Public service workforce regulatory frameworks in Australia – a matter of balance


In this paper the author explores three themes. First, some critical traditional frameworks and features of the public service edifices of Australia were built for very good reasons, most of which are still valid. Second, some significant elements of public sector reform have shaken if not destroyed the foundations of these institutions and created unintended and perverse outcomes which not in the best interests of good public service or of the public interest. Third, these structures need to be rebuilt with clear ideas about what they are to do and look like.

The author compares the recent experience of the federal government and the Western Australian government in undertaking public sector reforms. One conclusion is that independent public service commissions had played a critical role in maintaining core capacities and qualities in both the national and sub-national public service workforces in Australia. Another conclusion is that some of the reforms have pushed the framework of the public service out of the necessary balance between service of the public interest and meeting the needs of the government of the day.

The national government has retained an independent Public Service Commission throughout successive public sector reforms, while most sub-national (State and Territory) governments have replaced them with other less independent institutions. The paper examines the consequences of these differing approaches to public sector workforce reform, especially for workforce planning, the protection of the merit principle in staff appointments, and generally, a boundary-riding or quasi-regulatory function. Among these consequences, it is contended that those jurisdictions without, independent public service commissions may be ‘flying blind’ without the benefit of the boundary-riding functions, such as central coordination, risk management, independent policy review, and commitment to workforce research and planning and resourcing that an independent public service commission is able to provide.

The general conclusion is that a public service is the poorer without a boundary-riding independent public service commission or equivalent. The author concludes with observations on future public policy and practice in relation to public service employment frameworks, arguing the case for a return to some of the traditional characteristics of these frameworks to restore its balance in the public interest.


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