A deeply committed state public sector bucks the trend after change of government

By Harley Dennett

Friday March 1, 2019

Key points:

  • 22% of state employees participated in the SA's first whole-of-government survey
  • Values (74%), employee-organisation alignment (70%) and engagement (64%) were among the highly positive results
  • Bullying and harassment figures have alarmed chief executives

South Australia has never conducted a whole-of-government public sector employee survey before. The new premier’s early approach to public servants may have led to an unexpected set of results.

The shock of the first change in government in more than 16 years hasn’t dented the apolitical fortitude of South Australian public servants.

A whole-of-government survey conducted just six months after a massive shift in ministerial priorities, mere weeks after machinery of government changes, and with a new crop of chief executives, would be expected to show sharp falls in engagement and employee-agency alignment.

That’s what happened recently in Western Australia after “the most wide-ranging change processes in the public sector in recent years”, where its public sector commission explained the engagement drop in the McGowan government’s first year as routine:

“Experience from jurisdictions that have undergone comparable levels of significant change suggests a decline in perceptions should be expected during and following change, which was reflected in this year’s results.”

Unexpectedly, that didn’t happen in South Australia, despite a comparable shake-up. The sector’s engagement level and employee-agency alignment are within a couple of percentage points of the Australian public sector average, according to the state’s first whole-of-government results calculated by ORC International.

Erma Ranieri

Erma Ranieri, South Australia’s commissioner for public sector employment, thinks Premier Steven Marshall’s initial interaction with the public sector may have been the key:

“I’ve got to hand it to this government, they have been so respectful,” says Ranieri, citing how the premier handled his initial address to the public service  —possibly inspiring reciprocal respect from public servants for the policy ambitions of the new ministry.

Leaders who listen

The “I work for SA” state-wide findings were emailed last Friday to all state public sector employees—approximately 108,000 by headcount. Ranieri did so knowing that it could easily lead to a shellacking by the local metro tabloid. Yet doing so was in keeping with a promise the commissioner made at the onset: that this was their voice, and they would be heard.

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All the chief executives across the state service will now be held accountable for taking action on the results, baked into their performance agreements, and with the inevitable pressure that comes from transparency. The agency-specific results are now being released to employees, along with action plans developed and led by a volunteer group of around 100 people spread across state departments.

The strongest results were whether employees would go the ‘extra mile’ when required (89% agreed), whether they understood the expectations on them (88%) and whether they understood how their work contributes to their agency’s objectives (88%).

The most negative results were whether there were sufficient career-development opportunities (34% disagreed), whether they felt safe to challenge the ways things were done (33%) and whether any action should be taken as a result of the survey (33%). Employees were also concerned that senior leaders were not sufficiently managing change (32%) or communicating changes (31%).

“I can guarantee you now nearly every manager is trying to have a conversation with their staff,” Ranieri says. “The issue is the quality, what they do with the information.

“One of the ah-ha moments of the survey was people saying, yes, they’re doing performance management, that wasn’t too bad, but is your development aligned to what they’re doing—and that was a very low score. We may be spending money on [professional development] that may not be making a difference to these people.”

To lift the quality for those conversations, she says, Ranieri will be accelerating leadership training through the state’s Leadership Academy, especially for around 500 front-line managers.

“We need to give the 101 on how to talk to people, how to get the best of your people.”

Bullying intervention work underway

There was one particularly troubling aspect to the survey, one that appears to have taken some chief executives by surprise: perceptions of bullying and harassment.

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After a year-long ramping up of work on the state public sector’s values and behaviours, 80% of employees who responded agreed those values were being upheld by their colleagues in everyday work. Even higher numbers agreed that behaviours in their workplace were inclusive. Similarly there was a highly affirmative response to cooperation and respect in the workplace. Overall across a range of values-targeted questions, 74% responded positively about their colleagues.

What, then, should state leaders make of the bullying and harassment figures, in which more than 4,797 respondents said they personally experienced harassment or bullying in the past 12 months, and more than 8,419 respondents said they had witnessed harassment or bullying in their current workplace over that same period?

“My personal reaction was anger,” say Ranieri. “How can in this continue to happen in this day and age? We need to do something quickly; we can’t rely on people suffering in their own organisations.”

An action plan for agencies is being developed, and may include bully and harassment contact officers—like those implemented in the Royal Adelaide Hospital following reviews that identified a culture of bullying and dysfunction. That plan is expected to be released within weeks.

Only 27% of respondents believed action would be taken as a result of the survey, slightly higher than the results in other states that asked that question.

Correction: the original bullying figures on this page were incorrect and included respondents who had answered other than affirmative. These figures have been corrected to only those who answered affirmatively.

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