Is there more to the VPS Jobs and Skills Exchange than meets the eye?

The origin and future direction of the VPS Jobs and Skills Exchange (JSE) is not as straightforward as would seem. 

Victoria’s Special Minister of State and the Victorian Branch Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union jointly announced the JSE in July 2019. This is a new initiative expanding employment and skills development opportunities for Victorian public servants. It will also give public service staff first access to all VPS job opportunities before they are advertised externally.

However this wasn’t the case when the JSE made its first appearance in November 2018. Then called the Victorian Skills Exchange, it was originally announced as part of the Victorian Labor Party's election commitments. At the time, the aim was to create a mechanism to match existing skills and labour supply so the VPS could fill temporary vacancies without the use of labour hire firms.

The scheme essentially replicated the service these firms performed by establishing an equivalent in-house function. The election commitment was part of an overall crackdown on public service consultancies and labour hire firms to reduce spending on these services.

Fast forward from November 2018 to July 2019 and the exchange has gone from a mechanism to fill temporary vacancies to a platform giving public servants priority access to all job opportunities before they are advertised externally. So what happened in the intervening months that led to this change?

One answer is the 2019 State Budget with the public service needing to find $1.8 billion in savings through efficiencies to free up funds for new priority areas. Now some might think this is a long bow to draw. But the Treasurer himself linked the skills exchange to the savings requirement when he responded to a question at the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee Inquiry into the 2019-20 Budget Estimates.

A committee member asked: “[There’s] $1.8 billion worth of cuts to the public sector over the forward estimates. Has there been an estimation of how many jobs will be lost because of these cuts?”

The Treasurer replied:

"Well, hopefully none … What we are looking to do is set up a government jobs and skills exchange, where we would basically seek to match those people working across departments in areas where we think, ‘Well, you’re performing work on programmatic spending that has been going on for decades and it no longer accords with this government’s priority, and we would like to look at trying to match you with jobs in areas that do now accord with the government’s priorities so that we can effectively ensure that the priorities and the spending in this budget are appropriately accommodated by relieved expenditure within embedded costs across departments"  (p. 14).

The Treasurer went on to say a strategy was being developed to deal with issues such as voluntary redundancies, not continuing casuals and people on contracts, and natural attrition. Establishing the skills exchange and matching people to areas of activity was the first priority. He said jobs losses and forced redundancies were seen as a last resort.

The $1.8 billion in efficiencies and savings will be identified through a process of base expenditure reviews overseen by the secretaries of Premier and Cabinet, and Treasury and Finance. At the PAEC Inquiry, the Treasurer indicated the reviews will be completed by the end of 2019 and the outcomes of the reviews will be made public.

It is the government’s right to reprioritise expenditure aligned with its priorities and seek efficiencies to fund new initiatives. If this involves structural change in public sector employment, the question is whether establishing a closed labour market through the JSE is the most effective way of managing this change. As an earlier article argued, the JSE will restrict the injection of new expertise and talent, stymying the diversity of perspectives and ideas needed to tackle today’s complex policy challenges.

The industrial implications of the $1.8 billion in savings and how they sit alongside the JSE remain to be seen. The full picture won’t be known until the base reviews are completed at the end of the year although the JSE announcement did foreshadow “the establishment of the JSE will support the changing priorities of the Victorian Government as it delivers significant new projects and services to Victorians”.

Implementation details about the JSE are sketchy and from outside the VPS, there are more questions than answers. At least the outcome of the base reviews will be public thanks to the Treasurer’s commitment at PAEC.