APS employment practices hindering foreign policy capability

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday August 18, 2021

Report says changing the security clearance process and better utilising language resources could boost the capabilities of the APS.
Report says changing the security clearance process and better utilising language resources could boost the capabilities of the APS. (Jarretera/Adobe)

Changes to the commonwealth’s security clearance process and better utilising language resources in government departments and research institutions could boost the capabilities of the Australian Public Service, according to a new report.

The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee has this week handed down its report on funding for public research into foreign policy issues. During its inquiry, the committee heard of how the recruitment and employment practices of the APS have been impacting the development of foreign policy capability and capacity.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s practice of rotating staff between embassies, for example, could be hindering the ability of staff to develop deeper subject matter expertise, the committee heard. It noted that, unlike other countries’ foreign services, DFAT ‘has a culture of recruiting generalists rather than specialists’.

“For example, the Initiative for Peacebuilding, University of Melbourne, noted that there is a long-standing ‘debate about the degree of specialisation or generalist training that diplomats require. The DFAT tradition is for diplomats to be generalists’ and to contract consultants where specialisation is required,” it said.

However, the committee has welcomed the department’s three year human resources modernisation program, which has been aiming to reform the way DFAT identifies its capability needs, and ‘appropriately mobilises staff’.

In its report, the committee has recommended that the program introduce additional measures to attract individuals with specialist knowledge in priority countries and topics, including those with diverse backgrounds and those with language proficiencies.

The committee said lifting language capabilities across the wider APS would also be valuable, and has recommended that the government investigate new ways to do this.

“This may include pooling resources and looking at ways for the APS to better leverage available language resources in departments and existing research institutions,” it said.

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

The inquiry heard that the government’s current security clearance processes may be creating a barrier to recruiting staff with desirable skill sets and much needed expertise.

Professor Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, told the inquiry that the old national security clearance model would need reform ‘if we are to make full use of the diversity of the Australian population in the national security community’.

“It has evolved and, in many ways, hardened over the past 50 years. What it hasn’t done, though, is turn from an ethos about the forensic checking of the backgrounds of individuals based on their lives, their past and their behaviour and so forth,” he said.

“It should evolve instead into a system that’s much more based on the assessment of risk going forward, including the willingness of individuals to subject themselves, as holders of high clearances, to monitoring of their lives and their contacts going forward.”

The committee has recommended that the government review the security clearance process to ensure it remains fit for purpose, and does not prevent Australians with much needed skills and knowledge from being employed.

“While such processes must be robust, the process should not act as an inadvertent impediment to Australians of a particular heritage, in-country experience or country expertise being employed by DFAT or other agencies,” the committee said.

“If we accept that foreign and security policy should be aligned, then processes for approval of security clearances should be consistent.”

Noting that the work of the APS in foreign policy ‘does not exist in a vacuum’, the committee has also called on DFAT to consider strategies for increased engagement with the media and community to increase understanding of foreign policy issues.

“Engagement through both traditional media, and innovative and emerging media such as social media and online resources is critical in increasing community awareness of foreign policy issues,” it said.

Read more: The capabilities all APS leaders need


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