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Public sector jobs drive, ongoing 'work from home' deals on table post-COVID-19

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The state’s bureaucracy could be bolstered to combat rising unemployment, as Premier Steven Marshall says he is “all for” maintaining flexible working arrangements in the public service after the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

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The Institute of Public Administration Australia has posted a video in which Public Sector Employment Commissioner Erma Ranieri conducts a half-hour interview with Marshall “to share insights into managing COVID-19 in South Australia”.

In the half hour clip, shot late on Wednesday, she flags a forthcoming submission seeking a directive from the Liberal leader about retaining ‘work from home’ and other flexible employment arrangements post-COVID-19, and also flags “bringing on more” junior staff, arguing “as [SA’s] largest employer we really need to do our bit for unemployment”.

SA’s seasonally adjusted jobless rate climbed to 6.2 per cent in March, up from its already nation-topping February rate of 5.8 per cent – and is expected to spiral significantly when last month’s figures are released.

But the suggestion appears at odds with the long-stated intention of Treasurer Rob Lucas – to whom the Commissioner directly reports – to gradually reduce the size of the sector.

Ranieri told Marshall she wanted to see a Premier’s directive addressing flexible working arrangements, with many bureaucrats working from home to maintain social distancing requirements.

The issue has been a fraught one in some sections of the SA public sector, with InDaily revealing this week a senior manager overseeing the state’s e-Planning overhaul is under investigation after sacking a contractor who took issue with an order to work from the office.

“Post-COVID, to maintain work mobility, will you issue a cross-government directive to approve workers’ requests to continue to work from home [for example] one day a week?” Ranieri asked Marshall.

Signalling her own approval for such a plan, she noted: “It’s up to you to issue a directive”, but added that her office was “currently working on what that might look like”.

“It’s not [just] around working from home, it’s really flexible arrangements to enable people to be able to deliver their outcomes, but also work from home or part-time,” she told Marshall.

She added she also wanted him “to look at how we can bring on more trainees and graduates and stuff”, noting: “As the largest employer we really need to do our bit for unemployment as well.”

“So watch this space, you’ll get something in the near future – but I think it would be great to get a Premier’s direction on that,” she said.

Marshall did not dismiss any of the suggestions, and enthused about the prospect of ongoing ‘work from home’ arrangements.

“To attract and retain the best people in SA into the public service, we’ve got to be flexible and I think we’ve moved a long way – but if there are things coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic that can help us to maintain that flexibility and be an employer of choice, then I’m all for it,” he said.

“We want the best, the brightest, the most dedicated people… we’ve got a great group but we’ve got to make sure we maintain that into then future, and that means the public service has to offer the types of arrangements that exist in the private sector – because that’s who we’re going to be competing with for talent.”

Ranieri added that the public sector “was able to mobilise itself and work from home the quickest I’ve ever seen it”, suggesting that was a turning point for flexible work arrangements.

“What we didn’t have before was being able to demonstrate we could do it – so we’ve got to capture that,” she said.

Ranieri’s office emphasised that the ideas raised were not state government policy but a suggestion to the Premier from the Commissioner.

The Commissioner told InDaily in a statement that “during my various roles in the public sector I have always supported flexible work arrangements for public sector employees”.

“Over the past few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only been the testing ground for flexible work arrangements but it has proven that the public sector can adapt exceptionally well to working remotely, while serving South Australians,” she said.

“I am especially proud of the way public sector employees have quickly embraced the working from home during COVID-19.”

Public Service Association General Secretary Nev Kitchin told InDaily the sector “must lead the recovery out of this crisis by employing more staff to provide the services and infrastructure our community needs and expects”.

“The public service has demonstrated its critical role in the state in protecting the safety of the community through this crisis so far – and is well positioned to lead us into the recovery by employing South Australians to provide the services the community requires,” he said.

“The PSA welcomes the suggestion that the public sector may be considering employing trainees and graduates.

“Under this government graduate programs have been cut pretty much altogether – so we urge the government to reinstate those programs and employ graduates.

“Similarly with trainees, the government has essentially outsourced most public sector traineeships to the private sector – it needs to take responsibility for taking on trainees and supporting the community now and into the future.”

He said the PSA was “willing to look at flexible working arrangements going into the future”.

“However, this Government must not use the COVID-19 emergency as cover to attempt to slash workers’ rights and employment conditions in a race to the lowest common denominator of private sector conditions,” he said.

But Property Council executive director Daniel Gannon warned against using the public service as a recruiting ground for its own sake, saying: “Increasing the size of the public sector to meet growing demands during a global pandemic is one thing, but if there are pockets of workers who aren’t at or near full capacity given current restrictions – like the private sector – we are talking about a different proposition altogether.

“Many private sector businesses are putting in place the necessary and requisite ‘belt tightening’ measures to ensure they get through the challenging months ahead [and] these cloth-cutting decisions are being made in the interests of business survival,” he said. 

“Given the State Government’s strong and welcomed views around productivity and efficiencies, we’d expect this to still be the case.

“These are unprecedented times and the State Government is expected to make the decisions it believes are in the best interests of South Australia… however, in the private sector many businesses experiencing revenue or job-related downturns are transitioning with the economy to ensure they are on their feet when we hit the recovery phase.

“If the State Government was in a position of either providing financial stimulus to the private sector or hiring more public servants, the decision is a simple one.”

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