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Performance of the Department of Parliamentary Services
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Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Faulkner, Sen John
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Content WindowFinance and Public Administration Legislation Committee - 02/05/2012 - Performance of the Department of Parliamentary Services
WATERS, Mr Alistair, Deputy National President, Community and Public Sector Union
VUKOSA, Mr Leo, CPSU Delegate, Department of Parliamentary Services
CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. The committee has your submission and now invites you to make a short opening statement. At the conclusion of your remarks, I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you. I understand that the secretary has spoken to you in relation to some evidence that would normally be heard in an camera session. If we proceed down that path, we will I am sure be having hearings off site. We should bear in mind that evidence given here now will certainly be on the public record, but please advise me if we get to a situation where evidence should be taken in camera. Mr Waters, would you like to make an opening statement?
Mr Waters : Thank you, Senator. We are very conscious of the issue that you raise. The recommendations that are contained in our submission break down, I think, into essentially three groups of issues. The first group goes to the resources that are available to the Department of Parliamentary Services to perform its work and the effect that the efficiency dividend, in particular, has on the resources that the department has to perform that work. Our understanding is that effectively since 2000 the department has not had real increases in funding. The staffing numbers—and we have gone back to 2004—have fallen year on year since that point, with one break that was in 2008, from the annual report of 30 June 2008, where there was an increase. Since that time staff numbers have fallen again. We know that the department is at the moment going through a process of offering voluntary redundancies to staff and that positions are not being filled and that the staffing numbers in the department will fall again.
In our submission we provided evidence, based on a survey that the CPSU had conducted, about increases in working hours and increases in workload and work pressure on staff in the department. We understand that ORIMA Research has conducted a staff survey recently, which is a much bigger survey than the one we conducted. We are quite pleased to see that that confirmed those workload pressures. We think that is very important issue for the parliament and for this committee to consider in the work that the parliament expects of the Department of Parliamentary Services. The workload pressures and the reductions in resourcing are affecting all parts of the department, be it Visitor Services, Hansard, Broadcasting or the Library. The feedback that we have from members is that that pressure continues to grow.
We have made some recommendations about funding that go both to funding being increased to address the increases in workload that have been identified and to the question of the efficiency dividend no longer being applied. Of course, we are in a situation where the department is subject to a four per cent efficiency dividend and is also subject to a very significant cut in its departmental capital expenditure.
We also make some recommendations to the committee about ways the department goes about doing its work and goes about undertaking workplace change. The department has, over the course of the last few years, implemented significant workplace change programs and implemented significant new tools and systems. In particular our submission goes to changes in Hansard and the new systems that have been implemented in Hansard.
We make recommendations that users of these systems need to be intimately involved in the process right from the beginning when these changes are being made. The feedback from our members in terms of changes to the system in Hansard is that the new system has increased the pressure on them rather than assisting. With appropriate employee input from the beginning, the productivity that can be generated from the implementation of new tools and systems can be significantly enhanced. When that is not there, when the users of the systems are not involved in those processes, notwithstanding the claims that are made at the step of implementing systems, when you get to the end of the process, you often find that the staff who have to work with the system have more problems than they had before. The feedback and some of the details that we have provided in our submission indicate that that has occurred with some of the changes in the systems for Hansard.
We make some recommendations that go to engaging with the staff who are going to be using those systems and having them fully engaged in those processes of change from the beginning. This is not something that is unique to the Department of Parliamentary Services. It is something that tends to happen when organisations are dealing with safety critical systems, but the engagement of staff drops off radically depending whether the systems are seen more by management as being mechanisms for them to enhance productivity. The consideration of issues like the user interface with the systems, which is fundamental in many ways to the productivity that is generated by changing tools and systems, really drops off as a consideration.
So, you see it with safety critical systems, but unfortunately the changes to Hansard are not seen as safety critical, so those changes to the operability for users with the new system are often not considered. So you get a sales pitch at the beginning about the productivity that is going to be generated by the system, but, because the users of the system are not actively engaged in the process, often those productivities are not realised, and in many cases—and we say this is the case with some of the changes in Hansard—that pressure continues.
