APS needs China-literate policymakers now ‘more than ever’

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday April 12, 2021

(Image: Adobe/Gorodenkoff)

The lack of representation and underutilisation of Chinese-Australians in the Australian Public Service presents a missed opportunity for the federal government, according to a policy brief published by the Lowy Institute on Monday.

The policy brief has proposed that the government take a number of steps to address Australia’s “meagre” Asia literacy, and the underrepresentation of Chinese-Australians within the workforce.

“A better harnessing of the skills and knowledge of this community — including via improved recruitment processes, better use of data, skills-matching, and reviewing and clarifying security clearance processes and requirements — would have substantial benefits for Australian policymaking in one of its most important bilateral relationships,” it said.

Report author Yun Jiang, who was an APS policy adviser for eight years, noted that the government lacks staff who specialise in China, as well as emplyees who are themselves Chinese-Australian. While roughly 5.6% of Australians report Chinese heritage, and 3.7% of the population speak a Chinese language at home, just 2.6% of APS employees fell within the APS definition of Chinese heritage in 2019.

People with Chinese heritage are even more underrepresented in the Senior Executive Service, with employees of Chinese heritage comprising only 1% of assistant secretaries or equivalent, and 0.3% of first assistant secretaries or equivalent.

Potential barriers included issues with recruitment and the slow security clearance process, which the brief said may be lengthened even further for those who have spent time in China or have family members in China.

“The security clearance process plays an indisputably important role in protecting Australia from actors seeking illicit access to government information and improper influence over government employees,” it said.

“It is therefore imperative that individuals are carefully scrutinised and screened before taking up roles with access to national security classified information. However, it is possible that the right balance has not been achieved, and that the process is inadvertently sidelining important sources of expertise and insight into the Chinese party-state.”

There is also a perception among some APS staff of Chinese heritage that their background is an “impediment to working on China-related issues”.

“For the public service, that can lead to staff disengagement, higher attrition levels, and a resulting dearth of Chinese-Australians progressing to senior roles,” the report said.

The paper has suggested that members of Chinese-Australian communities could fill some of the capability gap in the APS, and should be more involved in the policy work of the APS.

China literacy crucial to policymaking

The report argued that Australia needs China-literate policymakers in the public service now “more than ever”, due to the increasing prominence of China-related issues in Australia’s foreign and domestic policies.

“Issues such as freedom of speech on university campuses, trade disputes and diversification, technology competition, cyber security, and foreign interference all involve an aspect of Australia-China relations and are relevant across the breadth of the public service — from the Foreign Affairs and Trade to Home Affairs and Attorney-General’s, as well as the education, treasury, industry, and communications portfolios,” it said.

Despite the growing need for China literacy in the APS, the paper found that there is a literacy gap.

“The data on Chinese literacy in the public service suggests a deficit based on generational neglect of linguistic and cultural awareness of Asia,” it said.

“Where China literacy does exist in the Australian Public Service, it is often underutilised or undervalued.”

Jiang noted that government support for increased China literacy across the Australian population and within the public service could eventually address the literacy gap in the long term. A more immediate and less expensive solution, according to Jiang, would be to “draw on the knowledge, experience, and skills of the Australia-Chinese population to build expertise” within the APS workforce.

“Australia will gain a competitive edge if it can harness the experience and skills of Chinese-Australians who speak a Chinese language fluently, understand the Chinese political system and its economy, and have significant cultural awareness,” the brief said.

To address the gap between the China literacy and skills requirements of the APS and the representation of those by Chinese-Australians in the workforce, the report has put forward policy measures that the APS can take, including:

  • Collect and publish better data and undertake evidence-based research on the representation of culturally and linguistically diverse groups within the public service,
  • Match skills, experiences, and interests with roles and positions instead of looking at generic skill sets by classification level,
  • Target culturally and linguistically diverse communities for APS recruitment,
  • Foster integrated policymaking, where interdisciplinary thinking and country and regional expertise is valued across the public service,
  • Create a ‘China-interest’ community within the public service, linking with academia and think tanks,
  • Review the security clearance process to account for potential opportunities lost.

READ MORE: Public servants getting on with it in relation to China


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