Defence: the federal department with the lowest morale?

By Harley Dennett

Monday September 8, 2014

The latest employee attitude results from the Department of Defence’s biannual YourSay survey shows its APS morale has plummeted. The August 2014 snapshot was released internally last week and seen by The Mandarin.

Just 17% of Defence’s public servants rate their workplace morale in positive terms, while 42% explicitly rated it as low or very low. This level of dissatisfaction was found in the APS only, as all three uniformed services had significantly higher positive responses and fewer negative ones; 36% and 22% respectively.

This time 10 years ago, Defence’s APS employees were more pessimistic about promotion prospects as the stand-out concerning result of the 2004 attitude survey. It did not directly ask about morale, as few agencies do now. Instead most agencies favour specific questions about supervision, support and opportunities, and those that do tend not to release them publicly. This result may show why.

Half of the respondents said there was insufficient personnel to do the work required. This comes as an estimated 2000 public servants must be cut in the next few years, although there are no plans yet for which directorates and groups will be targeted.

However, APS employees are overcoming low workplace morale and staffing shortages to still find satisfaction in their work. Job satisfaction is almost as high among public servants as uniformed ADF members, with 60% saying overall they are satisfied and 19% saying they were dissatisfied. That’s a decrease over the last 10 years, where 67.5% said they found the APS Defence work enjoyable, and 10% disagreeing.

In other areas the situation has improved in the last 10 years, with 70% saying they have the skills to perform their role, compared with 65% in 2004.

Public servants in Defence today say they take pride in working for the department (67%), and have very good work-life balance (73%). Indeed, satisfaction with Defence’s work-life balance has slightly increased over time since the survey began in 1999.

If you’re looking to poach Defence employees, there is a belief among nearly half of its executive Level and SES employees that other organisations had better employment packages and were more financially attractive than Defence.

Last week at a Defence white paper public consultation forum in Canberra, department employees spoke up about the need for better people strategies. Ideas raised included career streams for technical experts where promotions and pay increases are not tied to management becoming their core responsibility. One Navy APS employee explained:

“Currently the only way to get into the really high salaries is by becoming executive levels, SES band, but the issue that creates then is that sometimes you’ll get analysts who are brilliant at analytical or technical work, but shouldn’t be allowed to manage a meat raffle. The only way they can advance is by getting into roles they are completely not suited for.”

Technical staff from other organisations were also going to be needed in Defence, brought in either as reserves or secondment, to deal with current and future skills shortages, such as cyber security and other technical fields.

The Defence YourSay survey, now running for 15 years, stands out among agency employee attitude surveys in that it is a randomly selected sample and weighted to reflect the rank or level, service or group, and gender. It is not generally released to the public, but is sometimes tabled in response to Senate Estimates enquiries.

More at The Mandarin: ‘More inclusive, capable’: at Defence, everything’s turning to white

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