CHAIR: Could you just summarise so that we can get to some questions.
Mr Waters : My apologies. There are some OH&S recommendations that we make coming out of that. There are also recommendations that we make with respect to bullying and harassment and recruitment processes for the department. Again, the survey that we conducted and that is contained in our submission is supported, we believe, by the outcomes that have been found in the ORIMA survey. There are significant problems in both of these areas in the department. We are very pleased to note comments from the new secretary in the Canberra Times on Sunday about bullying being a key target for her. It is our view that significant work needs to be done on the HR systems and processes in DPS to ensure staff confidence and confidence in merit recruitment processes. If they are feeling bullied or harassed they need to feel confident that they have a safe and secure process that they can go through that is fair and transparent and available to them. I will leave my remarks there. I am sorry if I took a bit too long.
CHAIR: That is fine. There is an awful lot of ground to cover. I will start with some questions. I acknowledge your written submission, which has been most helpful. I wonder if you could explain to the committee the changes that have been made and introduced into Hansard and your comments that the new system is not working efficiently. Can you elaborate and step us through that process. I am really interested in the occupational health and safety issues, the amount of injuries in that department. Could you elaborate on that for the benefit of the committee.
Mr Waters : There are links between the two issues. Staff have reported to us that the new system is very mouse heavy to operate. We understand this has led to increases in RSI injuries being reported. Evidence provided by Mr Kenny at May 2011 budget estimates indicated that Hansard staff have higher injury levels than the department is comfortable with. On the basis of the comments that were made to us in response to our survey, these RSI type injuries seem to be linked to the very long hours that Hansard staff are working and to the user interface with the new systems.
CHAIR: How has the new system—is it just because there is more use of the mouse? Is it predominantly the system?
Mr Waters : Sorry, I am not an expert. We suggest that there should be an OHS review of the system in our recommendations. My understanding, based on the feedback we have had, is that that is the principal issue. Hansard staff have always spent an awful lot of time with keyboards and computer systems. The changes with the new system are increasing the pressure on their arms. I hasten to say that is probably pretty simplistic.
CHAIR: Thank you. In terms of the workload and the hours—chairs of committees get together and talk about the workload on committees—on the secretariat and other staff. In your experience, would you elaborate on the impact that is having. We all know that the parliament sits irregular, late hours, but it is on the public record that there has been a significant increase in the amount of work through the structure of our committees plus reference and additional committees. Would you elaborate for the benefit of the committee on the impact that that is having on the staff here and your members.
Mr Waters : It is a pretty straightforward sum. The workload of this parliament has certainly been increasing, both through an increased number of committee hearings and the fact that the number of staff available to perform the work is decreasing. The staff are very committed to the work that they do. They take their jobs overall very, very seriously. There is a commitment to getting the job that needs to be done done well. That leads to an increase in workload. Frankly, I think that flows through to some of the issues that have come up with bullying and harassment, which are workload related. It was clear in the comments we received that workload pressures and pressures to do additional hours are one element that is leading to additional tension, which leads to those bullying and harassment issues being identified. So it flows right through the whole system, in many ways. It is pretty straightforward. The work is increasing and the number of staff is not.
CHAIR: Can you highlight any reasons as to why there appears in some sections of DPS to be an increased turnover of staff?
Mr Waters : Again, there is a strong commitment among staff to the work that they do here, but people also have a point that they need to reach. I think the ORIMA survey results indicate that work-life balance—that flexibility between your home life, your community life and your working life—is seen as being significantly lower. I think the figure in the survey was 60 per cent for DPS while for other agencies of the same size as DPS it was around 74 or 75 per cent. That is an issue. We certainly do get feedback about the HR processes or lack thereof. Part of that comes from pressure on those middle managers, with that being reflected down. This has made the working environment less of a place where people want to work, and that has led to people making choices about moving elsewhere.
