Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Job Insecurity in the New Model of Public Employment

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Job Insecurity in the New Model of Public Employment

Article excerpt


We are at present in the middle of a period of radical change in the nature of public employment in Australia. The traditional 'career service' model of the public service (RCAGA, 1976, p. 169) has been under growing challenge over the past two decades or more, both domestically and internationally (Mosher, 1982; Nunberg, 1995; Loverd and Pavlak, 1983, pp. 16-18). In Australia, the critique was initiated on the left, largely as a reaction to what was seen as obstruction by the bureaucracy of the Whitlam Government. The traditional bureaucracy was criticized amongst other things for being too unresponsive and for lacking innovation as a consequence of its closed nature. A reform agenda was put forward (Wilenski, 1986; Hawker, 1981) which sought to open the public service up to outsiders, to facilitate overtly political appointments at the top as in the US and elsewhere, and to give Ministers greater ability to choose top advisers in tune with their aspirations.

The critique had considerable force. It also had appeal across the political spectrum, driven by a bipartisan perception of the traditional bureaucracy as a "Yes Minister" system (Scott, 1995) and by a legitimate desire to assert political control and mastery of the ship of state. As Rourke (1976, p. 14) has noted "no fear as been more constant in modern politics--shared by revolutionaries and reactionaries alike--than the apprehension that bureaucrats might become a power elite and dominate the governmental process in which they are meant to play a subordinate role". A moderated version of the reform agenda derived from this critique guided many of the public service reforms which took place at the federal level under Labor during the 1980s. Many of these reforms were highly derivative, a key example being the implementation of an attenuated version of the Senior Executive Service model introduced in the U.S. in 1978.

More recently, there has been a radical extension of the new model in Australia. This was initiated at the State level, starting with NSW in the late 1980s, and then followed by Victoria and a number of other States since 1992. Paradoxically, it has been radical governments not of the left but of the right which have led the way in giving full expression to the agenda originally developed on the left.

The traditional career service model was, of course, one in which public servants swapped greater job security for remuneration which was, particularly at the executive level, lower than the private sector (Huijer, 1990, pp. 83-4). The central element of this job security was 'legislated protection against arbitrary dismissal (termination being only for cause and by due process)' (RCAGA, 1976, p. 169; McLeod, 1989, p. 92). This job security was part of the broader 'merit' principle of public service management which arose historically in advanced western countries as a means of avoiding the abuses and inefficiencies inherent in systems where politicians had free rein in the hiring and firing of bureaucrats.

There has for some time been growing agreement that the traditional model makes it too hard to deal with inefficient or unresponsive personnel (eg McLeod, 1994, xiii, 56). Whereas an incremental response to this is to toughen the sanctions against non-performers, the new model pioneered in the States takes a far more radical approach, dramatically raising the level of job insecurity for public sector employees, particularly at the executive level. It is the implications of the job insecurity inherent in this new model of 'contract' employment which is the focus of this paper. For the purposes of this paper, 'job insecurity' is defined as the risk of substantial loss as a result of involuntary change in employment status. In this sense, job insecurity refers not only to the risk of losing one's job and status (or of being demoted), but also to the extent of personal loss flowing from such an event--an important determinant of the latter being the degree to which one is insured against loss by means of termination compensation entitlements. …

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