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Ch 9 The changing central personnel authority

The year 2001 celebrated the centenary of Australian Federation. This section of the history looks briefly at the changing central personnel authority role within the broader context of the evolution and development of the federal public service through the same century, from time of passage of the 1902 Commonwealth Public Service Act until 2003.

The central personnel authority role

Developments in recent years have underscored the now significant and ongoing role of the Commission in providing advice and guidance to agencies. That role had existed for Commission’s predecessors, however, dating back to Federation.

The prime focus for the first Public Service Commissioner had been on central regulation and prescription, in relation to the exercise of staffing powers in the new, federal public service. The successor Public Service Board was to operate in a similar fashion for the greater part of its existence, but with major devolution and delegation of its functions occurring in the 10 years preceding its abolition. In that latter period, the range of Board guidelines and explanatory material expanded dramatically, as reflected in much of the content of a new Personnel Management Manual and in the extensive documentation issued in specifically targeted areas, such as equal employment opportunity, industrial democracy, studies assistance and staff appraisal.

The changed emphasis was to be pursued by succeeding Public Service Commissioners, but within the then continuing constraints of the 1922 Public Service Act structure, until December 1999.

The underlying philosophy and government objectives, in relation to APS reform, saw the evolution of a new Public Service Act, which explicitly shifted the focus from central regulation and prescription towards greater flexibility and decision making within agencies, and a Public Service Commissioner with express legislative obligations, in a number of areas, for the provision of advice and guidance to agencies.

The direct consequences for the Commission have been noted:

The challenge ahead for the Commission is to work in partnership with agencies to identify, develop, pilot and promote good practices in public administration (PSCr AR 2000, p. 6).

The Commission from 2001

There has been a continuing focus on the ongoing implementation and consolidation of the new legislative framework, with support for agency devolution and flexibility, balanced by the promotion of accountability and the importance of the APS Values (PSCr AR 2001, p. 9).

The Commissioner’s reports have reflected the now considerable scope and diversity of the Commission’s activities, as the APS has moved into a new century. Consistent with the philosophy and content of the 1999 Act, employer powers are now exercised essentially by agency heads, rather than residing formally with the central personnel authority, as had been the case previously. While the Public Service Regulations and Public Service Commissioner’s Directions require or allow the Commissioner to mandate practice, in relation variously to observance of the APS Values and the Code of Conduct, and to employment of SES staff, the specified functions of the Commissioner in s. 41 of the Act accord primary emphasis to developing, promoting, reviewing and evaluating APS employment policies and practices, along with provision of advice and assistance to agencies on request. These roles are reinforced by specific powers of inquiry, in relation to the investigation of whistleblower complaints and other matters, set out in section 41.

Within this framework the Commission’s diverse operations (as occurring to the end of 2001) were being undertaken through an organisational structure comprising six teams, with broad areas of responsibility as follows:

  • staffing structures and performance, encompassing policy and legislative aspects of a range of people and performance management and employment framework issues, including SES employment
  • values, conduct and diversity, addressing policy and good practice advice to agencies, in relation to the APS Values and Code of Conduct, whistleblowing, workplace diversity, anti-harassment programs and APS workplace statistics
  • people and organisation development, providing advice on strategic approaches to leadership and management, including support of good practice and the development of capability across the APS, along with the development and delivery of various management and skills development programs
  • two regional teams, providing advice and services to agencies across Australia, including discharge of Merit Protection Commissioner review and inquiry functions
  • corporate strategy and support.

Additionally, the practice had been to provide for the establishment, annually of a small team to manage preparation of the Commissioner’s State of the Service Report. During 2000–01, the team also had responsibility for producing the Commission’s Centenary of Federation publication, marking the centenary of the federal public service itself.

As with its recent predecessors, the current Commission has continued to have an active involvement in international activities, keeping abreast of developments overseas in public administration, contributing to exchanges of information, periodic participation in international meetings, hosting visiting delegations, and sponsoring reciprocal overseas visits by Commission staff.

The Commission’s internal organisational arrangements have been modified further since 2001, as reflected in the Commissioners 2001–02 and 2002–03 annual reports.

