Hierarchy and mystery job applications — public servants reveal their frustrations

By David Donaldson

Friday October 26, 2018

Group of entrepreneurs and business people sitting at the table and discussing potential cooperation and joint projects.

What are public servants’ biggest bugbears? Motivation-destroying hierarchy and performance management come in near the top, alongside confusing recruitment processes.

Hierarchy is the bane of many a public servant’s working day — it slows things down and can diffuse responsibility. To many it’s stifling and frustrating.

And it’s not an isolated problem — nearly three-quarters of public servants believe the public service is too hierarchical, according to a survey of over 800 state and federal employees recently conducted by Professor Peter Shergold.

This irritation is present across the country, with around 72% agreeing or strongly agreeing at both state and Commonwealth level.

“I’m actually surprised that it’s only that low,” said former environment secretary Gordon de Brouwer at the IPAA national conference, where the results of the survey were presented last week.

It shouldn’t be that way, said the Australian Public Service review panel member.

He tossed up a few ideas to combat the problem — streamlining teams so fewer decisions have to be run through every level of the hierarchy, and giving junior and middle management staff more opportunities to develop and exercise responsibility.

This should include “putting people in front of senior officers, putting people in front of the public, putting people in front of ministers,” he explained.

Too much hierarchy could undermine the attraction and retention of talent, too. A desire to contribute to society is one of the strongest reasons young people join the public sector, so removing agency from junior staff can easily lead to alienation.

“How do you enable that [sense of purpose] rather than stifle it?” de Brouwer asked. “That comes down to the nature of your hierarchy.”

Terry Moran, former boss of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, suggested greater use of “small teams, with authority in each of those teams to get a particular job done”, and making it easier for more junior staff to gain access to people at whatever level necessary to make things happen.

This requires good communication, so there should be a “a lot of downward distribution of information so they could understand the context they were in”, he added.

Applying for mystery jobs

If you had to nominate two things about the public service that make you shake your head and think ‘there must be a better way’, what would they be?

For Cathryn Greville, director at the West Australian Officer of the Auditor General, it’s recruitment and performance management.

“I know of people who’ve gone through recruitment processes and at the end of it they’ve walked away and I’ve asked them how it’s gone, and they’ve said ‘I actually have no idea what I would actually be doing in that job’,” Greville says.

“I don’t think that happens in the private sector. That certainly wasn’t my experience in the private sector prior to joining the public sector.”

She also thinks “we could be a little bit smarter about how we advertise” and that there’s room to improve “how we talk about the values that we expect in an employee at that stage”.

Boosting performance

Although there are some bright spots, the public service generally needs to improve how it manages performance, Greville says — both to get the best out of employees in their day-to-day, but also develop their skills longer term.

This opinion appears to be widely shared — Shergold’s survey results show that only 14% of state and 18% of Commonwealth employees agree that the public service manages performance effectively.

“I don’t think it’s the rule that we do performance management particularly well across the board,” Greville told the IPAA national conference.

“Performance management could be used in more of a development way and more in a way that indicates to people how valued they are, and in part it’s the empowering tools that they need. Part of it is just being an empowering leader, I think.”

Talking to staff to understand what they’re thinking is vital.

“That sometimes comes down to having frank conversations with people about what they want out of their career, what they’re struggling with, where they’d like to go,” she said.

“My personal view with my team is I would rather know if someone would like to leave in a certain timeframe because I’d like to give them the opportunity to build the skillset they need to get there. If I can retain them in the department, that’s great. If I can retain them in the sector, that’s the next step. The other alternative is there are a lot of opportunities in other sectors.

“We get some great graduates in and some great people in laterally. We don’t want to be building capabilities and expertise and then seeing it walk out the door.”

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