Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

A top-heavy public service

Alexander Philipatos

23 August 2013

alex-philipatosOver the last two decades, the federal public service has grown top-heavy and expensive.

Since the early 1990s, top-level management has grown over 50% (1,800 to 2,700) while middle management has more than doubled (18,500 to 41,700). At the same time, entry level workers – APS1 and APS2 employees – have declined 90%.

Salaries are also rising, particularly at the top. Base salaries for top-level managers have grown between 25% and 35% in real terms since 2002, compared to just 15% at lower levels, and 17% in the private sector.

The government today is employing far more managers in the public service, and paying those managers larger salaries.

Workforce costs are one of the largest running costs that government agencies must manage, but it is clear that these are not being managed particularly closely. Agency running costs (such as salaries and office expenses) increased from $32 billion to $52 billion throughout the 2000s, or 23% in real terms. Over the same period, an efficiency dividend of around 1.25% had applied in an attempt to control costs.

Fundamentally, the public service is growing because government is growing. New policies and programs are driving costs up because new initiatives require new funding, and a well-resourced bureaucracy to administer them.

The efficiency dividend is a blunt instrument for cutting public sector costs as it fails to target cuts at waste. The efficiency dividend applies across-the-board, and in doing so, applies to efficient and inefficient agencies alike.

The government should instead conduct independent annual reviews of agency functions. This is a chance to measure performance (both on cost and effectiveness), but it is also a chance to decommission ineffective or inappropriate functions. Too often new programs introduced to tackle distinct problems stay on the books with little evaluation to their effectiveness or cost.

But fundamentally, government needs to be asking if new initiatives are justifiable for government. If, as Treasurer Hockey says, the age of entitlement is truly over; and if we truly want a less intrusive government, we need to limit what government does..

Alexander Philipatos is a policy analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies, and author of Withholding Dividends: Better Ways to Make the Public Sector Efficient.



Tepid foreign policy debate sets the right tone

Benjamin Herscovitch

23 August 2013

benjamin-herscovitch Amidst the posturing and confected outrage of the election campaign, foreign policy stands out as a particularly anodyne affair.

In the Lowy Institute foreign policy debate earlier this month, Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spruiked the mantra of ‘more Jakarta, less Geneva,’ while Foreign Minister Bob Carr talked up the government’s multilateral diplomatic wins-the UN Security Council seat, an Arms Trade Treaty, and an international inquiry into human rights in North Korea.

Yet as the details of the debate revealed, the foreign policy differences between the two major parties are more about rhetorical style than policy substance.

The Coalition and Labor are both committed to simultaneously deepening our security ties with the United States, and our economic connections with China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific, while also pursuing global trade liberalisation with a combination of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements.

And although both think Australia should maintain a vocal and active presence in multilateral trade and diplomatic forums, they recognise that the real business of Australian foreign policy centres on the Indo-Pacific arc stretching from New Delhi to Washington via Jakarta, Beijing and Tokyo.

It does not make for good political theatre, but this consensus is as predictable as it is healthy.

The foreign policy portfolios, encompassing the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), AusAID and Austrade, cover policy areas vital to Australia’s national interest.

The health of our foreign relations is the keystone of our security, while our trade policy and economic diplomacy fuel our prosperity.

Not only are the foreign policy stakes too high for political posturing, but consistency between governments of different hues is essential for earning the respect and support of our allies and partners.

The idea that our foreign relations are beyond politics is not just a diplomatic nicety. It reflects a longstanding acknowledgement by both sides of politics that Australia’s most fundamental security and economic interests should not be held hostage to the electoral cycle.

The furious agreement on foreign policy this election season does admittedly overlook difficult questions about the funding imbalance between DFAT and AusAID. Will DFAT be able to effectively contribute to the global fight against economic protectionism and navigate Australia through the Asian Century’s complex and volatile international relations when its total resources amount to approximately a quarter of AusAID’s ballooning budget?

