Expensive and remote: why WA struggles with executive recruitment

By David Donaldson

Friday April 24, 2015

The government’s waterwise public housing project will be expanded by another five years.
The government’s waterwise public housing project will be expanded by another five years. (Taras Vyshnya/Adobe)

Senior public service roles in Western Australia are being left unfilled for long periods, sometimes more than a year, as the government struggles to attract people to the state.

It was announced this week that Michael Barnes had been appointed head of the WA Treasury after acting in the role for 14 months. Though the position was vacated by Tim Marney in February 2014, it was not advertised until August.

The Mandarin understands around 12 other senior Treasury roles have likewise remained unfilled during this period, and will now be resolved following Barnes’ appointment.

It took more than two years to appoint a new director-general of the Department of Health. Dr David Russell-Weisz became the state’s top health bureaucrat last month after Kim Snowball quit in December 2012. The role has been described by one of its predecessors as “the toughest job in government”.

Jenni Perkins has been acting in the role of commissioner for children and young people since December 2013, though the role was not advertised until February this year, and remains unfilled.

Liberal MLA Graham Jacobs expressed his dismay at the number of acting executive roles within the WA Treasury last year during a Public Accounts Committee briefing. “Are there any substantive members? They are all acting!” he said.

Although comparative data for other states is difficult to find, public service executive recruitment has long been a problem for WA, says John Phillimore, executive director of the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy at Curtin Business School.

“For some big positions they’ve done a worldwide search for two years, then they hire a local. I assume for this treasury job they would have advertised nationally and maybe internationally.

“There’s nothing wrong with hiring within the system, but it looks like they’ve taken a while because they’ve done a search and haven’t found anyone outside.”

There is, however, “very little research on the impact of having acting people in a role,” he told The Mandarin, “so it’s impossible to say whether it has a negative impact. But it’s not really satisfactory to have such a long period of people acting, I think.”

Some positions the government “does seem to sit on for a long time,” he thinks, waiting months to formally appoint staff recommended to the role by the public service commissioner. In other cases it’s hard to say whether the hold-up is “at the back or the front end,” says Phillimore.

A big part of the problem, though, is out of the government’s control. The population is small and an entire continent sits between Perth and the population centres of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

“Over the last few years a number of positions took a long time to fill. It can be very hard to attract people,” he argues.

“At least in decades past someone could move from Sydney or Melbourne and know they could buy a bigger house in Perth and still have some money left over. But Perth has become an expensive place to live in, so it’s harder to attract people based on price.”

The mining boom also increased competition for those who did live in WA, with the private sector snapping up large numbers of talented employees. And while the mining sector may be weakening and cost of living pressures easing somewhat, “there’s also not going to be a lot of money floating around now” says Phillimore.

“It’s going to be difficult to achieve any kind of innovation in such a harsh fiscal environment.

“It’s not an easy problem to solve.”

Asked whether it regarded the apparent difficulty to attract senior staff as a problem and what it was doing to deal with the issue, the WA Public Sector Commission responded:

“The Public Sector Commission is committed to identifying, developing, attracting and retaining talent across the breadth of the Western Australian public sector.

“The senior executive service in WA is 0.4 per cent of the public sector workforce and is broadly diverse, with a rich mosaic of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. This includes senior executives who have been recruited from overseas, interstate and the private sector.”

WA Public Sector Commissioner Mal Wauchope identified some positives of the circumstance:

“Vacancies at a senior level can in fact be an indicator of an agile and mobile workforce. The purpose of the senior executive service is to provide the sector with executive officers who are capable of fulfilling a range of roles and can be deployed in and between agencies.

“I am confident the WA public sector has a pipeline of current and emerging leaders with the right blend of skills and experience, yet we also remain an attractive employer for those from overseas and interstate.”

Asked to confirm exactly how many positions remained unfilled in the state Treasury, the commission replied:

“Whilst the management of vacancies within an agency is the responsibility of the agency head, the PSC acknowledges that significant appointments are often deferred where the chief executive role is filled on an acting basis. The appointment of Mr Michael Barnes as under Treasurer earlier this week provides the opportunity to progress senior appointment as he considers appropriate.”

Read more at The Mandarin: 21st public service: changing education and recruitment

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