Mr Vukosa : I can elaborate on little further on that, if you wish. I have been a staff member of the Parliamentary Library for over 30 years. I came up here from the Old Parliament House with Senator Faulkner.
Senator FAULKNER: I was not in Old Parliament House, actually.
Mr Vukosa : I used to see you around there; you must have been visiting.
Senator FAULKNER: I visited once or twice. I am very old but not quite that old.
Mr Vukosa : Well said. I am finding at the moment that the staff turnover is directly related to the efficiency dividend and the extra pressures put on the staff to perform greater services and produce greater outputs than before with fewer resources. Where before these used to be more tolerance of people whose work output was a little lower for a number of reasons than their colleague, these days that tolerance is much lower because of the lesser number of staff to perform those duties. They are asking a lot more of the staff for the same amount of money that they were getting in other agencies, where there was less pressure and less work. The staff here either stay for a long period of time, like me, or stay for a very short period of time. That is probably a true reflection of what has been happening in the last 15 years.
When we moved up here from Old Parliament House in 1988, there were probably two to three times more staff walking around this place than there are now. When you walk around the building you notice that some of the lifts are turned off to save money so that security do not have to sit beside them. When we first moved up here they were all operational. There were security guards situated at all the lift entrances and exits.
You probably notice that there are a lot fewer people doing maintenance now than there used to be. In the old days the Joint House Department looked after the maintenance of the building and the grounds. That of course has now been absorbed into DPS and they have been affected by budget constraints, so a lot of the work is now done by what we call capital works projects, where contractors come in and do the work. They used to have in-house experts do it. A lot of their corporate knowledge has been lost because those people have moved elsewhere. A lot of the trade staff that work in this building under the DPS umbrella are getting a fraction of the money they could get if they were to leave here and work in private enterprise. For example, a plumber or a carpenter here would be getting between $50,000 and $65,000 a year; in the private sector they could probably triple or quadruple that. If we ever need tradesmen to come to us, we know how much they charge. So a lot of people are moving on. They do not stay here as long as they used to.
I have also noticed the ageing of the workforce is a true reflection of another reason why staff are leaving. A lot of people who have been in the public sector for a period of time—for example, the people in the old CSS superannuation scheme—retire at 54/11 and, within two or three months, they reapply for their old job and get it and the younger people miss out. The younger people get disillusioned and move on. That is happening throughout the public sector, not just DPS; I take that on board. But that is the reason there is staff turnover.
CHAIR: Mr Waters, what engagement have you had with the department and what response have you had to the concerns you have raised in relation to the issues you have highlighted? I want to come back to disability access. But, generally, what sort of relationship does the union have with the department when you raise the concerns of your members?
Mr Waters : That has been mixed over time, I think it would be fair to say. Obviously there are always differences of opinion that do occur. In terms of the funding issues, it would be fair to say that there is a shared view. We have probably found the department far more defensive when it comes to some of our concerns about HR practices and policies, be it in relation merit recruitment or the bullying and harassment issues. The department, as late as Monday, provided us with information indicating that they felt that they had been taking steps to promote an inclusive and supportive workplace culture which is free of bullying and harassment. Certainly the evidence that we have from our members is that they do not feel that to be the case.
CHAIR: I will not even attempt to get into the bullying and harassment issue; I am going to leave that for others to raise, because we do have limited time today. As I said, I do expect that we will be inviting you back. I did want to touch on disability. I am on the public record as saying that, as a government, we should be leading the way in employing people with disability. Access for disability is not just about those people who work here or those that visit; it is about everyone. You have raised a concern in your submission that the House of Representatives chamber is not access friendly, whereas the Senate chamber is. I can remember in very recent times we have had a number of senators—and we have just lost a senator—who have had to have wheelchair or scooter access. Can you elaborate briefly there in relation to your concerns, and then I will hand over to Senator Faulkner.
Mr Waters : I sought some advice in regard to the disability issues following the invitation to appear before this inquiry. There certainly have been a number of changes. I am afraid I am not sure that anything in particular has been done around access to the House of Representatives, but access to the building overall, I think, has improved. Access to wheelchairs out of hours, for instance, which was a particular concern that we had, has improved.
