Census shows what staff think of APS managers, but how can they improve?

By Jackson Graham

Monday December 6, 2021

business people-meeting
NSW’s watchdog agencies received almost 1000 public interest disclosures in 2020-21. (alfa27/Adobe)

A whole-of-government census shows staff in the APS believe immediate supervisors are performing well but impressions fare worse when it comes to senior executives.

In the crowded management advice space, and amid hopes for a new APS Academy to solve management skill gaps flagged in a landmark 2019 review, experts highlight that public servant leadership needs to be guided by evidence. 

Australian Public Service commissioner Peter Woolcott told The Mandarin appropriate training isn’t currently being offered to managers. 

“We are not very good at managing performance,” says Woolcott, who believes non-senior executive management has the greatest training needs. 

“We are not very good at managing underperformance because people feel uncomfortable or don’t have the training to handle those conversations and set expectations appropriately.

“[But] we tend to not spend enough effort and time managing our good performance as well.”

The APS census results, released last week, show people management among the top-three skill shortages agencies face. 

Most staff approved of their immediate supervisors – with around 74% responding positively – yet their perceptions of SES managers overall lagged about nine percentage points behind.

With no shortage of advice on how to manage better, plenty targeted at the business sector, The Mandarin asked experts for tips relevant to public servants.

Be evidence-based in feedback and in management style 

Agencies should be wary of assuming a promotion prepares a public servant to lead a team – big or small – according to Australian National University’s Alessandra Capezio. 

“[A manager] can have a lot of technical expertise and experience but that does not necessarily mean they have the skills to manage people effectively,” the associate professor at the university’s school of management says. 

Capezio is also wary of training in emotional intelligence. “There’s no science in doing that, you need to go back to the basics,” she argues. 

“Simple skills around goal setting, active listening, conversational turn-taking, collaborative conflict management, more evidence-based performance feedback. We tend to over-complicate things and say we just need to train people in emotional intelligence.” 

An advocate for bringing “science and critical thinking back into management and leadership practice”, Capezio says managers should be using evidence in all decision-making. 

“Any performance feedback that is given formally or informally needs to be accompanied by evidence. All managers need to have almost a record of critical incidents so they have examples to provide of the good, the bad and the ugly to support their performance ratings.”  

Managers also need to “practise what they preach”, she says, and be critical of the advice and recommendations flowing from outside the APS. 

Not just the same as corporate management 

Businesslike management has seen government efficiency leap forward in recent decades but managers need to be reflective of key differences in style to corporate leaders, the University of Melbourne’s Tom Daly says. 

Ever since the era of so-called New Public Management arrived in the 1980s corporate management skills have loomed large in government agencies, Daly said, but one key difference is recognising what can motivate and demotivate employees. 

“They do include things like negative press, which the public service gets, which can contribute to kind of mood music,” he said. 

Daly, the university’s school of government deputy director, said for many employees what motivated them most was connection to their work.  

“[It’s] not necessarily about what they can get extra out of it. But having a sense of how their work contributes to the bigger picture of the organisation,” he said. 

For Daly, the basic need is to be crystal clear about the expectations and standards for employees but also for managers to be reflective. 

“Managers need to be reflective on their own behaviour, but also be reflective on what are the stresses, what are the contextual issues that are actually affecting employees right now,” he said. 

“That becomes so much more important when there are times of change and we are in a clear time of change right now [during the COVID-19 pandemic].” 

He also questions whether performance reviews are undermined if they become too formal. 

“A lot of the research coming out says you have to have a culture of continual feedback,” Daly said. 

“If you have a good culture where managers are providing continual feedback continually both of the good and the bad, you are meeting the needs of recognition the employees have.” 

Teaching an ‘APS craft’

Peter Woolcott, the APS commissioner, sees the APS Academy as “bold” in a sector not always perceived as pushing boundaries. 

“They are a unique set of skills, working with government, working with stakeholders in the way we do and the complexity,” he says. 

The academy is due to offer 15 courses focused on leadership and management open to all the sector’s staff to enrol next year. 

It was established to lift APS capability and provide facilitated courses, programs, eLearning, resources and events, including curated content designed to develop leadership and management skills.

A spokesperson for the APS Commission said a managers’ role, at any level, was “to deliver outcomes through people”.

“Their skills and ability to manage impacts individuals, teams and the overall productivity of the APS,” they said.

“This is even more critical as we continue to transform the way we work including embracing more geographically dispersed talent and digitally-enabled workplaces.”


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