10 tips on surviving as a contractor or consultant to the APS

By Richard Wallace

Wednesday December 18, 2019

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The following notes are my personal conclusions, arrived at gradually, while working within the Australian Public Service (APS) and now put on paper as a guide for new contractors and consultants. I was inspired by T.E. Lawrence’s “27 Articles of Interaction with Arab Armies”, published in The Arab Bulletin, 20 August 1917.

These notes may seem blunt but they are meant to apply only to the APS.

Working with public servants is an art, not a science, with exceptions and no obvious rules. If you are tactful you can at once retain their goodwill and carry out your job, but to succeed you have to put into it all the skills you possess.

  1. Go easy for the first few days. No sudden moves. A bad start is difficult to atone for and the APS forms its judgments on first impressions and little things that contractors and consultants tend to ignore or take for granted.
  2. Learn all you can about your assignment. Get up to speed. Do this by listening and by direct inquiry. Do not second-guess or avoid making judgements, or you will drop bricks. Be a little stiff at first.
  3. In matters of substance, liaise with your supervisor. Never give orders to anyone at all, and reserve your directions or advice for the supervisor however great the temptation (for efficiency’s sake) of dealing with his/her staff. You are a guest, hand-picked by and large by your supervisor. Respect that authority and do not undermine it.
  4. Win and keep the confidence of your supervisor. Never refuse or quash initiatives but look at ways to achieve the intended outcomes. Difficult advice should be conveyed privately, not in front of the team, even if invited by the supervisor. Soft conversations should always precede difficult conversations. Part of your job is to advise but once a decision has been reached your job is to implement.
  5. Be friendly but professional with APS colleagues. You are there to work and let the work speak for itself. You are not there to gossip or engage in petty jealousies and envy. Hierarchy is a serious matter among APS staff and you must respect it above everything else.
  6. The contractor/consultant is not a popular person in the APS because of the perceived enhanced remuneration involved. However friendly and informal the treatment towards you may be, remember always that your continuing employment is totally dependent on the goodwill and discretion of your APS colleagues. Your agency cannot save you if your APS manager wants you out.
  7. Remember you are under constant scrutiny, whether active or passive. What is permissible talk or actions for public servants is frowned upon and noted, on occasion even relayed to your supervisor, by persons resentful of either your status, salary or luck. Keep always on your guard; never say an unnecessary thing: watch yourself and your colleagues all the time: hear all that passes, search out what is going on beneath the surface, appreciate the nuances and keep everything you find out to yourself.
  8. Cling tight to your sense of humour. You will need it every day.
  9. Working with APS staff requires patience and a lightness of touch. They are willing to follow your advice if it is conveyed simply, without emotion, and without the suspicion of ulterior motives. They like to be asked for their permission, approval or endorsement for a particular action before it is taken. The maxim “it is better to seek forgiveness than ask for permission” only applies to APS staff.
  10. Do not make the mistake of believing you are a part of the APS hierarchy or leadership or “club”. You are not. You are an advisor and an implementer. You have no authority only influence. Your reputation for objectivity is your most valuable attribute. Do not under any circumstance compromise this integrity. Being a trusted advisor and a safe pair of hands is your most valuable contribution to the Australian Public Service.

Richard Wallace is with the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture.

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