Service-wide issues

State of the Service Report

The Commissioner’s annual reports focus on the manner in which the Commission discharges its statutory responsibilities in the year under review, and details particular activities of the Commission’s teams in the areas outlined above. The State of the Service Report, specifically required by section 44(2) of the Act, broadens the focus over the range of the Commission’s functions and activities, in the context of providing an annual assessment of the ‘health’ of the APS as a whole.

Based on agency responses to a Commission survey, supplemented by information obtained from other central agencies and external review organisations, the Commissioner’s 2000–01 State of the Service Report concentrated on selected issues, grouped around the following themes:

  • agency progress in moving towards a culture which balances devolved management and workplace flexibility with the maintenance of openness, accountability and the APS Values
  • the way in which the APS, both collectively and as individual agencies, is facing emerging technological and operational challenges in financial management, client service and protection of information
  • managing performance, including the ongoing identification and maintenance of leadership and other capabilities needed to achieve a high performance APS
  • the maintenance of effectiveness and accountability in the management of market testing and outsourcing.

    Reference to the relevant APS Values is integrated into the discussion of these themes (PSCr 2001, p. 7).

Allowing for limitations in being able to derive firm conclusions essentially from the written reporting of agencies, the Commission was able to record an encouraging response and adaption to the requirements of the 1999 Act, while noting new challenges deriving from the changes brought about by developments in information technology, and the more commercialised and contestable environment in which the Service is now required to operate.

As to challenges for the future, the report reinforced views, expressed separately in the Commissioner’s annual report, as to the continuing need for agencies to promote and uphold the APS Values, and to ensure that the demonstration of proper accountability is viewed as a key obligation for agency management.

Commentary elsewhere in this history has noted more recent initiatives of the Commission, as recorded in both annual and State of the Service Report reports in 2002 and 2003.

Workplace Diversity

The Commissioner’s Workplace Diversity Report 2000–2001 provides significant additional elaboration on the Commission’s role in promoting workplace diversity throughout the APS, highlights the age profile and diverse characteristics of the APS workforce and key employment issues, and assesses progress achieved in the development of the agency workplace diversity programs, required by section 18 of the Act.

The report documented the contemporary characteristics of APS employment on the basis of gender, indigenous Australian composition, racial or ethnic origin, and employment of people with a disability.

It would be misleading to suggest that overall reporting on workplace diversity in the APS is other than positive. Issues of concern remain, however, and have continued to be addressed in 2002 and 2003 reports:

  • Employment in the APS of people with a disability has declined, against a steady rise in the underlying disability rate of the Australian population—attributed in part to a changing APS structure, with the outsourcing of many support functions provided previously by people with a disability, along with reduced need for some categories of support staff as a consequence of greater use of technology.
  • Evidence from agency survey data of the need to ensure a better understanding of the APS Values by agency staff, with particular reference to ensuring that diversity of skills, background and ways of working are valued, consistent with Value 1(c) in section 10 of the Act.
  • Agencies need to focus on strategies for development of strong and dynamic leadership and a broader range of organisational capabilities.
  • Effective performance management will need to continue as a high priority for agencies. Essential to this will be the building up of a modern, human resource capacity that is able to offer effective organisational change in response to the new employment framework created by the 1999 Act.
  • Achieving optional use of available information technology will be required to maximise efficient client service.
  • As important issues increasingly reach across traditional portfolio boundaries, policy development and service delivery will require approaches encompassing a whole-ofgovernment perspective.

The evolving Public Service

The role of the central personnel authority, and its influence in the federal public service have varied with the changing characteristics of the latter.

By way of brief recapitulation on broad characteristics of the Service, between January and March 1901, Federation had resulted in the creation of seven Commonwealth departments, with their staff appointed under s. 67 of the Constitution until commencement of the 1902 Public Service Act in January 1903. By that time, 11 374 officers were employed under the Act. At June 2001, the APS employed a total of 118 644 staff in 18 departments and associated APS-staffed organisations of varying size, including major components in Centrelink (22 337), Australian Taxation Office (19 503), the Australian Customs Office (4272) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (3188). By June 2003, a total of 131 711 staff was employed in the Service. At its peak, and with significant fluctuations associated with the Depression and World War II, the Service had grown to 277 455 staff by June 1975, immediately prior to the transfer of more than 121 000 Postmaster-General’s Department staff to the new Postal and Telecommunications Commissions. The number of departments had peaked at 37 as at June 1973, in the first year of the Whitlam Government.

