Home Affairs leaders know they must build staff morale, but see slight uplift ‘from a low base’

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday September 11, 2019

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Senior executives at the Department of Home Affairs know they need to do a lot of work to build morale and confidence in their leadership among staff but their latest survey results, which splashed down in the media last month, show things are gradually improving.

“The agency acknowledges that we have come from a low base in terms of previous results,” Home Affairs told The Mandarin, commenting on its recent Australian Public Service employee census results.

“However, there has been improvement across all three indices: Wellbeing, Engagement and Innovation.

“Perceptions of performance management largely remained steady, while perceptions about capability and development improved, supporting the positive perceptions most staff have about their immediate supervisors.

“Results have also improved across indicators connected to clarity of vision and purpose, remuneration, professional development, and support for health and wellbeing. Though, opportunities remain for further improvement.”

Change and industrial disputation have been major themes in the working lives of these 14,000-odd public servants over recent years. First, the customs service merged with the immigration department in 2014, and staff turnover spiked, before the combined immigration and border protection department transformed into DHA.

“From six separate agencies, and with several machinery-of-government changes since its creation, the Department of Home Affairs continues to improve across most areas of the census, with results showing that staff remain committed to the agency’s goals, and believe strongly in our overall purpose and objectives,” a departmental spokesperson said.

There were also years of enterprise bargaining, punctuated by industrial action, which ended with arbitration at the Fair Work Commission when staff and management failed to reach an agreement. “The Department acknowledges that issues related to pay and conditions are frequently referenced by respondents and continue to influence a range of results,” said the spokesperson, noting that the employee census data was collected after the FWC issued its Workplace Determination in February this year.

For at least five years, this part of the APS has languished near the tail end of the entities represented in the employee census on most measures. Out of 97, it recorded the lowest engagement score this time, ranked 94th for wellbeing and 91st for innovation.

“It is important to note that our operating environment and functions are unique, and as such high level comparisons and rankings may not adequately reflect the nuances of the work we do and context in which we do this work,” says the department.

Many of this year’s results, which have already been reported by several other outlets, are not pretty. But, while acknowledging the size of the challenge, DHA says there are some bright spots, relatively speaking.

“Over the past 12 months, more staff feel that the policies and procedures in place have assisted them to do their jobs,” we’re told. “Strong results for inclusive behaviours by workgroups and supervisors clearly demonstrate our people’s support of diversity and the value of working together.”

Home Affairs added that “staff sentiment is strong around corruption management and education” and says there is a good level of positivity about its active support for flexible working arrangements. “Staff also feel feedback from supervisors is regular, constructive and timely.”

There are lots of areas where management knows further attention is required. The spokesperson nominates “risk culture and supporting reasonable risk behaviour, non-monetary employment conditions, reward and recognition, and communication around the management of underperformance”.

“The Department also notes that there is more work to do to acknowledge staff for their valuable contribution.”

Senior staff also recognise there is unfinished work to be done after the substantial MOG changes; they recognise clear alignment between elements of the July 2018 Blueprint for Home Affairs and another high-level planning piece, the “People Strategy 2025”.

These include:

  • “Investing in, the promotion and application of better change management practices.
  • “Continuing to encourage innovation and open collaboration across the organisation.
  • “Providing tools and guidance for managers to lead their teams and inspiring them to perform at their best.
  • “Promoting ethical, professional and inclusive behaviours in the workplace.
  • “Prioritising the health and wellbeing of our employees to ensure sustainable performance.”

Among the most promising results, 68% strongly believe in the department’s purpose and 84% report they suggest better ways of doing things. However, over over 9000 responses to the census also show:

  • 35% feel they work under “high quality” senior executives, 29% think SES officers work well as a team, and 31% think they communicate with other staff well.
  • 38% say they are consulted about changes.
  • 47% said working relationships were strained and 36% want out of within the year.
  • 25% feel their work is valued and 39% find DHA a good place to work, whereas the APS average is 65%.
  • 48% think departmental processes enable them to work effectively but only 35% are inspired to do their best, compared to 53% for the whole APS.
  • 32% feel inspired to find innovative new ways of working.
  • 39% think the department cares about their health and wellbeing; the APS average is just under 60%.
  • 57% say their employer actively supports people from diverse backgrounds and 58% think it fosters an inclusive workplace.
  • 35% say they regularly work together with other agencies in the sprawling portfolio.

“These are truly depressing results,” wrote Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of the old immigration department who left in 2007. He calls its merger with customs an “irretrievable disaster” and thinks it should be unravelled, as does former Defence Department executive Paddy Gourley.

That is not going to happen any time soon. Following policy shifts, staff turnover and restructuring, Home Affairs is now a very different organisation to the one Rizvi departed last decade, but there is much else its current generation of leaders can do to bring its workforce together.

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