Lloyd's law: commissioner's tough talk on productivity

By Stephen Easton

March 11, 2015

New Australian public service commissioner John Lloyd wants to see authority pushed back down to lower levels and more engagement with the private sector, where he believes the keys to productivity can be found.

In Lloyd’s view, public service productivity is held back by “soft” employment conditions, excessive personal leave, underperformance and workplace dysfunction that is difficult to address. Performance management is “hamstrung” by the lack of bonus pay, workplace stress has the potential to be “overhyped” and the APS needs to become more “outwardly focused”.

John Lloyd
John Lloyd

“One of the things that I’ve noticed is that the enterprise agreements which apply throughout a lot of the public service are basically very soft, compared to the private sector, and they often act as an impediment to more productive workplaces,” he said in a speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia ACT branch at the National Portrait Gallery this morning.

He said workplace agreements also made it “unnecessarily difficult” to introduce change in the APS, adding that: “Many agencies have surrendered too many management prerogatives to employees and the unions. This stifles innovation and the capacity to respond flexibly to new challenges.” Public servants should no longer be consulted on “any change” in their agency, given the Fair Work Act requires consultation only on “major changes” he said, advocating a management approach of “partnership with your workforce”.

“My part of the bargain, as the CEO and management, is to ensure that we enhance their skills and attributes and give them a good career, good career prospects in the public service,” Lloyd said. “That is the way modern workplaces in leading companies work. We’ve got to manage to get the best out of our people — that’s a key ingredient — and hopefully our enterprise agreements and bargaining and our industrial arrangements facilitate that.”

The new commissioner said his main observations of the federal bureaucracy compared to when he last worked in it 10 years ago were of too much red tape, excessive risk aversion, too much navel gazing and, consequently, inadequate engagement with the business sector.

Some introspection is needed, he said, “but I think we’ve got to be careful we don’t overdo it. Too much internal focus involves a risk that we lose the connection with the community and the business community that we serve.” Echoing the complaints of business lobby groups, Lloyd said he had found it “often astounding how little appreciation there was of what the operational demands of business were in the public service” during his time as red tape commissioner.

Outward looking, decisive leadership

The APSC’s new chief wants to see the flagship State of the Service report expanded to “make it more outward-looking” and include comparisons with private sector benchmarks, as well as advice on industrial relations, recruitment, talent development and leadership. “We’ve got to be looking not just at what public sectors are doing, but what we can drag out of the private sector,” said Lloyd, answering an audience question after the speech.

“I sometimes get concerned we have an Australia New Zealand School of Government, which again has an introspective-type notion, connotation, about it. Some of those things can be valuable; we need to have experts tell us about how it’s better to run public sectors, but we can’t do that too much.”

Australian Taxation Office first assistant commissioner Jacqui Curtis, who heads up the agency’s people division, asked for Lloyd’s view on how the insular workplace culture of the public service could be changed, adding that during enterprise bargaining, “it’s almost insulting to [public servants] if you start to compare them to other agencies in the APS or the private sector more generally”.

The commissioner replied that the APS could not be credible in the eyes of the public if its attitude was “we’re something special and parked over here with a fence around us”. “In certain areas I think the private sector’s leading companies are often at the leading edge of implementing change, of how they’re implementing IT, of their personnel practices, and there’s so much we can learn from that,” he added.

“Being busy and challenged and having a challenging job often doesn’t equate to stress.”

When it comes to the biggest question mark over the almost weekly calls for the APS to become less risk-averse — whether the consequences will also be less when things go wrong — Lloyd told an ACT public servant that he sympathised. Noting that “there’s a lot more watchdogs and things ready to pounce on you” now than in the past, he accepted that not everything goes to plan: “You’re not always going to get it right and I would hope, and my practice is, if people are trying and taking a conscientious approach and giving their best, and if things do go a bit pear-shaped, they don’t get dumped on.”

In answer to another question, he said current ministers who had also served in the Howard government agreed the public service had become more risk averse and hesitant. “They are looking for advice which contests ideas, is strong advice, isn’t just Yes, Minister advice; and it’s up to us to produce that.”

As he goes about slashing internal and external red tape, the new commissioner also hopes to see public service middle managers given back authority to do the jobs they are paid for; to be decisive and less constrained by cumbersome processes. And he implied some might need to harden up a bit.

“There’s a lot of coverage about stress in the workplace,” Lloyd said. “I think we need to be careful we don’t overhype it. Being busy and challenged and having a challenging job often doesn’t equate to stress. You don’t want excessive stress but some challenge and sort of … encouragement to get better is part of a successful workplace.

“Also I think we need to be decisive. As I said I think we’re more risk averse recently so my other advice to managers and to staff is: don’t be afraid to make decisions and give hard advice. Consult and communicate by all means, but in the end, agencies and managers are responsible to get on with running the show.”

It’s everyone’s job, he added, to point out general dysfunction “so that inefficient practices or poor workplace relationships are removed” and then set out his early thoughts on the future agenda for the APS. First off he wants to see human resources executives work on high-level strategy like workforce planning, succession planning and workplace modernisation, instead of spending all their time on transactional work.

While lamenting the lack of performance pay in the service, Lloyd put his weight behind the drawn-out project to improve the performance management process.

“What you’ve got to be careful about is to make sure that it is relevant, it’s not overlaid with too many rules and regulations and also that it’s regular feedback. You might have an annual assessment but feedback on performance should be a regular interaction between a manager and staff,” he said.

Managing underperforming servants

Lloyd also promised to make it easier to manage underperformance in the APS.

“If you don’t address underperformance, well then the good performers in your organisation worry about the competency and the strength of management, so you can’t avoid it, and I can assure that we in the Public Service Commission will be working to facilitate it and make it easier and make it more effective.”

Anecdotal stories around Canberra about lazy public servants taking leave for frivolous reasons sent the wrong message, Lloyd continued, and noted two approaches being taken. Some agencies have made lists of the staff who take the most leave so they can be questioned about the reasons. Others have found that managers who take a lot of unscheduled leave engender the same behaviour in their teams.

Some enterprise agreements are “fairly lax” about leave entitlements, he said, and tightening up the rules was one way to address the large number of days off taken by federal public servants.

“We rate better than some other countries, but we can’t be complacent.”

“More importantly it’s a cultural thing, of managers asking people why they’re taking the leave — is it appropriate? — and if it’s not appropriate, then refusing to grant the leave or calling to account if they do take it,” he said.

As well as a reduction in “excessive layers of management”, a more modern view of leadership would also reinvigorate the executive arm of government, in the commissioner’s view. The commission will be trying to nurture leadership skills in lower levels more than in the past, he added, and said a new executive level 2 training program was among the first steps.

“I’m also concerned to make sure that we’re aware and on the ball about fighting corruption,” Lloyd told the audience. “Now … the federal public service is not particularly clean; there have been instances of corruption in parts of the public service. But I think we rate better than most public services, we rate better than a lot of the state public services; they have more trouble with corruption. We rate better than some other countries, but we can’t be complacent.”

Information that leaked recently from his own office and ended up on the front page of the local newspaper is now under investigation, the IPAA members heard.

“People who leak think that they might be currying favour with the other side, which is a very short-sighted view, because anybody who’s known somebody who’s leaked information can never trust them,” the commissioner said. “So we take it seriously, and I’d encourage you to take it seriously.”

More at The Mandarin: APS employment drop: Abetz, Lloyd talk hiring freeze’s future

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