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Cutting with care: after the spill, Comms Dept lives up to name

The Department of Communications has shed about a quarter of its workforce as part of a major restructure. But only 11 were forced redundancies — a better result for all concerned than was expected earlier this year.

The department announced in February it had redesigned the jobs of its 550 staff, who would be asked to express interest in one of the re-jigged roles. The restructured department’s workforce would also have to be 20-25% smaller.

The Community and Public Sector Union was horrified to see what was essentially a “spill-and-fill” process applied to an entire department for the first time. Six months later it seems Communications has managed the difficult task of downsizing relatively well, and the union has claimed some wins from the process.

While the CPSU completely rejects the need for spill-and-fill processes, deputy national president Alistair Waters is pleased the majority of the reduction was achieved through voluntary redeployment or redundancy, with the spill-and-fill scaled back to just executive-level staff.

According to Waters, five EL1s and six EL2s were told they no longer have jobs in the end, and relations between the union and Communicatons are “not too bad”. “We’re clearly concerned about the workload for the ongoing staff in the department, but being able to avoid a spill-and-fill process for the APS-level staff, and to be able to look at all the alternatives to people being declared excess, has been pretty positive,” he told The Mandarin.

The task of restructuring the department began last September. From initial discussions small, cross-functional working groups of EL2s and branch heads were set up, with the aim of defining strategic priorities for the next three years. Senior executives then developed recommendations on future policy priorities and resourcing based on the working groups.

Marianne Cullen
Marianne Cullen

A key aim was “to create a more agile, capable, and efficient organisation” that could better perform its role, according to Marianne Cullen, a first assistant secretary who took charge of a change management team, which included officers at all levels from the various business units and human resources. The next step was to line up the new priorities with the available resources. Cullen told The Mandarin by email:

“Recognising that our budget outlook would require a 20-25% reduction in the overall staffing level across the organisation, we decided to redesign all positions in the department, giving our managers a significant role in designing the structure, functions and roles for their teams and, ultimately, selecting staff to fill the new positions.

“Importantly, we also placed significant emphasis on giving staff members the opportunity to express their preferences in roles in the new structure.”

When rank-and-file staff were told of this, however, alarm bells rang and the CPSU quickly moved to dispute what it saw as a harsh and divisive process, making staff compete for jobs they had already won fair and square. Now that it’s complete, most staff are relatively happy with how the process has been managed, by all accounts. According to Cullen:

“The department placed high priority on the morale and overall welfare of staff throughout the process. We undertook genuine consultation and regular engagement with staff, and established processes to deal with issues or concerns both holistically and on an individual basis, depending on the nature of the request.

“From the outset the department committed to being open and transparent with staff, including by publishing and updating guidelines on how the process would be conducted, which has enabled staff to make informed choices while being respectful of their specific circumstances.”

Be honest about coming cuts

Telling staff the genuine reasons that cuts need to be made is the first rule of downsizing, according to human resource management professor Michael O’Donnell, who heads the University of New South Wales School of Business. Senior public servants face the challenge of those reasons being mired in political debate about the direction set by legislators.

O’Donnell says there is a lot of potential to damage staff morale with a spill-and-fill process, especially one not targeted at specific areas that are demonstrably overstaffed. Making all APS level staff re-apply to work at the department would “create chaos”. On the other hand, year-on-year rounds of voluntary redundancies can be worse than a big, one-off restructure from an operational standpoint.

“There’s a point you have to stop it; you’ve got people who’ve mentally already left the building, who’ve decided they want to leave,” he said. “You get the potential for dysfunctional behaviour, like people behaving in ways to maximise their chance of getting a package.”

The downsizing being pursued at Treasury, which recently switched to a department-wide spill-and-fill, has been far more “opaque” than at Communications, according to the CPSU.

“This consultation has resulted in the implementation of many suggestions that have improved outcomes for the department and its staff.”

“What we put to [Treasury] — and we believed it could be done within their timeframe — was [the spill-and-fill] could still be avoided if there was clear information provided to staff about the levels and areas where the jobs needed to go from,” Waters said.

“With spill-and-fill processes, there’s a breakdown in trust from having to apply for a job you’ve already won, or at a level you’ve already achieved. It does have some medium- to long-term consequences for employers who go down that path and you often see turnover rates spike. Among staff who’ve won jobs, they’ve still got their employment but they’re more likely to start looking around for something else where they might be valued more highly.”

Marianne Cullen explained how Communications lived up to its name internally:

“Throughout the process the secretary held all-staff meetings at key milestones; the change team held regular, informal “open space” meetings with all staff; we have undertaken formal consultation with staff and their representatives, including the CPSU, through the department’s Workplace Consultative Committee, and we established numerous channels to receive feedback and respond to staff concerns.

“We have also undertaken reviews at various points in the process to understand what features have worked well and what aspects could be improved, involving both informal discussions with staff and more structured, formal surveys. This consultation has resulted in the implementation of many suggestions that have improved outcomes for the department and its staff.”

Those on leave were kept involved in the process and could participate in all-staff meetings over the internet. All employees were offered career change workshops, and all staff who ended up out of a job were offered career counselling and assistance with the cost of financial advice.

According to Cullen, the process was run according to plan — roles were redesigned as part of the wider restructure and explained to staff, who were given the opportunity to state their preferred position — in contrast to other reports of a “backdown” during negotiations with the union over a department-wide spill-and-fill. She told The Mandarin:

“The department’s plan has consistently been to redesign jobs to match our priorities, then place staff with a strong view to their preferred jobs. This plan has been carried out successfully, with around 80% of staff in the new structure placed in a preferred role.

“By announcing its plans upfront in February 2014, the department enabled staff to make decisions about their future with the department. As a result of staff choosing to seek opportunities outside of the department at a higher than expected rate, we have avoided the need for a large number of involuntary redundancies.

“From the outset of the 2014 process we committed to ongoing, meaningful consultation with staff in order to achieve a good outcome for both staff and the department. We recognised that the process could benefit by seeking, and where possible, incorporating the views of staff representatives, including the CPSU.

“Voluntary redundancies were always available throughout the process. We adopted this concurrent approach, as opposed to running one, or more, voluntary redundancy rounds before commencing the redesign as we considered it allowed staff to have better visibility about the future direction of the department and the roles that would be available, thereby allowing staff members to make more informed choices.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.