The Bloated Myth: Why Public Servants are Lean


James Whelan joined Peter Mares on ABC Radio National’s The National Interest to discuss CPD’s State of the Public Service: An Alternative Report.

To hear the full interview, click here.

They’re a favourite object of ridicule: cardigan-wearing, pen-pushing mandarins who generate work by holding pointless meetings, only to clock off at 4.47 PM on the dot. And, of course, there’s the oft-repeated view that bureaucracies are self-perpetuating organisms that grow, fungus-like, sucking up state resources wherever they can. Oh so you might think… In fact, the federal public service has the same number of staff today as it did 20 years ago, in spite of the fact that Australia’s population has grown by almost 4 million people over the same period; indeed, the US spends a higher proportion of GDP on its public service than Australia. The Commonwealth bureaucracy employs 300,000 people—more or less the combined workforce of the two major supermarket chains, meaning our public service is already a lean operation. But there’s room for improvement: too many chiefs (on $100,000 plus salaries) and too few Indians, with women less likely than men to be in the top brackets of pay. So, how much does the public service need to change to better serve the public?


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