What motivates public servants? Core goals steady but expectations shift

By Jackson Graham

February 14, 2022

parliament house-canberra
The NWA says it will work with the new government to achieve its campaign promises. (r-o-x-o-r/Adobe)

Employment conditions, career opportunities, and aligning skills and experience with an occupation job seekers find worthwhile remain among top reasons people join the Australian Public Service, according to its peak commission. 

And while these trends have stayed steady in nearly a decade of Australian Public Service Commission surveys, increasingly public servants are expecting opportunities to remain where they live while taking an APS job.

The proportion of APS employees who work in Canberra compared with other states in territories has remained stable in the past five years, but the commission points out the coronavirus pandemic has fast-tracked investment in technology to enable change. 

“Workforce strategists are acutely aware of drivers of things like the ‘great resignation’ and the potential changes to employee expectations, as well as the expectations of the talented future employees we hope to attract,” the APSC told The Mandarin. 

When it comes to motivating employees, the APSC has found serving the Australian public is a strong driver for senior executive service staff but also the wider APS. 

“Managers should constantly connect the purpose of the agency with the work that each and every staff member does,” an APSC spokesperson said. 

“Even if the final beneficiary of the work is at a distance from the work being done, it is really important that APS staff feel they can make a difference and help make people’s lives better.” 

The commission takes results from the 2021 APS employee census showing nine-in-10 employees understand how their role contributes to outcomes for the public as a positive sign.

But key drivers across the service last year also included more universal themes, such as being part of an inclusive culture, feeling inspired to innovate, effective internal communication, change management, involvement in decision making, and recognition. For graduates, it was having a voice, relevant work, lifetime career opportunities, and work-life balance that motivated them. 

Associate Professor Tom Daly, deputy director at Melbourne University’s School of Government, said many public servants were drawn to the opportunity to make change in the public interest. 

“I would say number one, it’s the opportunity to make a long-term contribution,” Daly said. 

“That’s where public value really comes into it in the sense that there may be policy shifts, but there are relationships that the public service is building all the time. And those get developed, hopefully improved.” 

Daly said one threat to people making longer contributions in the public service was the rise of short-term contracts, which governments have relied on more to respond to the pandemic. 

“I wouldn’t fully agree with people who say we need to simply go back to the public service where everybody is on a permanent track because I think then you’re losing some of the dynamism and fresh thinking,” he said. 

“I think viewing public service roles are simply tasks that can be performed by anyone in an atomised way, and sort of slotted in as needed in a kind of Uber delivery. I think that’s the wrong model.

“That conception sort of took over a little bit, or became too prevalent in recent decades and there is a shift back now.”


Hybrid work here to stay in APS but will office access determine opportunity?

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