New era of APS performance management: all staff and supervisors must pitch in

By Stephen Easton

Thursday July 25, 2019

Peter Woolcott. Image: Australian Public Service Commission.

All employees and supervisors in the Australian Public Service now share some accountability for performance management with agency heads, as federal mandarins try to shift focus to developing high-performing staff, not just managing those who fall short.

APS commissioner Peter Woolcott has strengthened the obligations of all federal public servants with respect to their own performance, and those of managers at all levels.

Woolcott said he tried not to be too prescriptive in sketching out what good performance management looks like in new amendments to the Commissioner’s Directions.

“The intent of the amendments is to strike a balance between a principles-based framework, and setting clear expectations about those elements of a strong performance framework that agencies need to incorporate.”

Drafted with the support of department secretaries, the commissioner’s new directions aim to promote a modern, positive approach. The goal is a “high-performance culture” built through more constructive feedback, instead of a focus on managing under-performance.

The new approach also guides how agencies recruit, retain and develop high-performing employees. Ineffective talent management is currently “seen as a weakness” in the APS, according to the commissioner.

In Woolcott’s view, public servants also have to get better at having “difficult conversations” about performance, and the system needs to support that. He said probationary periods had to mean something and public servants had to take more responsibility for their own performance.

“These amendments make clear that the responsibilities for performance management are no longer limited to agency heads but extend to all supervisors and all employees,” he said.

“The amendments are about achieving optimal performance across all agencies. They also hold all APS employees accountable for upholding the APS employment principle that requires effective performance from every employee.”

“There is a strong focus on constructive engagement, building capability, promptly managing unsatisfactory performance and seeking opportunities to innovate.”

Woolcott sees his new directions as building on the efforts of his predecessors, John Lloyd and Stephen Sedgwick, and is confident they will align well with whatever the APS Review panel has to say on the topic in its looming final report.

The letter of the legal instrument

For agency heads, the new directions set criteria and expectations that apply to organisational policies and processes and capability, as well as the guidance and support employees and managers need to perform their roles.

The formal language of the amendments describes a vision of best practice where all people in supervisory positions are “promoting and fostering effective performance” with staff who report to them, and having “career conversations that deal with the APS employee’s performance, potential, aspirations, organisational fit and future opportunities ” at least once a year.

Model employees are “striving to perform to the best of their ability, at the work level standard for the APS employee’s classification and consistent with the APS employee’s performance agreement”.

They’re also open to feedback and they act on it in a timely manner and are always “seeking opportunities to improve individual and team performance” and if they aren’t clear on expectations and how to do a good job, they ask. They are “participating constructively” in the process – including if they are informed their work is not up to scratch, in which case they work with their supervisor and “other relevant persons” such as HR.

Soon they are cheerfully “undertaking any necessary training or remedial or corrective measures as directed” and hopefully everything is back on track.

The commissioner sets the tone in a longer but less formal guide to performance management, which says these changes are about “positioning the APS for the future” amid the challenges of an “increasingly dynamic and complex” world.

“Most public servants joined the APS to make a difference,” Woolcott writes in the introduction.

“We can enable the realisation of this ambition by setting clear expectations that also afford employees a degree of autonomy. Talking with employees regularly to understand their successes and challenges, and providing learning and development opportunities, increases their capabilities and those of the APS.”

Woolcott thanked a range of agencies for “information and support” during development of the new requirements: the Australian Financial Security Authority, the Department of Defence, Defence Housing Australia, the Department of Finance, the Australian Electoral Commission, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the National Disability Insurance Agency, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the Australian Taxation Office, and the Department of Human Services.

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