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2 APS workforce needs into the future

The MAC report, Connecting Government, pointed to the economic, societal and technological challenges facing the Australian Government and the Australian Public Service (APS) in the 21st century, including:

  • new information and communication technologies
  • globalisation of the Australian economy
  • security and counter-terrorism
  • managing a sustainable environment
  • supporting communities in rural and remote Australia.

Connecting Government concluded that, in order to address these challenges effectively, the APS would need to work with increased coherence and collaboration, not only across its own agencies, but also with state and territory governments and private organisations.5

To achieve this goal, the APS requires a workforce that is multiskilled, flexible and intellectually agile. APS employees will increasingly need to be able to operate effectively in the information age, working in online environments and introducing and using connective information and communications technology. All future APS employees are likely to need to possess these characteristics and capabilities regardless of the areas in which they work, or the subject matter with which they deal.

Whether they are engaging with stakeholder organisations on policy issues or delivering services to individual members of the public, APS staff will need to be able to work horizontally—to make connections across different policy and programme areas in order to achieve the best possible outcomes for government and to ensure citizens receive seamless, holistic services.

This emerging APS environment is producing a much stronger demand for graduates and other highly skilled staff, and fewer opportunities for less skilled employees.

Until the 1970s, the APS was a major employer of blue-collar workers and skilled tradespeople. This role declined significantly after 1975, when the postal and telecommunications services provided by the Postmaster-General’s Department were removed from the APS, and further still during the 1980s and 1990s when most of the functions of the former Departments of Housing and Construction and Administrative Services and the industrial areas of the Department of Defence were either corporatised or outsourced.

Other factors that contributed to reduced employment opportunities for tradespeople and less skilled employees included:

  • the streamlining of award structures to remove the demarcations around particular types of low-skilled work
  • provision of a networked personal computer to most APS employees by the early 1990s, followed by the spread of email and Internet access, which have reduced the need to employ staff to work exclusively on producing, distributing and storing paper documents
  • a gradual redefinition of the role of the APS which has led to the excision of many areas of internal and external service delivery, including:
    • corporate services such as ICT support, payroll and telecommunications, which have been contracted out
    • repatriation hospitals, which have been transferred to state governments and private companies
    • functions formerly administered by the Department of Territories, which have been transferred to the ACT Government
    • a number of regulatory and other former APS activities, which have been corporatised (for example, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and the Australian Government Solicitor)
    • some service delivery functions (for instance, the Job Network) which have been outsourced.

As the APS workforce has become both more skilled and more multiskilled, so it has also become concentrated within a smaller hierarchical structure of classifications.

Figures 1 and 2 show the steady reduction in the proportion of the APS staff employed at the lowest classification levels. In 1984, 63% of staff were in what is now the APS 1–4 classification range, as opposed to only 43% today, due largely to abandonment of recruitment at the APS 1–2 levels by the majority of APS agencies.

Figure 1: Ongoing staff by classification, 1984 to 2004


Source: APSED

Figure 2: Ongoing engagements by classification, 1983–84 to 2003–04


Source: APSED

In 1984, the positions now classified within the APS 1–4 range encompassed a large variety of jobs in a series of overlapping classification structures. Large numbers of APS staff with relatively low skills typically did not advance above what is now the APS 4 level throughout their entire careers.

Today, most members of the APS workforce who remain for a significant period of time can expect to rise beyond the APS 1–4 range, for example, over 75% of current employees with 20 or more years of service have risen above the APS 4 level. These employees typically possess significantly greater communications, information technology (IT), problem-solving and other skills than did their counterparts of two decades ago.

Indeed, the APS workforce is rapidly evolving into primarily a ‘graduate’ workforce in which most staff will hold one or more tertiary qualifications. Figures 3 and 4 reveal that almost 50% of all staff and two-thirds of new recruits possess tertiary qualifications (defined as a bachelor’s degree or higher). This compares to only 19% of the general population of working age.6

Figure 3: Proportion of ongoing staff with tertiary qualifications, 1984 to 2004

Source: APSED

Figure 4: Proportion of ongoing engagements with tertiary qualifications, 1984 to 2004


Source: APSED

As the role of the APS has been redefined to place a growing emphasis on more skilled work, such as research and analysis, policy advising, and contract and relationship management, the proportion of the APS workforce in Canberra has also risen steadily, as is illustrated by Figure 5.

