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Recruiters say selection processes need an urgent overhaul

Job seekers have a golden opportunity in 2022 to land a role that matches their professional skills and personal values. For this, they can thank low unemployment rates and a global skills shortage. 

Surveys also suggest the pandemic experience is driving many people to seek positions where they can truly “make a difference”. 

What does this mean for the public sector? Can it attract more of Australia’s best and brightest looking for a greater sense of purpose? Can it compete with the private sector – here and overseas – to fill essential technical and professional roles? Just as importantly, can it keep hold of the talent it has already nurtured?

The Mandarin spoke to a number of top private and public sector recruiters to discover what the APS must do to attract (and retain) high performers.

“There’s going to be more competition for talent over the next few years – especially in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, health informatics, data and cybersecurity, as well as health care and aged care,” says Ian Hansen, one of Australia’s most experienced executive recruiters. “The public sector is going to need to do much more – faster, better.”

Hansen has been in the recruitment industry for 25 years, helping the private and public sectors source top-flight executives. Before that, he worked in public service recruitment operations and as a manager of an executive development scheme.

Hansen has seen a lot of things change inside the APS. But a lot of what he now sees in public sector recruitment requires a radical overhaul.

The starting point for change is how the APS approaches the recruitment process. He says there’s far too much focus on processes, not outcomes. “It needs to move much quicker and more effectively if it wants to attract and retain people interested in a career in the public service,” he says.

The selection criteria are outdated and overly generic, especially for senior executive roles, says Hansen. “There are five core competencies required to join the SES [senior executive service] and to be honest they’re behaviours, not competencies,” he says. “Those standardised criteria haven’t changed one little bit in the last 20 years. If somebody’s looking at that from the outside, their eyes glaze over.

“Departments trying to attract people should be identifying the criteria that are relevant to their organisation; what you’re doing in the Department of Health is not what you do in Defence. So the criteria need to be tailored to meet the requirements of the organisation.”

Like many of the perceived failings with APS recruitment, this lack of flexibility stems from the need for accountability. ​​While standardised criteria give candidates a level-playing field on which to compete – especially when it comes to defending a departmental choice if things go badly – Hansen says “it’s way over standardised”. 

“It’s just bizarre. I get hundreds of applications a year from people applying for SES jobs. And the criteria they’re required to address are the same ones they address in every job they apply for, so they just recycle. That doesn’t strike me as a creative way to attract and assess people.”

Hansen says another limiting factor is the way government jobs are advertised. Aside from the enormous expense of posting senior roles in large display ads to a mainstream audience in weekend newspapers, they generally seek applicants with narrow experience in government policy development. This often discounts anyone with desirable technical or professional skills. “If you haven’t got the policy development skills, you’re not going to get the job,” Hansen says. “But how do you get policy development skills?

“Where a role requires a skill set that isn’t readily available in the APS, it will obviously attract interest from outside. But when the skill set is more generic – a mid-level clerk or finance officer – you’re not in the race because [public servants] going to the interview in front of you will have policy experience they can demonstrate.”

Attracting top talent

Andrew McEncroe is a managing partner of Derwent, a recruitment firm that helps former corporate high-flyers find senior public sector roles. He agrees with Hansen that the APS needs to vary its approach if it wants to attract more talented people from outside the public sector.

“One of the easiest, high-impact changes [the APS] could make generally is to shift the bias from assessing a candidate not on just if they can do the job – which is very one-sided – to be more of a two-way conversation about why they would want to do the job,” he says.

Daniel Nicholls from executive search firm Watermark has two decades’ experience in senior leadership recruitment spanning Asia and Australia. He says the APS has some “very, very smart people” but needs to recruit from outside the service, especially as it wants to improve digital delivery. 

“The biggest challenge is [the APS] is unable to address the changing challenges of the market just with an internal candidate pool,” Nicholls says. “You just end up shuffling seats.”

Such a change requires the APS to overcome “its inherent conservatism or in-group bias”, he says, and its general reluctance to push boundaries on probity and governance. “We see qualified candidates who are interested in coming to the APS but aren’t able to get through a risk-mitigation process because they’re not seen to be able to ‘understand’ government.”

Nicholls thinks change can only come through more courageous leadership. “The good hires that have been made tend to come from someone who is bold and creative, and is looking to get a fresh set of eyes on the organisation or build a certain culture,” he says. “That requires support from the top – even from a secretarial or head-of-agency level. They need to be driving that vision for fresh talent.”