Notwithstanding such blind spots, the Coalition-ALP foreign policy entente is a rare example of high-mindedness in a political climate conducive to policy in the name of partisan politicking.

Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.


The enemy within NSW child protection

Jeremy Sammut

23 August 2013 | ON LINE Opinion

The NSW Minister for Community Services, Pru Goward, is under pressure to resign for allegedly misleading the parliament, the public and the media about the number of child protection caseworker in the state.

The Minister’s office had said that ‘more than 2000’ caseworkers were employed by the Family and Community Services Department when in fact 300 less than budgeted (around 1800) were employed.

This followed reports that only a quarter of children reported to be at significant risk of harm were seen by a caseworker to check on their welfare.

Departmental workers took industrial action last week in protest and to demand that vacancies be filled. There is more to this than the standard public sector union attempt to boost membership numbers.

The strike – together with the confected outrage over staffing levels – is part of a political campaign designed to discredit a Minister determined to change the NSW child protection system.

The shortage of caseworkers (a perennial problem under both Labor and Liberal administrations) is superficially significant. Even 300 more staff is unlikely to significantly dent the number of children who caseworkers never see.

The opposition is calling for the minister’s head even though the 2008 Wood Commission established that under the previous Labor government just 13% of reports that warranted further assessment received a detailed investigation involving a home visit and sighting of the child.

None of this stopped the ABC’s Quentin Dempster from spending most of Friday night’s Stateline interview focusing on the relative minutiae of caseworker numbers and ‘transparency’. The bigger picture, involving departmental opposition to planned changes to child protection practice in the state, was only briefly mentioned in passing towards the end of segment.

Minister Goward will soon introduce a reform package designed to increase the number of abused and neglected children who are adopted.

There are many arguments in favor of increasing adoptions to better protect children (detailed here). One is that adoption will make it easier to ensure that risk reports are properly investigated.

The huffing and puffing about caseworkers shortages endangering children, which all sides of politics engage in, needs to be viewed in the proper context. The real and systemic problem with child protection in Australia concerns the large number of children who are re-reported because of unresolved safety concerns.

Approximately half of all reports of child harm in NSW concern a hard core of around seven or eight-thousand frequently-reported, highly dysfunctional families. Many of these children have a long history of risk of harm reports stretching over many years, and end up being damaged by prolonged exposure to parental abuse and neglect.

Too little is done to rescue these children because child protection authorities in NSW (as in all Australian jurisdictions) believe in ‘family preservation’ at nearly all costs.

Many of these children would be much better off if they were removed earlier and permanently, preferably by means of adoption. This would significantly reduce the number of reports and, by making the caseload more manageable and alleviating staff shortages, would ensure a higher percentage of reported children (ideally 100%) could be seen.

It would also significantly reduce the amount of often catastrophic abuse and neglect experienced by the most vulnerable Australian children.

Despite this, adoption is ‘taboo’ in child protection circles, and most caseworkers (due mainly to what social workers are taught during their university training) are ideological hostile to any moves to increase adoptions for child welfare purposes.

The institutionalised opposition to adoption inside the agencies responsible for child protection is the reason that in 2010–11, fewer than 200 children were adopted in Australia. This was despite more than 37,000 children being in government-funded out of home care placements, and more than 25,000 of these children having been in care continuously for more than two years.

Stopping Goward’s push to turn these figures around is the real objective of the ‘caseworker shortage strike’. It is a pre-emptive public relations hit job on a minister who it is hoped will have diminished credibility in arguing the case for adoption when the memory of her ‘lies’ and alleged failure to ensure there are sufficient staff to see abused children is fresh in the public’s mind.

Doubling or even tripling the number of caseworkers won’t keep more children safe if family preservation remains the orthodox practice . The tail should not be allowed to wag the dog and subvert the democratic process. Politicians are elected to make the policies that public servants are obliged to implement.

This episode will be instructive for the new Family and Community Services director-general, Michael Coutts-Trotter, who has taken charge of a rogue department. The enemy of better protecting the children of NSW lies within.

Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.