Use budget to rebuild inhouse APS tech skills

James Riley
Editorial Director

The federal government should scrap the controversial public sector staffing cap and use this week’s federal budget as an opportunity to begin the process of bringing tech skills back inhouse, according to the Community and Public Sector Union.

In a pre-budget submission to Treasury, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) said the government needs to boost in-house skills in the public sector and reduce its reliance on contractors in order to better prepare for any future crises and provide much-needed jobs.

“To be prepared for the next crisis, the APS will need greater service delivery capacity that is not reliant on insecure labour hire or outsourced jobs, and which provides channel of choice in how the community accesses services, as well as flexibility for the government to adjust delivery to meet the needs of a particular circumstance,” the CPSU submission said.

Reskilling: The CPSU calls for budget measure to bring more ICT skills into the public service

The union urged the government to scrap the controversial Average staffing Level, which aims to keep the public sector the same size as it was in 2007, and to redirect expenditure currently being spent on external consultants and contractors into APS staff and capacity.

This is especially important in terms of ICT skills, the CPSU said.

“There are no shortcuts to building in-house capacity, but it is necessary for effective government. To build internal ICT expertise, there needs to be an express and specific goal to reduce the reliance on contractors and external vendors by the APS. There is also the opportunity to combine it with a broader employment strategy,” it said.

“Building the public sector ICT capacity we will need into the future is a nation-building infrastructure project that will provide an opportunity to develop a highly-skilled APS ICT workforce spread across the country, including in regional Australia.”

In terms of tech skills, the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) has become increasingly reliant on contractors and consultants in recent years. The agency increased its spend on tier one management consultants by nearly five times in 2019-20 compared to the previous year, jumping from $6 million to $30 million.

The agency has dished out significant contracts to Deloitte and Boston Consulting Group recently for work on significant ICT projects, including the update of myGov.

The CPSU said the budget should signal an intent from the government to provide better public services and tools for public servants, and to reduce the reliance on “expensive external vendors”.

“We know that since 2013 over 21,000 public service jobs have been cut under successive Liberal governments, causing enormous damage to the capacity of the Commonwealth. The Average Staffing Level Cap has cut jobs but also driven outsourcing to labour hire companies and contractors,” CPSU deputy national president Melissa Payne told InnovationAus earlier this year.

“Since 2013, we have seen $3.2 billion given to big consulting companies to do work the APS can and should be doing. The time of jobs for liberal mates is over, the Morrison government has to lift the staffing cap and invest in agencies like the DTA, so they can deliver the essential services that all Australians rely upon.”

The ASL, introduced by the Coalition in the 2015-16 budget, has also been criticised for “severely undermining” the public sector’s science and innovation efforts, according to the CSIRO staff association.

CSIRO’s ASL cap of just over 5,000 employees is now being “strictly applied”, leading to job cuts and more contractors, the group said.

The Thodey review of the public sector, handed down late last year, also recommended the staffing cap be removed once the APS has demonstrated its workforce planning capability in a strategy.

But the government rejected this in its response to the report, saying it considers the policy as “working effectively” and pledging to “keep its application under consideration in light of workforce needs and the government’s priority to deliver budget repair”.

The Opposition pledged during the last election campaign to abolish the APS staffing cap.

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