Last updated: 04 Feb 2011

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What is the Australian Public Service?

There are three levels of government in Australia—Commonwealth, State and Local Government—and each of these levels of government has its own public sector.

The Commonwealth (also known as Australian Government) public sector comprises both Australian Public Service (APS) agencies and non-APS agencies.

The APS refers to Australian Government departments and agencies where staff members are employed under the Public Service Act 1999.

The APS is part of the Executive arm of the Government. It exercises authority on behalf of the Government, providing the support the Government needs to undertake its roles and responsibilities on behalf of the Australian people.

It does this through the provision of policy advice and through managing and facilitating the delivery of programs, regulations and services agreed by the government.

Some areas of responsibility in the APS include:

  • customs and border control
  • national health
  • national economic management
  • the Commonwealth budget
  • taxation
  • foreign policy
  • transport
  • employment policies and programs
  • welfare
  • environmental resources.

At 30 June 2010, there were approximately 160,000 people employed in the APS, approximately 8% of whom were non-ongoing (or temporary) staff.

APS employees work in diverse geographical locations. There are national and regional offices all over Australia, and some employees are based overseas. This permits the delivery of services where they are needed most, the research and implementation of policies where they are most relevant, and the sustainability of services to the public. More than one-third of APS employees are based in Canberra.

Public Service Act

The Public Service Act 1999 governs the establishment and operation of, and employment in, the APS. It also sets out the rights and obligations of APS employees, including the expected standards of integrity and behaviour.

The Public Service Act is underpinned by the Public Service Regulations 1999, Public Service Commissioner's Directions 1999, Prime Minister's Public Service Directions 1999 and the Public Service Classification Rules 2000.

APS employees have particular obligations and responsibilities, such as the required standards of behaviour set out in the APS Values and Code of Conduct which are set out in the Public Service Act.

Departments and agencies

There are currently 19 portfolio departments, each headed by a Secretary. In addition, there are more than 80 APS agencies, each managed by an agency head. These agencies range in size from Centrelink (approximately 26,000 employees at 30 June 2010) to the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman (11 employees). For a full list of departments and agencies, see Australian Public Service agencies.

The Secretary or agency head is responsible to the relevant Minister for the efficient, effective and ethical management of their organisation. The Minister takes political responsibility for the actions of the department or agency.

The Secretary or agency head, on behalf of the Commonwealth, has all the rights, duties and powers of an employer in respect of APS employees in the agency, subject to the statutory framework, such as:

  • selection, movement, development and conduct of employees in accordance with the Public Service Act 1999
  • managing relations with their employees consistent with the Fair Work Act 2009.

Central agencies

While each Secretary/agency head is responsible for the management of their agency, there are five central agencies with particular APS-wide responsibilities for setting the legislative, financial and employment frameworks within which each agency operates. Central agencies may change over time, according to issues and priorities.

  • Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet—responsible for coordination of government administration; assistance to Cabinet and its committees; policy advice and administrative support to the Prime Minister; and intergovernmental relations and communications with State and Territory governments.
  • The Treasury—responsible for monitoring and assessing economic conditions and prospects, and providing policy advice on improving the wellbeing of the Australian people.
  • Department of Finance and Deregulation—responsible for advising on and implementing many key Government priorities. The role of Finance is to help the Australian Government achieve its policy objectives by contributing to four key outcomes relating to sustainable Government finances, efficiency in Government operations, and the use of information and communication technology in Government.
  • Australian Public Service Commission—responsible for providing policy advice and promoting good practice in human resource management in the APS, including in areas such as ethical behaviour, diversity and leadership, and fulfils an evaluation role in ensuring the APS is performing consistently with the APS Values. The Commission takes a lead role in implementing reform in the APS, and provides strategic policy advice to the Minister, agency heads and APS managers on a range of workplace relations issues.

The non-APS public sector

The APS is part of the broader Australian Government public sector that also includes the Parliamentary departments and a wide range of statutory authorities and other bodies such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Gallery. These organisations differ from the APS in that staff are not employed under the Public Service Act. For instance, Department of Parliamentary Services staff are employed under the Parliamentary Service Act 1999.

A very useful and comprehensive website to access further information in relation to Australian Government and information services is www.australia.gov.au