Mr Vukosa : Recently the department have installed automatic door openers from the underground car parks that come into the building. There are ramps, so there are no steps, and there are disabled car parks near those entrances, for disabled people. I have noticed that on the Senate side they do not have automatic door openers, but they have a low-down button which disabled people can push so the doors open for them automatically, so they do not have to climb out of their wheelchairs, if that is possible. I have also noticed that they have upgraded the disability access to the ministerial underground car park, and they are also now operating the visitors car park disability access.
One thing I have noticed is that this building was designed with a lot of heavy fireproof doors and some of those internal doors in the building are still not automatically opening and closing. I am guessing that people in a wheelchair would have trouble opening the doors. Some of those doors are very heavy, especially those glass ones, which I am sure you have opened. You have got to give them a hell of a shove to open them. A disabled person would have a lot of trouble opening those. I am not sure what stage those are at, or if they are even allowed to have automatic door openers, because they are supposed to be fire resistant or fireproof doors. But overall the disability access around the building from the car parks and the Senate and the Reps entrances has improved.
CHAIR: Opening the doors is part of my daily exercise routine, I can assure you!
Senator FAULKNER: Mr Waters, you mentioned a few moments ago that you had had some contact—I think you said it was as late as Monday of this week—in relation to some initiatives that DPS was taking in the bullying and harassment area. I wondered if you might care to share that communication with the committee.
Mr Waters : Yes. The acting secretary has signed a note that was sent to the union. It is regarding the DPS staff survey 2011 results. It is DPS reference 10/2152, labelled 'DPS staff survey union advice'. It indicates that around one in five staff, 23 per cent, indicated that they experienced bullying and/or harassment in the 12 months prior to the survey, compared with 20 per cent in 2009 and 17 per cent for medium APS agencies. It also indicates that just under one in three staff, 29 per cent, who had experienced or witnessed bullying had reported it, which is quite low and a concerning figure, in our view. The next paragraph goes on to indicate that DPS is committed to promoting a positive, inclusive and supportive workplace culture and refers to a plan that was put in place after a September 2009 Comcare audit that included reviewing policies and increasing awareness of the reporting mechanisms and education programs. So it would seem, on my reading of the advice, that the initiatives that are referred to occurred coming out of the 2009 Comcare audit. On the basis of the survey results, one would have to say that they do not appear to have been terribly successful.
Senator FAULKNER: Mr Waters, would the CPSU, or you as the representatives at the table, have a problem with tabling a copy of that correspondence, so that we might be able to have a look at that and address any relevant issues with DPS?
Mr Waters : No, we do not have any problem with that.
Senator FAULKNER: I would appreciate that. That would be helpful. The CPSU submission is, I think, very much enhanced in a whole range of areas that the submission covers by effectively drawing on comments that are made by your membership. I wanted to ask a few questions about that, if I could. I am assuming it was some form of membership survey that you had undertaken. Any quick background might be useful before we go to the detail of it.
Mr Waters : Yes, commissioner. It was an all-staff survey.
Senator FAULKNER: You just promoted me to a commissioner, Mr Waters.
Mr Waters : Sorry. I think I am betraying where I normally appear before microphones.
Senator FAULKNER: It is not even a Freudian slip.
Mr Waters : It was an all-staff survey, but the preponderance of people who participated were CPSU members. We find it a very effective mechanism in getting views of members. We try to do some quantitative work in those surveys but also provide lots of opportunities for people to provide comment so that we can get some flavour about what lies behind the numbers.
Senator FAULKNER: Do you do it on an annual basis?
Mr Waters : We have some surveys that we do on an annual basis. This survey is one of our more ad hoc surveys.
Senator FAULKNER: Are you able to say when it was done?
Mr Waters : We did this survey in June in response to the inquiry.
Senator FAULKNER: So June 2011?
Mr Waters : Yes, June 2011.