As to the changing functions of the Service:

… the functional spread of the Service grew substantially over the one hundred years of Federation. Many functions remained from the early days, including customs, immigration, quarantine, defence, trade, taxation and repatriation benefits, although their scope and administration altered significantly. In addition, the Commonwealth developed a policy interest in a range of areas, including information technology, radio and television broadcasting, air transport, the environment, education, family and child support, aged and community care, multicultural affairs, and sport and tourism (PSMPC 2001a, p. 88).

Over the last 20 years, the scope of APS functions has been reduced by outsourcing, privatisation and the transfer of activities to other sectors by successive governments. In turn, the Service has increasingly concentrated on the performance of its clerical and policy advisory roles—the latter now commonly provided in a contestable environment, with independent advice to Ministers from their own staff, consultants, and various public policy research, advisory and special interest groups.

As has been previously noted, it should be recalled also that, from the early years of the 20th century, governments have chosen to have many Commonwealth functions undertaken by agencies not employing staff under the Public Service Act—over the objections of the first Public Service Commissioner and, in many instances over the years, the successor Public Service Board.

The changing size and composition of the APS, particularly through the latter half of the 20th century, have attracted frequent criticisms of its size and efficiency. The theme of ‘too many public servants’ occurred consistently in articles written by EH Cox in the Melbourne Herald and Weekly Times during the 1950s, and was commonly echoed by other journalists and public administration commentators. The Coombs Report in 1976 referred to public discontent and hostility to the size and cost of the bureaucracy and, in its annual reports, the Public Service Board was moved, not infrequently, to defend the growth of the Service, by reference particularly to the requirements of new government policies, and community expectations on delivery of services.

It is somewhat ironic that, in more recent times, criticisms have commonly focused on perceived APS resource capacity limitations, and failure to provide levels of service in accordance with community expectations—particularly in relation to the delivery of social welfare and health services—but also in other areas, where both urban and rural communities have become accustomed to significant levels of infrastructure support from federal government agencies.

Developments contributing to the current situation have been mentioned earlier. Focus on the size, functions and efficiency of the Service was sharpened as a consequence of the outcome of the three major reviews commissioned by the Fraser Government between 1976 and 1983 (the Administrative Review Committee, the Review of Commonwealth Functions and the Review of Commonwealth Administration). All three reports addressed options for divesting or refining APS functional responsibilities. Succeeding Hawke, Keating and Howard Governments responded in varying ways to these proposals, but with increasing concentration on the scope for having ‘non-core’ public sector activities being performed outside the APS (including by the private sector), as referred to above.

From virtual complete coverage at the time of commencement of the 1902 Act, less than half of the civilian staff of all Australian government agencies were covered by the 1999 Public Service Act at the end of the century (PSMPC 2001a, p. 204).

The present APS Commission is required to discharge its responsibilities in relation to a smaller public service, the direct functions of which have been significantly reduced or modified. The Commissioner’s annual and State of the Service reports accordingly now provide appropriate and effective means of generating better community-wide understanding of APS current realities and future possibilities.

Retrospect and prospect

A definitive evaluation of the work of the Australian Public Service Commission’s predecessors, the 1902 Public Service Commission and the Public Service Board, has yet to be undertaken. It would now be timely to address their contribution over the last century, in the same way as Centenary of Federation activities have addressed the story of the last 100 years, and identified many of the individuals and institutions that have made significant contributions to the evolution of the Australian Commonwealth.

The present Commission itself is of relatively recent origin, and any comprehensive evaluation of its contribution to the management of the APS since 1987 would still be premature.

In concluding this section of the history, however, the writer is rash enough to add a brief personal and unsolicited observation.

The now (from June 2002) Australian Public Service Commission was born in 1987 of distinguished ancestry. It was then widely perceived, however, as a weak (and almost orphaned) infant, with distinctly poor prospects of survival to adolescence, let alone achievement of adulthood.

Sixteen years (and five Public Service Commissioners) later, the child has shown itself to have been of an unexpectedly robust constitution. Predictions of longevity, both for humans and organisations, inevitably lack certainty—nowhere more than in areas subject to the political motivations and imperatives of incumbent governments at any given point of time. With all bets hedged accordingly, the Commission would nonetheless appear to have prospects of healthy survival for the foreseeable future.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018