Senate debates

Thursday, 20 June 2013


Australian Public Service Commission — State of the service — Report for 2011-12

6:01 pm

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Universities and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I note with interest the State of the Service report. I am always interested to see how our public servants are being managed. Under section 41 of the Public Service Act 1999, the Australian Public Service Commissioner's functions include: strengthening the professionalism of the APS; facilitating continuous improvement in workforce management in the APS; developing, reviewing and evaluating APS workforce management policies and practices; and maintaining appropriate databases. You might think that an issue of work management that has steadily worsened across the APS over the past decade and that is costing hundreds of millions of dollars should be addressed if the commissioner is to fulfil his statutory duty. But if you thought the commissioner shared your view, sadly, you would be wrong.

The Australian Public Service Commissioner knows very little, I am sad to say, about unscheduled absences within the APS. He knows what the current rate is—11.1 days per employee, or over two weeks a year. He knows that over at least a decade the rate has been steadily increasing from 8.9 days in 2001-02, which makes it a 25 per cent increase in 10 years. But he does not know what is causing the increase, apart from some guesswork about flu epidemics and an ageing workforce. He does not collect any data about absenteeism, except the rate for each department and agency. So, even if he wanted to, he does not have specific data to work out the causes behind the crisis of absenteeism. He does not know how much absenteeism is costing taxpayers. Actually, he does not care because he says it is not his problem, despite his explicit statutory function.

Contrast this with the situation in my home state of Queensland. The Queensland Public Service Commission is more than aware of the problem of absenteeism and its complexities because it collects detailed information about unplanned absences in the Queensland Public Service, including absenteeism rates by gender, age, length of service and, indeed, even where in the state leave is sought. The point about all of this is not that it is quirky and interesting in a nerdy sort of way but that you need to know the sort of detailed information of who, when, how and why if you want to have any chance of tackling the problem of public service absenteeism and to reduce its rate. To put it bluntly: how can you possibly facilitate continuous improvement in workforce management in the APS unless you have this information? Yes, you need the databases and you need to analyse them so that you can know the extent of the problem and then, hopefully, do something about it.

In June last year, the Auditor-General of Queensland released a report titled Managing employee unplanned absence. The Australian Public Service Commissioner was not even aware of that report, which is a pity because it provides some good data and some important lessons which the APS could benefit from. On a back-of-the envelope calculation, if the Australian Public Service were to reduce its unplanned absence rate by even two days a year to that of Queensland—roughly from 11 to nine days a year—Australian taxpayers would save about $340 million a year in direct and indirect costs. This is no small change. It is one-third of a billion dollars a year.

Will we see some action from the commissioner? I would hope so, but I am not at all optimistic. When I asked the commissioner about it during the budget estimates, he told me that he has 'other priorities'. Let me get this straight: our public servants take over 11 days of unscheduled leave a year, which is about 20 per cent more than people do in the private sector, according to the most recent Direct Health Solutions survey, the rate has increased by 25 per cent in the last decade and it is costing billions of dollars a year—and the commissioner has 'other priorities'. As the Direct Health Solutions survey itself concludes:

This points to the need for improved management and reporting systems to proactively manage absence in the Public Sector.

Hear, hear! The commissioner needs to take this problem seriously. Saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year might be more important than his current priorities. He needs to obtain the relevant data from departments and agencies, analyse it, find the reasons why it continues to increase and establish what it is costing Australian taxpayers, work out strategies to address the problem across the whole of the service and provide the leadership for the Public Service to tackle this issue. If nothing else, he at least needs to know the extent, cost and source of the problem to fulfil his statutory functions, and anything less than that will be a dereliction of duty.