Senator FAULKNER: That is helpful background. Given that we have some time constraints, at this time I would like to perhaps focus on two areas. The first one is on page 12 of your submission. It is broadly in the recruitment area, or 'merit based recruitment' as described by your union in its submission. Let me pick out just a few of the comments that are made by respondents to your survey, and I quote:
Far too much nepotism.
I feel that duty statements/selection criteria are sometimes amended to suit a particular applicant.
I have witnessed nepotism, cronyism and discrimination by selection panels (or some members or chairs of panels) that constitute a major divergence from the APS principles of merit selection.
Nepotism, grooming of certain staff for promotions.
There is obvious nepotism in the DPS and toadyism is one of the main games played by anybody seeking advancement.
There are the views of five respondents to your survey—and it is not the only evidence that we have relating to these issues. How concerning is this issue of nepotism in relation to recruitment processes in DPS?
Mr Waters : It is deeply concerning. The APS obviously has legislative requirements regarding merit based selection processes that lead to a significant focus on that in the APS. I would have to say that I am struck by the number of conversations that I have with members in DPS where these issues are referred to casually in passing as the ordinary state of affairs. We as an organisation do not feel that this should be the ordinary state of affairs in any element of government service. It is not good for public administration. To have this strength of comment and, I would have to say from my personal experience, the regularity and general acceptance of that as the state of being is deeply concerning.
Senator FAULKNER: Obviously your union deals with a whole raft of departments and agencies. Is this concern that you have just expressed to the committee typical or atypical in terms of a service-wide consideration?
Mr Waters : It is atypical. Selection processes by their very nature are contentious. Feedback from members and staff around particular selection processes with people being disappointed is not uncommon. I would say though that the situation in DPS goes significantly beyond that normal level of comment or contention. There is that sense of normalcy where staff see the promotion and selection decision being made on a basis which they consider to be other than merit based. We make no comment about any particular selection process but, when you look at the general comments that are made, there is clearly a very strong perception among staff that the processes in DPS are not merit based. That is atypical of government service as a whole.
Senator FAULKNER: Has the union found any mechanism available to it to address these concerns with the senior management of DPS?
Mr Waters : We have not. There are appeal processes available, but they do not apply to promotion at the EL level or to selections from outside the organisation. They are also not processes that are generally utilised by staff who go through selection. Comments from management are quite defensive about the processes that they apply, and generally are along the lines that the processes are appropriate. I do not think we have reached a common point with them on this one.
Senator FAULKNER: I, and other committee members, plan to deal with some of these issues at later hearings including in in camera or confidential hearings that this committee will have. To follow on from my earlier question about the pattern, are you aware or could you nominate any APS agency where issues or concerns about nepotism have been raised to the same extent as have been raised by staff within the Department of Parliamentary Services?
Mr Waters : I do not want to be categoric about it in some ways. It is an allegation that arises from time to time for a lot of organisations.
However, as to the level and consistency of the concern being expressed in DPS, from my personal experience I cannot think of another one in the APS or in the public sector.
Senator FAULKNER: We will continue to progress these issues, Mr Waters, but perhaps in other fora. Thank you for that.
CHAIR: Because the Department of Parliamentary Services are here and we are running out of time, we were wondering whether you are available to come back after our break for a little while, Mr Waters. Do you have time constraints?
Mr Waters : I am at the committee's pleasure.
CHAIR: We will still adjourn in five minutes, but, if you would not mind coming back, I think it is important that we get some of these things.
Senator FAULKNER: The other issue I wanted to touch on this morning is this broader issue of bullying and harassment, which again is something that you have focused on your submission. You have also responded to some questions indicating the note that you have received from the acting secretary of DPS in relation to these matters. Also, in your opening statement you mentioned the statement that was made by the incoming secretary. I read the press commentary too, and there were some positive statements, I thought, abut dealing with this issue in DPS.
Mr Waters : We were certainly very pleased to see Ms Mills' comments and saw that as being very positive.
