Australian Public Service : The perfect storm

Full credit to the ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher, Canberra Liberals leader Zed Seselja and ACT Greens leader Meredith Hunter saying they did not want Canberra to bear the brunt of the government's savings measures. Canberra Times - Leaders unite for budget appeal.

However, these cutbacks are just the beginning. The Australian Public Service is caught in a perfect storm. Here's why.


Under the Howard Liberal Government the Australian Public Service was effectively Balkanised. Agency heads were effectively handed there own fiefdoms and the ideology of managerialism took hold. As a result the cohesiveness of the APS was undermined.

Under the current Labor Government there has been an emphasis on one APS. While there has clearly been excellent work done as a result of this shift the internal culture and practices of many agencies do not encourage free collaboration between staff from different agencies. The ideology and culture of managerialism still holds sway.

The age profile of the APS

Employees in the 45 years and over age group, who will be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years, account for 43.7% of ongoing employees, up from 32.3% in 1997. The ageing of the cohort at EL and SES classifications over time is particularly evident: for example, at June 2011, 14.9% of ongoing ELs and 21.6% of ongoing SES were aged 55 years and over, compared with 6.4% and 13.0% in 1997.

Barriers to innovation

Organisational culture

As mentioned earlier the ideology and culture of managerialism still pervades most APS agencies. Over the years it has resulted in the emergences of an abusive corporate management sub-culture. Invariably this culture is driven by the corporate leadership of APS agencies and such functions such as strategic human resources, internal communications and areas concerned with assurance and reporting.

At a low level the processes and practices of these areas and those who lead and manage them gives rise to excessive red tape. At a strategic level they constrain - as opposed to liberate - the undoubted talents of many APS employees.

At the more extreme end of the scale this abusive sub-culture gives rise to corporate bullying and mobbing. The Australian Taxation Office's reaction to the disclosures made by Serene Teffaha provide a clear example of how dangerous this culture is. In fairness such excesses are not confined to the Taxation Office.

End point

It is fair to say that the saving measures combined with the age profile of the APS, the barriers to innovation and the profound cultural issues facing the APS do not bode well for the future. At the most basic what needs to be done is this:

  • Expunge abusive corporate management sub-cultures and require those who drive such cultures to retire with dignity.

  • Liberate the talents of APS staff by removing red tape, reforming management and taking a more liberal approach to the use of social media technologies.

The savings measures will, I suggest, exacerbate the problem of culture. The sensible way forward, therefore, is to take practical action to tackle that issue at its' source.

All that being said the overarching reason for addressing the issue of abusive corporate management sub-cultures within APS agencies is to enhance public service so that neither public servants or the community suffers detriment. 

For reasons of transparency please note the following:

Over the past month I have been working with Serene Teffaha and others to unpack the systemic issues arising from the conduct of the Taxation Office. What we are seeing at play here are long term practices and behaviours and, from what we can see, this is not confined to the Taxation Office.

I have provided a briefing paper to both the Assistance Treasures's Office and the Inspector General of Taxation. Here is the public briefing paper. The only difference between this paper and that sent to the Inspector General and the Assistant Treasurers's Office is the title. The paper outlines impacts and suggests solutions.


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