and similar jurisdictions. Much more scope for public service in the broadest community sense needs to be reconnected to the management role and the leadership development programs rather than rely simply on the requirement that managers must focus only on agency routines to support Ministerial and Government operations, which is no longer a viable solution to APS and similar jurisdictions management and leadership solutions, if public administration is once again to have a high reputation, and be relied on to find significant solutions to problems.

 

This could well mean that APS and similar jurisdiction development practices, especially concerning leadership, should be broadened beyond generic management skills, to support greater creativity in the work place. Indeed the public service deal for APS managers for example that has evolved over the years, needs to include greater rewards for top management and re-examination of the approaches intended for the many APS managers and those in other jurisdictions, who have not reached top management level. It is unlikely that past conditions of service will be reinstated, because of the approaches of most sides of politics have appeared supportive of the changes, and the community appears to have supported these changes electorally. Hence the need for a better deal, which should include better monetary rewards and may be other benefits available at this stage only to counterparts in the private sector.

 

Opportunities for champions of the public sector to emerge are rare and unlikely. For example famous seminal works on leadership and public sector management by leading APS practioners have not emerged, perhaps because the requisite talent is not yet available and also because of the restrictions on public comment and the restrictions on creativity often found in the work place.

 

Thus originality and the necessary discernment have not emerged, because of the failure of APS and similar jurisdictions, to develop public service leaders who can master creatively the important synergy between community and public management concerns, using appropriate personal resources, such as conscience and inspired judgement , a much needed requisite for fresh and outstanding leadership, which could provide the insight needed for seminal works on public management to become available in this country – prepared by public sector practioners.

 

It should be possible but we have yet to see, many examples of public service community leadership emerge, in the APS agencies and other jurisdictions, which inspires most people to look beyond their immediate responsibilities, but the private sector has established better credentials for leadership of this type and it is about time APS agencies and similar jurisdictions, enabled and developed their managers to be enlightened enough to make such a contribution to society and be provided the appropriate rewards to do so.

 

Changes such as these would mean improved perception of the public sector managers as of value and lead to a fairer and more appropriate deal in conditions and rewards for them and politicians would see greater reason to trust public administration for advice and support. Otherwise the APS and similar agencies will not achieve improved status and could be come a redundant method to solve public sector issues, except of the most mundane type.

 

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