Another recruiter we spoke to says it’s frustrating when government agencies say they are bold and want to consider outside applicants and then play it safe by choosing internal candidates because “we know what they can do”.

“If you want to do something different, you have to actually commit to that from the start,” says the recruiter. “That means looking at your selection criteria differently and putting together different panel members who are genuine and have the courage to make appointments that may not be considered ‘safe’. As I often say, if you keep doing the same thing with the same people – guess what? – you get the same outcome.”

Public-service recruiters Ian Hansen, Daniel Nicholls and Andrew McEncroe (Supplied)

McEncroe says many talented people either don’t hear about public sector roles that might suit them or assume they won’t be considered because they don’t have APS experience. He thinks the idea of including people from outside the public sector on job panels could help drive diversity of thinking and may lead to making better appointments.

Another major impediment to attracting quality talent from outside the public service is the lengthy job application process. “The time taken to fill positions is just ridiculous,” says Hansen. “The APSC ought to put a cap on the time departments take to fill a job – I’d say, four to six weeks at the most. Very few positions are filled under eight weeks because the process is so torturous.”

Nicholls says he often has to do a lot of “hand-holding” of external candidates to help them through the unique APS recruitment procedure. 

“If you’re getting an interview in a private sector, you could have three, four or five interviews, and you’ll meet most of the department or division you’ll be working in – peers and leaders,” he says. 

“With the APS, you get one interview, often as short as 25 minutes with three or four very specific questions. If you don’t answer those in a very specific APS way, it’s interpreted as ‘not understanding government’. It’s a very rigid process.”

McEncroe points out another limiting factor exacerbated by the pandemic: the difficulty of convincing potential star performers to relocate – particularly those with young children. This has been a challenge for all organisations but especially impacts departments and agencies without flexible work options. 

On the plus side, McEncroe says the RecruitAbility scheme, which helps attract job applicants with disability and has led to cultural change in selection panels and agency recruitment, has received strong positive feedback from his clients.

APS salaries and incentives

While the recruiters we spoke to believe the public service generally offers reasonable salaries, APS remuneration structures are “a dog’s breakfast”, according to Hansen. 

“You’ve got departments just robbing Peter to pay Paul by saying, ‘Well, if you’re an APS6 in say, Defence, we think it’s worth more in Treasury so we’re going to offer you more money. So you don’t actually get a promotion – you’re still an APS6 but you’re paid more money.

“What’s happening across the service is every department is trying to pick and choose people from other departments at the same level by offering them more money. In some departments, you’ll have an EL2 on $100,000 and EL2s elsewhere earning $150,000. That’s how broad some of these disparities are.”

For those taking the first steps in their career, Hansen believes the public service offers “terrific” opportunities for university graduates. “If you go into the ATO as a young graduate, you’re going to learn things that are amazingly valuable if you want to hang up a shingle as a tax consultant or accountant down the track. The same thing applies if you’re a lawyer or work in cybersecurity.”

Hansen believes the APS needs to build more flexibility into the system to attract candidates looking for career advancement. This includes everything from working from home or in regional areas, as well as the potential for position exchanges between agencies and academia, unions or the private sector. “Exchanges are a great opportunity to showcase the public service and the opportunities that are there,” he says.

Nicholls says this approach could work well in specific circumstances. “When you put public servants into commercial organisations, I think it’s incredibly positive,” he says. “But there are a lot of governance and logistical issues you need to work through, which possibly make them unfeasible.”

He certainly believes the APS needs more adaptable ways to make better use of executive talent. A model that works well in the state public sector, he says, is employing leaders with specific expertise for an interim period of three to six months.

In the end, what makes the public service appealing right now for many executives is their desire to do something good in the world. “What we’re finding in the market, particularly post COVID, is a change in people’s mindset around the reasons they want to go to work,” says Nicholls. 

“The idea of working for government is actually really attractive. Some of these big projects and transformations will have impacts you can tell your grandkids about. 

“That’s becoming more and more important than remuneration. But it requires the right leadership from the APS; to take the time to articulate that purpose to the candidate and help pull them through.”

McEncroe says many of his clients want purpose-driven roles – particularly those offered in the public sector. “They’re calling up and saying, ‘I really want to make a difference’,” he says. “It’s really powerful, and over the past three years it’s only been accentuated. It impacts on how you position roles and the conversations you have in the attraction and selection processes, as well as in the onboarding.”

He believes the public sector and purpose-driven organisations need to “tune in” to this way of thinking if they want to successfully attract more top candidates.

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