Australian federal public servants finally told they can work from home during coronavirus crisis

Anne Davies

The federal government has issued new guidance to federal departments and agencies to move as many of its 160,000 employees to working from home as possible, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread.

Despite the exhortations to other employers to get their employees to work from home, until Sunday there was no clear policy about who in the federal public service should work from home, causing consternation from the union that covers public servants.

“The prime minister and the APSC must follow their own advice and allow the public sector to work from home, wherever possible. It is just baffling that there is one rule for private business and another for the public sector,” the CPSU national secretary, Melissa Donnelly, said earlier on Sunday.

On Sunday evening the commonwealth public service commissioner, Peter Woolcott, released new advice making it clear that federal public servants should work from home where possible.

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Woolcott said the updated guidance made it clear that, wherever practicable, public servants should work from home, subject to the decisions of agency heads.

He said it was up to departmental and agency heads, but working from home was “the priority”.

Woolcott also stressed that every public servant who can work, should work.

“The government considers the APS to be an essential service which needs to keep working in order to keep Australians safe, and ensure that services are delivered for the Australian people,” he said.

“Agency heads have always had the flexibility for employees to work at home subject to operational requirements. But current circumstances mean as soon as practicable agency heads should facilitate their staff working from home where possible,” he said.

“These are extraordinary times. A time where the Australian Public Service is essential to keep Australians safe, and to deliver services for the Australian people. Our focus is on both employees’ health and wellbeing, and importantly the continued delivery of critical public services.”

He said APS staff would be deployed to where needs were greatest and that agency heads would be asked to facilitate movement of staff between agencies urgently to perform critical functions.

The CPSU said the Australian Taxation office had been on the verge of moving the majority of its staff to remote working last week, but had put the plan on hold after “mixed messages” from the prime minister, including that “anyone with a job is an essential service”.

Defence and the ATO are understood to have run large-scale trials of remote working but have been waiting for an APSC-wide directive before implementing them.

Tensions had been simmering between the union and the government after departmental heads appeared reluctant to allow working from home without a government policy.

One message from the Department of Social Security to all staff last week said: There has been no direction from Government for the APS, as an essential service, to move to a broader working from home stance.”

However, DSS said short-term home-based working arrangements were in place for people who may be more vulnerable and to assist meeting social distancing requirements.

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Some departments such as Treasury and Finance already have high levels of people working from home, but other policy departments were still requiring attendance at the office.

The ACT chief minister, Andrew Barr, had also expressed concern about the slow move to remote working. The ACT had 77 Covid-19 cases as of Sunday.

Asked about the federal public service on ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday, the finance minister, Mathias Cormann, said: “ If they can work from home, they should work from home.

“But there is a lot of work that needs to be done right now by the federal public service to support the government’s efforts in relation to protecting people’s health.”

He declined to elaborate on which public servants would be permitted to work from home.

“This is going to be done through an orderly fashion based on the appropriate advice. I’m not going to provide a directive through Insiders, as much as you would want me to do so,” he said.

The new directive reveals the APSC has established an APS Workforce Management Taskforce to manage the mobility of the workforce across agencies.

Woolcott said the taskforce was in the early stages of identifying the critical gaps in capacity across the public service. In the short term, the key priority is to increase capacity in areas that are critical to the delivery of government services.

The redeployment comes on top of recruitment of an extra 5,000 workers at Centrelink, which the CPSU believes will be filled by 4,500 private sector workers, including labour hire, and just 500 casuals recruited to the public service.