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  • 2023 Global Voices fellow

From the Individual to the Structural: How Flexible APS Recruitment Could Reduce Economic Inequality Between Rural and Urban/Canberran Australia

By Bayan Yazdani, Menzies Foundation, IMF, 2023

Executive Summary

Temporary flexible workplace arrangements introduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that many public servants working in policy and program administration roles for the Australian Public Service (APS) can successfully work remotely. However, in today’s ‘post-pandemic reality’, many Federal Government agencies and departments have an ongoing expectation for staff to work in-person, especially in Canberra. Recent reforms in 2023 lobbied by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), and agreed to by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), have maximised opportunities for flexibly remote, and – to a lesser extent - location-agnostic work for existing federal public servants. However, these current reforms miss a critical opportunity to attract regionally situated employees by integrating this flexibility into the recruitment process. 

This policy proposal argues that APS employment under these reforms will remain restricted to those who reside in, or are otherwise willing to relocate to, capital cities (particularly Canberra). It describes how this will undermine the ability of the reforms to reduce economic inequality on a societal level, beyond promoting greater accessibility and flexibility for individuals. It recommends the reforms allow full flexibility of APS work (where feasible) across the employee lifecycle, from recruitment to exit, to reduce the ongoing economic inequality between urban and regional areas across Australia.

Problem Identification

Income inequality between urban and rural Australians is concerningly high. Poverty rates are higher in rural/regional areas compared to major cities due to limited employment opportunities and generally lower wages. As of June 2023, the unemployment rate is higher in rural (7.4%) compared to urban (5.8%) areas, and just 3.1% in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), where it is the equal lowest nationally (ABS, 2023). 

At the same time, the vast majority of roles in the APS require staff to be based in a capital city, most commonly Canberra. Although the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), in its State of the Service Report 2019-20, identified managerial concerns about supervisee productivity as a major barrier to implementing flexible work arrangements, APS workers in fact reported an increase in productivity during COVID-19. According to Colley and Williamson (2020), almost 90% of APS managers surveyed believed their team’s productivity either increased or remained the same when required to work from home due to the pandemic. In addition, more generally, 70% of Australian workers reported the same or higher levels of productivity when working remotely than in the office during the pandemic’s first year (Hopkins & Bardoel, 2020). 

As such, the APS will be limited in its ability to recruit dedicated public servants from rural areas if it continues to emphasise in-person employment in Canberra or state capitals. This is because many Australians in remote communities are unable or otherwise unwilling to permanently relocate to Canberra or major cities due to carer responsibilities, disability, family obligations, cultural and kinship ties to country and community, and/or vulnerability to cold weather. Moreover, rental and property prices in Canberra remain among the highest nationally, and stubbornly high in other capitals (Conrau & Taulaga, 2023), often making relocation for junior APS positions financially unrealistic. This means theat current reforms proposed by the CPSU and approved by the APSC are missing a vital opportunity to somewhat alleviate socioeconomic disparities between rural and urban populations through the guarantee of fully flexible public sector employment arrangements.

Policy Recommendation  

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