Staff cap restricts CSIRO innovation

James Riley

The federal government’s arbitrary cap on public sector employee numbers is “severely undermining” its science and innovation efforts, according to the CSIRO staff association.

In a submission to a Senate inquiry into the impact of changes to service delivery models on the administration and running of government programs, the CSIRO staff association argues that the Average Staffing Level cap, which aims to keep the public sector the same size as it was in 2007, has hampered the science agency’s ability to do its job and lead to an increased reliance on costly outsourcing.

The ASL cap was introduced by the Coalition in the 2015-16 budget, but didn’t “start to tighten” at the CSIRO until early last year. The CSIRO’s ASL cap of 5,193 employees for 2019-20 is now being “strictly applied”, the association said, and the agency is on track to exceed it.

“CSIRO is now actively restricting recruitment and reports are emerging of an increase in outsourcing of work to external contractors and consultants,” the CSIRO staff association said in the submission.

This is “severely undermining” the achievement of CSIRO’s strategic goals and the Coalition’s National Innovation and Science Agenda, the submission said.

The association recently undertook a survey of CSIRO staff, and the preliminary analysis found that seven of the agency’s eight units were considering or actively engaging external contractors in order to “meet scientific and research support demand, undermining the achievement of scientific and innovation outcomes”.

One staff member in CSIRO’s mineral resources business unit said they were concerned that the cap was “driving research dollars to expensive outside contractors”.

“This uncertainty is putting pressure on our morale which in turn is impacting our performance. On the other side the organisation is outsourcing services from highly paid contractors which can be done by us,” the Sydney-based employee said.

Its data arm Data61 is unable to fill the roles for a new project because of the cap, another staff member said.

“We have funding for a project that provides for employment of two new staff for one year. However, we cannot employ into these fixed-term positions due to the ASL cap,” the Brisbane-based CSIRO employee said.

Outsourcing this work will “limit our ability to benefit within CSIRO in terms of capability development”, the staff member said.

The energy arm of CSIRO is also being heavily impacted by the staffing caps, according to the survey.

“We are struggling to deliver the project work now and have already knocked back work because we simply don’t have the people to deliver it,” a CSIRO energy research in Newcastle said.

“This is hurting CSIRO in the long term as the tacit project knowledge and expertise leave the organisation when the contractor walks out the door.”

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