Figure 5: Proportion of ongoing staff based in Canberra, 1984 to 2004


Source: APSED

Note: The decline around 1994 relates to the departure of over 7000 staff from the APS to create the ACT Government Service.

The modern APS is also more likely to make use of staff with relevant outside experience to deal with increasingly complex sector-specific issues in areas such as industry, education, health, and community services.

Sectorally-focused agencies, such as Centrelink and the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources, the Department of Education, Science and Training, the Department of Health and Ageing, and the Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) now recruit on average between 30% and 35% of their new employees above the base APS 1–4 levels from outside the APS (the average for all APS agencies is less than 25%).

In 2005, the broad areas of APS employment are:

  • Service provision: employees typically in the APS 3–6 range who are engaged in direct service delivery to the public, case and contract management, and dayto- day regulatory decision-making. This group is predominantly located outside Canberra, particularly in the networks of the two largest APS agencies—Centrelink and the ATO.
  • Programme design and policy advice: employees typically in the range APS 5 to EL 2 who are engaged in policy advising, programme design, leading implementation processes, stakeholder management and making high-level decisions in relation to contracts and regulation. This group is predominantly located in Canberra, and comprises a core of employees who have joined the APS soon after completing their education, supplemented by increasing numbers of recruits who have had employment experience in other sectors.
  • Corporate support: employees who are engaged in traditional corporate service activities such as IT, personnel, records management, accounts processing, and ministerial and parliamentary processes.
  • Technically expert staff: employees occupying positions that require specialist qualifications obtained in the tertiary education sector and/or on-the-job, for example, doctors, lawyers, journalists, accountants, scientists, engineers, librarians and economists. Members of this group are found in all agencies, and predominate in many of the more technically focused or regulatory agencies (for example, the Bureau of Meteorology, the ANAO, and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission).

Service provision

There appears to have been a decline in the numbers of employees working in service provision areas relative to programme design and policy areas. The 2004 State of the Service employee survey found that 57% of APS staff reported they were either directly involved in delivery of services to the general public or managed employees who did so, but that this had fallen from 61% in 2003.7

However, it is clear that a high proportion of the two-thirds of APS staff located outside Canberra continue to work in service provision. These employees undertake a range of different activities, including:

  • direct dealings with individual members of the public (for instance, Centrelink and the ATO)
  • contract management and/or quality control of subsidised non-government service providers (for example, the Department of Health and Ageing and FaCS in relation to nursing homes, child care centres and a range of other community services, or the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR) in relation to the Job Network)
  • regulatory and enforcement activities (for instance, the Australian Customs Service and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF)).

Some of these agency networks perform a combination of two or more of these types of activity, for example, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs—which undertakes all of these types of work—and the ATO, which deals directly with the public and also operates as a regulator and enforcer.

A number of influences have been transforming the nature of the work undertaken in APS service delivery networks, such as the growing use of call centres, creation of online interfaces enabling customer self-servicing, and contracting out of service provision to non-APS organisations (for example, the Job Network for labour market services).

These changes appear to be promoting a general upskilling of the work undertaken by APS employees engaged in service provision, with relatively fewer staff engaged in routine processing work and a growing number involved in managing complex cases, establishing stakeholder relationships, undertaking detailed contract management, and monitoring programme performance.

Employees who work in this more complex service delivery environment will be required to possess sufficient intellectual agility and flexibility to enable them to manage a growing web of internal and external relationships.

Programme design and policy advice

While it is difficult to estimate the proportion of APS staff engaged in programme design and policy work, there are signs that it has increased.

Figure 1 shows that over 21% of all APS staff are now at the executive levels, compared to only around 6% of the mid-1980s workforce. Among the growing segment of the APS workforce based in Canberra the proportion of staff at these levels has been rising substantially and is now close to 40%. After 15 years of service, 60% of staff in Canberra have reached EL 1 or above.

While they are at levels that were traditionally classified as managerial, it appears that a large and growing proportion of executive level staff—particularly the EL 1s located in Canberra—have reduced supervisory responsibilities.