Senator FAULKNER: In relation to this issue of bullying, similarly to what I asked about nepotism—and you may not be able to provide me with an answer on this; I appreciate it is not an easy issue to grapple with—are you able to make any assessment about how the incidences of bullying compare in DPS with those in other agencies? I appreciate that there are been some reports that give a statistical basis to this, but I am interested in what the experience might have been in relation to your organisers and members and whether you are able to share with the committee any insights into the extent of bullying and harassment as a concern within DPS.
Mr Waters : The question of bullying and harassment is in some ways more complex than the question of recruitment. Bullying and harassment in many ways goes much more to a workplace culture issue. Frankly, the union plays a role in this. Bullying and harassment is significantly less common in well-organised workplaces that is in less well-organised workplaces. It is a matter of confidence on the part of workers. In my experience, what can be seen as bullying by one worker in one environment may well be water off a duck's back for a worker who is much more confident in their work environment, so experiences around bullying are far more complex. Clearly, based on the comments we have got back, there is a significant element of workload pressure that is feeding into bullying and harassment concerns here in DPS.
It would also appear, I think, in terms of the reporting possibly more than the instances of bullying and harassment that there is a lower level of confidence in the processes to deal with bullying and harassment in DPS than we might see in other agencies. In my experience, the general culture of a workplace has a much bigger influence in terms of something like bullying and harassment and the reported numbers than you find with something like the selection process issue.
Senator FAULKNER: Yes. I, or senators at the table here, will go through with DPS the statistical basis of this. What I suppose I am really most interested in understanding from you is whether in your engagement with DPS over the years you have been satisfied with the efforts of DPS senior management to work on this issue and to try to come to grips as much as possible with eliminating bullying and harassment from the workplace here.
Mr Waters : We are not satisfied with that. From the references that go back to the 2009 initiatives, it seems to us that there has not been that follow-up that is necessary. Ms Mills makes the point that bullying and harassment issues are best dealt with when there is a very clear and consistent message coming from the top of the organisation about those issues. I would not say that in our view that clear and consistent message that staff are safe to report it and that issues will be taken seriously has been communicated consistently through the organisation. I might ask Leo if he could add anything.
Mr Vukosa : I am a CPSU delegate, and one of the hats I also wear at the department is that of workplace harassment contact officer, so staff contact me if they believe they have been harassed, bullied or singled out for special treatment different to that of everybody else in the workplace. The number of people contacting me has definitely increased in the past 24 months. Unfortunately, the majority of those people will come and see me or phone me and ask for advice; they will not want me to take it further and approach their management in their situation. Most of the reasons I am getting are that they are scared—with job cuts happening throughout the public sector, including DPS—that, if they do complain, they will be seen as either a troublemaker or somebody that speaks out too often. So I am only getting one in maybe five or six staff that are asking me to take things further for them, where I then make an appointment to go and see their manager or supervisor and try to work it out for them. The majority of the time I am successful. There have been other instances where the manager has denied the bullying, I have taken it further up the chain to the executive and the executive, though very high on words, are very low on actions. In the majority of the cases this is true. I often see—
Senator FAULKNER: I am sorry to interrupt. Who is high on words and low on actions?
Mr Vukosa : The people that are capable of doing something about this—that is, the executive.
Senator FAULKNER: So the executive—
Mr Vukosa : Correct—the executive-level staff. I am finding that they are high on words but low on actions. It has been common knowledge throughout DPS that people that do speak out if they see something wrong or because they feel they have been dealt with inappropriately find that their career paths are more or less stalled for the rest of their time here. So it is an ongoing issue. I am not sure if it is something that is unique to DPS, but it definitely happens at DPS. I have seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears.
Senator FAULKNER: Chair, if it would assist the committee, I am happy to progress these issues with DPS when they are at the table at a later stage. If that helps the conduct of the hearing—
CHAIR: Yes, I am quite happy with that. Mr Waters and Mr Vukosa, thank you very much for the written submission and also for appearing before us. As we indicated from the outset, if we need to call you back then we will be in contact with you. We appreciate your contribution this morning.
Proceedings suspended from 10:50 to 11:05