The 2020 APS employee census is a gift that keeps on giving

By Verona Burgess

Friday April 9, 2021

parliament-house
(Image: Adobe/manpreet)

While the APSC has released the overall findings of the 2020 employee census, there is gold in the individual agency highlights reports, writes Verona Burgess.

Just before the Easter Bunny hopped by with the usual overload of chocolate eggs, the Australian Public Service Commission hatched the long-awaited results of the 2020 Employee Census.

It is quite the basket of treats, but with a few bitter lemons. Conducted later than usual and in shortened form, it provides unique insight into the workforce operating under the extreme pressure of the prolonged pandemic response.

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It was also conducted against the backdrop of last year’s major machinery-of-government changes (known not entirely affectionately as “Moggings”) that saw 18 departments reduced to 14 and five secretaries sacked, making some comparisons with 2019 more difficult.

While the APSC has released the overall findings, there is gold in the individual agency highlights reports which, thanks to the persuasive powers of the Commissioner, Peter Woolcott, can be found for the second year on nearly 80% of department and agency websites.

Let’s start with well-being. Across the APS the score increased from 67% in 2919 to 70% in 2020 but, as reported, the two portfolio departments that share the unfortunate lowest positive rating are Home Affairs and Social Security (DSS), each with only 65% of their employees believing their agencies supported their health and wellbeing.

They are followed by the departments of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications; and Agriculture, Water and the Environment at 68%. However, because the latter two experienced extreme Moggings last year, each merging two departments, it might be fairer to wait until this year’s census before sending them to the scaffold.

Home Affairs and Social Services, though, are repeat offenders in a number of areas, although Home Affairs has made big strides.

Let’s look at staff engagement, often used as a proxy for productivity, although there were also separate questions on productivity later in the census.

Overall, APS staff engagement increased from 72% in 2019 to 73%.

That might not sound much — though let’s be thankful that it didn’t drop. However, there were notably bigger rises in agencies most involved in the COVID-19 response, suggesting the APS didn’t waste a good crisis.

The Australian Taxation Office, for instance (participation rate in the census of 73% of its 16,987 staff) went from 72% to 76%; the departments of Health (77% of 5346 staff, up from 4315 after the Mogging) from 72% to 75%; Finance (a whopping 94% of 1331) from 75% to 76% and Prime Minister and Cabinet (87% of 1033) from 72% to 79%, though to be fair, it did have 1924 staff in 2019 before its own midyear Mogging with the creation of the National Indigenous Australians Authority. Even Services Australia (88% of 29,831) rose from 69% to 71%. Treasury’s results were not published at time of writing.

Further down the engagement tree, Home Affairs (68% participation of its 14,1148 staff)) went from 64% to 68% while DSS (84% of 2561) dropped from 70% to 69%. The civilian Department of Defence, by the way, which had a low response of just 55 % of its 17,333 staff, rose in engagement from 72% to 73%. A pity the rest of Defence staff weren’t sufficiently engaged to fill out the census.

Of the 10 questions on employee engagement, DSS scored notably low on three. Only 55% would recommend it as a good place to work (9% below 2019; 14% below the APS overall; 17% below policy agencies and 16% below large sized agencies). Only 50% felt a strong personal attachment to their agency (5% below 2019; 16% below the APS overall; 12% below policy agencies and 16% below large agencies). Only 44% said their agency inspired them to do their best work every day (5% below 2019; 13% below the APS overall; 12% below policy agencies and 13% below large agencies). Just 64% were proud to work there.

Compare this with Health, where 80% were proud to work (up 7% from 2019); 77% would recommend it as a good place to work (up 8%); 65% felt a strong personal attachment to the agency (up 4%); and 60% said the agency really inspired them to do their best work every day (up 6%). The icing on the cake is that 80% were proud to work there (up 7%), compared with the 64% in DSS (down 2%) and 66% in Home Affairs (up 9%).

Home Affairs deserves some Brownie points for improvement, but still has far to go. Only 51% would recommend it as a good place to work, but that’s up 12% from 2019 — a huge improvement — although 18% below the APS overall, 16% below larger operational agencies and 16% below extra-large agencies. Only 57% felt a strong personal attachment to the agency, up 4% from 2019 but 9% below the APS overall, 9% below larger operational agencies and 8% below extra-large agencies. And just 44% said it inspired them to do their best work every day (up 9% from 2019 but 13% below the APS overall, 12% below larger operational agencies and 11% below extra-large agencies). Still, 66% were proud to work there, up 9% although still well below comparable agencies.

The ATO, which delivered JobKeeper, is something of a gold standard for the big agencies in terms of employee engagement in 2020 — 84% were proud to work there (up 6% from 2019); 84% would recommend it as a good place to work (up 12% from 2019; 15% above the APS overall, 17% above larger operational agencies and 17% above extra-large agencies); 73% felt a strong personal attachment to it (well up on all measures); and 64% said it inspired them to do their best work every day (up 11% from 2019 and 8%, 8% and 9%  above on the other measures).

Home Affairs could evidently do with drinking some of the ATO Kool-Aid.

As usual, staff across the APS generally gave their immediate supervisor the thumbs up and saved their ire for the Senior Executive Service.

At Home Affairs, among 10 questions in the “senior leadership” category, only 59% thought their SES manager communicated effectively (up 5% but 10% below the APS overall, 7% below larger operational agencies and 7% below extra-large agencies). Just 54% said their SES manager led and managed change effectively (up 6%); while 41% (up 4%) said the SES manager made time to identify and develop talented people. Only 41% (up an astonishing 10%) thought communication between the SES and other employees was effective and, shockingly, only 38% thought the SES worked as a team (also up 10%). On workplace culture, 42% (up 4%) said they were consulted about change at work and 44% (up a whopping 14%) thought internal communication was effective.

The SES at DSS fared better, at 74% for communicating effectively and 67% for managing change effectively, but just 52% thought the SES gave the time to identify and develop talented people. The score plummeted for effective communication between the SES and other employees (47%, down 3%) and only 45% thought the SES worked as a team. Oh dear. There’s more, too, on the workplace culture front – only 35% said they were consulted about change at work (down 9%) and only 40% thought internal communication in the agency was effective (down 7%).

As for pride in their workplace, tax officers aren’t the only ones. The ATO’s 84% rating was just ahead of Finance (83%) and beaten by PM&C (88%, up 15% from 2019, which might be partly accounted for by its Mogging).

Sadly, the Department of Veterans Affairs is nowhere to be seen, although with 42% of its workforce comprising labour hire, it would be difficult to gauge how truly representative were the responses by its real employees. Just sayin’.

Meanwhile there is no doubt about it — the annual APS census is a gift that keeps on giving.

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