The average number of staff subordinate to these managers is much lower than in the past. While in 1984 there were 12 APS 1–6 level officers for every executive level officer, the ratio is now only four to one.

What this data appears to indicate is that, consistent with the overall trend towards upskilling and multiskilling of the APS workforce, programme design and policy workers are becoming increasingly multiskilled. They are required to operate as autonomous analysts and problem-solvers who engage with external stakeholders and other APS agencies in an increasingly connected environment.

Corporate support

As agencies continue to move to outsource provision of internal services, the proportion of staff engaged in corporate support activities seems to be falling.

The work of those who remain is being steadily upskilled, with a reduced emphasis on direct delivery of services and a growing requirement for capabilities in procurement, contract management, and strategic planning.

It is likely that, despite greater outsourcing, the APS will continue to provide substantial career paths for staff working in some key areas of corporate support, if those staff are able to develop strategic skills.

Several APS agencies offer specific graduate programmes for those with qualifications in information technology or human resources management. The UK Civil Service ‘Fast Stream’ leadership development programme (described in detail in Chapter 6) places the same degree of emphasis on developing corporate service leaders as it does on developing those who will lead policy or service delivery areas.

Technically expert staff

While there has been some multiskilling of the work of these staff, the majority are still being employed to fulfil specific roles. Indeed, growing accountability pressures on agencies have increased the level of specialisation required in some areas, for example, the growing use of certified practicing accountants to fill chief financial officer positions and other key financial management roles in agencies.

Until the advent of agency bargaining, many technical staff had their own separate APS-wide classification structures, and the distinction between generalist and specialist classification streams continues to be preserved in some agency certified agreements.

The weekly Public Service Gazette (now APSjobs) still frequently includes advertisements for positions for which certain academic or professional qualifications are mandatory requirements.

The disappearance of the professional officer classification structures means APSED no longer collects APS-wide data about the numbers of technical specialists; however, discussions with agencies indicated that many agencies have an ongoing need to employ significant numbers of these employees.

The agency survey undertaken for this project indicated the existence of many targeted programmes for recruiting and developing specialist graduates across APS agencies, most commonly, for economists, accountants, scientists and ICT professionals.

While the average number of participants per programme was lower, the total number of separate programmes for specialists (33) was almost the same as for generalist graduates (36).

Most agencies reported that they continue to be able to attract sufficient quality staff to fill these specialist positions, but many noted that this task is steadily becoming more difficult, particularly for positions located in Canberra in a range of specific areas, such as statistics (for the ABS), agricultural science (for DAFF) and macroeconomic analysis (for the Treasury).

Most significantly, almost all agencies reported difficulty in attracting sufficient suitably qualified accountants to fill positions located in head offices in Canberra to meet the requirements flowing from financial management reforms in the APS. It is difficult to ascertain the extent to which these shortfalls are purely supply-driven or caused by other factors such as reluctance of potential recruits to transfer to Canberra, insufficient levels of remuneration, or problems with job design.

Job design can be a particularly important issue for APS agencies looking to attract and retain experienced professionals. Accountants with private sector experience, for example, may find it difficult to adjust to the unfamiliar demands placed upon senior APS staff such as the need to understand and respond to the legal, parliamentary and financial frameworks within which the Commonwealth operates.


2.1 Staff at all levels and in all areas of the 21st century APS will increasingly need to be multiskilled, flexible and intellectually agile in order to deal with the challenging new issues and areas of work created by economic, societal and technological change. These attributes will be required whether staff are working in service delivery, programme design and policy advising, corporate support or technical areas.

2.2 These requirements will mean the APS workforce is likely to continue evolving into a ‘graduate’ workforce.

2.3 Alongside this multiskilled workforce of generalist graduates, most agencies will also continue to need to recruit and retain some staff with specific technical qualifications to fill particular key roles.

5 Management Advisory Committee 2004, Connecting Government: Whole of Government Responses to Australia’s Priority Challenges, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, pp. 4–5.

6 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004, Education and Work, Cat. No. 6227.0, ABS, Canberra.

7 Australian Public Service Commission 2004, State of the Service Report 2003–04, Australian Public Service Commission, Canberra, p. 52.

Last reviewed: 
16 May 2018