Tara's Thoughts

Moving public servants out of Canberra simply doesn’t add up

April 28, 2017

It’s been just over a week since Nationals Senator Fiona Nash announced a policy of Australian Public Service ‘decentralisation’, where portfolio ministers will need to justify why their departments and agencies shouldn’t be moved out to regional areas.

In this time it’s become clear that the policy hasn’t been properly thought out. A proposed ‘template’ for ministers to complete hasn’t yet been drafted. The justification has to occur by August but decisions won’t be made until December. Nash says all portfolio ministers need to be part of this process, but her colleague Barnaby Joyce says whole departments won’t be moved and has named some which are staying. Confusion and uncertainty reigns.

Six months ago I was a federal public servant. Like many, I’d moved to Canberra to give a graduate program a go and, before I knew it, Canberra had become my home and my life.

Six months ago I wouldn’t have spoken out. I would have been worried about potential backlash. This is true for many today – I know because many Canberrans have contacted me privately to tell me so.

And while I’m not a federal public servant anymore, I still keenly understand the issues. I will continue to be a voice for those who feel they cannot speak up. So, here’s my view about why moving public servants out of Canberra makes no sense.

Let’s start with the obvious one. Canberra is the nation’s capital. We are the natural home of the Australian public service. Our federal parliament meets here and that means this is where the ministers are. Former Prime Minister Menzies realised the value of this.

If we’ve got one Department in X location, one Department in Y, one Department in Z and so on then we really risk undermining both the efficiency and the overall effectiveness of the public service into the future as well as the responsiveness to Government.

Departments are not silos. Departments work together and meet regularly. Many Departments have embraced technology and do a lot of work via phone, tele- and video-conference, but there are times when nothing beats a face to face meeting. So, a decentralised public service will mean that meeting with ministers and between Departments will require an enormous amount of travel. And an enormous amount of travel equals an enormous cost to the taxpayer.

Having Departments centralised allows for skills transfer as people move between them to gain more experience while ensuring that corporate knowledge is retained within the public service. As someone who came to Canberra as a graduate, one of the appealing things was that I could have a career as a public servant in this city, not a career as an employee of X Department and X Department only. This has potential to affect the calibre of public servants the APS attracts in the future. It doesn’t add up.

I’m all for creating jobs in regional areas. I grew up in towns of less than 5000 people in Central Queensland and I know the value of job creation. But this isn’t about job creation at all. This is about robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is about moving jobs and moving people – people whose lives are entangled in Canberra. Not every public servant is in a relationship with another public servant, so couples are forced to make hard decisions – or it could add pressure to scare jobs in these regional areas. Children and families have to consider uprooting their lives – their schools, their sporting clubs, their friends. Families will be forced to choose between their jobs and their communities.

I don’t know if I could do it. If it were me, I’d look to move to another Department which is staying in Canberra. I’m not alone. And what that leads to is attrition. We only need to look to the APVMA and the staff it’s already lost to get a sense of what’s to come on a much bigger scale. Whole Departments will lose years of skill, years of experience, years of capability and knowledge.

And then there’s the trickle-down effect. Announcing this policy without significant detail but with a long, drawn-out timeframe will result in a degree of uncertainty in our economy. The ACT economy has diversified and we are a great hub of innovation and small businesses going from strength to strength, but that’s off the back of a strong public sector.

We only need to cast our minds back to a few years ago when the Department of Immigration was toying with moving entirely out of the Belconnen Town Centre. It caused a great degree of uncertainty in the community – and the proposal then was to move it to the other side of the city, not entirely out of Canberra. It was only through a concerted campaign and political support from all sides that led to the Department maintaining a footprint in Belconnen.

The federal Government should have learnt its lesson then.

Politically, functionally, economically and, most importantly, on a fundamental human impact levelmoving public servants out of Canberra doesn’t add up.

Are you a federal public servant? How would your Department moving out of Canberra impact you? Could you choose between your job and your community?

This is me in 2009 after completing a graduate program in the federal public service.