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Too long, too complicated: recruitment needs to get back to basics

The Commonwealth and New South Wales public service commissioners agree: recruitment processes for government jobs are too long, complicated and demanding on applicants.

Simplifying and speeding them up was just one good step towards building the public sector workforces of the future that was discussed at the recent IPAA ACT Conference in Canberra. Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd (pictured above) and his New South Wales counterpart Graeme Head were joined by the IPAA’s national president-elect and partner-in-charge at KPMG Australia, Penny Armytage.

“You can’t attract people if the first interaction looks like their worst stereotype of how the public service works.”

Lloyd believes the way candidates are rated and the recruitment procedures themselves — including the arduous requirement to write claims against selection criteria — should be simplified.

“The public sector needs to be able to attract and retain the best and the brightest,” he told delegates. “Currently the average time for APS recruitment is around 12 weeks. That’s too long, and the long delays can result in people going elsewhere.”

Lloyd admitted to being “frustrated” by the long lists of general and job-specific criteria when sitting on selection panels for senior jobs, and said the rating system for applicants was too complicated.

“We do not need to go through such an elaborate process for each exercise,” the commissioner said. “It can be done much more simply and the criteria can be adapted and should be focused on the demands of the job.”

Lloyd “hardly ever” reads the sometimes “extraordinarily long” claims candidates make against selection criteria. He finds it “much more instructive” just to read a CV, conduct interviews and contact referees.

Head said he very much shared Lloyd’s views about the “shocking model of recruitment” used in the public sector. The NSW commissioner also believes it takes too long to hire people, and that some jobseekers are likely to be turned off by the prospect of wading through a bureaucratic morass just to apply.

“You can’t attract people if the first interaction looks like their worst stereotype of how the public service works,” he said.

The workforce of the future

A common refrain at the conference was that public service organisations need to change to meet the challenges of the future. Lloyd listed the familiar pressures that are widely seen as requiring new ways of working — “the ageing population, digital transformation, excessive red tape, competition for investment and a general push for smaller government” — and said he thought public servants were “up to it”.

“The public service needs to be agile and quick to respond, to be informed by a willingness to experiment, and to trial options,” said Lloyd. “New institutional arrangements like the Digital Transformation Office will be required to overcome entrenched interests and ways of thinking.”

It’s exciting times, the APS commissioner says, despite some “inflexible” personnel management practices that are holding back change in his view. He also advocated responsibility being delegated down to lower levels, as did Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet head Michael Thawley earlier in the day, as well as visible, communicative leadership.

“I think if you empower people with some clarity about what you’re doing and what your goals are, and empower the people who work in the organisations, you might find generally they measure up and deliver,” said Lloyd.

Penny Armytage
Penny Armytage

Armytage was also optimistic that the required transformations could be achieved.

“I think the big issue for me is the public service is going to have to attract and retain talented people who can think outside the square,” she said.

“I think it’s the unleashing of the creative juices of the public sector that’s going to be important. [There is a need] to retain the best of what’s always been there in terms of the public sector capability, but complemented with some forward-thinking, out-there ideas that are very proactive and are well connected with other players … in the public and private sectors, academia and others.”

Later, a delegate asked the panel if they thought “old-fashioned hierarchies” were fit for a modern, agile world, to which Head replied that excessive management layers were in fact a pretty recent phenomenon.

“When I was the equivalent of an EL2 in the late ’80s, you had a huge amount of responsibility; there weren’t four layers of people signing off on everything you sent to the minister,” he explained.

“We’ve actually really, I think, as we’ve become more collectively obsessed with issues management and the 24-hour news cycle, we’ve in fact created much more hierarchical organisations. I look at what we expect of the equivalent of an EL2 in NSW now, and how that compares with an equivalent role in the private sector, and we’re effectively de-skilling people.”

Like the others, Head is bullish about the prospect of public service agencies shrugging off decades of convention and rising to the challenges of a world in flux, but worries that fine words do not always translate into fine deeds.

“We’re very good at proselytising,” he said. “So we proselytise about innovation, and then we produce very prosaic publications that have pictures of fibre-optic cable on the front, as though that were innovation in and of itself, whereas we don’t think very explicitly about, well, what are the characteristics of innovative organisations.”

NSW Public Service Commission research had revealed a disconnect between the views of staff and managers when it came to change.

“Our employees think that change is managed very badly in the sector, but our managers … think change management is one of their great strengths,” Head explained. Another insight from the research was that “change” always meant structural change in the minds of public servants.

“There is a default setting in government agencies that when we think about doing things differently, we restructure,” he explained. “Whereas, mostly, talented people of goodwill can make most structures work, and we paralyse entire workforces for long periods of time, often simply to reconfigure reporting lines, really.

“So I think yes, we can change, but we need to be much more critically reflective on our current practice, and how that gets in the way of doing things differently.”

Leaders at all levels

What will the public service leadership of the future look like? Lloyd made the point that staff of all levels exercise leadership, but on the subject of senior leaders, offered:

“You can’t get complacent, you’ve got to look for ways to improve how you go about leadership — but we want a variety of personality types … ”

“To be effective, in my view they need to have a broad perspective, be open to learning and discovery, know when and how to collaborate, work well with ambiguity and uncertainty, be resilient, and engage effectively with business and the community.”

Head said the NSW secretaries’ board was in the midst of a “quite a structured conversation” on the exact question, and developing “leadership success profiles” for various senior levels, both to send clear messages through the sector and to outsiders about what makes a good public sector leader.

“Everybody assumes that everybody knows what leadership looks like at those levels, but we’ve never really been explicit about it and … in terms of attracting people in from other sectors, the public service is often a mystery to them, and we don’t bother to translate why it might be a good place for them to ply their particular trade,” he said.

Lloyd said it was important to remember that different kinds of leadership skills were important for public servants at all levels. Relatively junior APS staff often manage teams in regional areas, and that the public often look to officials like police and emergency services for authority and guidance.

And he advised not to let leadership training courses fool you into thinking you need “a personality transplant” to be a good leader.

“I’ve always found you’ve got to be true to yourself, true to your inherent qualities — you can’t get complacent, you’ve got to look for ways to improve how you go about leadership — but we want a variety of personality types and people and temperaments in the public service, and they all can be effective leaders,” he said.

The capability to assess capability

In her remarks, Armytage made the point that advancements in science and technology now regularly come along and cause significant social and economic change before most people can anticipate them. Technologies like driverless cars, or sex robots for that matter, will be upon us soon, and being prepared for these and other changes will be a big challenge in the public sector, she said.

Graeme Head
Graeme Head

Head told delegates that in his view, wondering what the future would look like in any sort of detail was a fairly futile pursuit.

“I don’t think humans are very good at answering that question, and one of the things we should be concentrating on is building organisations that are capable of examining what’s happening, examining the changes in their operating environments and communities, and adapting to those changes,” he said. “And they’re typically not the kind of organisations we build.”

On the contrary, Head’s view is that strategic workforce management, in NSW at least, is “very, very, very undercooked” and that public service leaders rarely think about their current capabilities they need, let alone the emerging demands for new capabilities. Most are unable to.

“If I sat down most chief executives in most jurisdictions and said: ‘Explain to me in 10 minutes what your business model is, what the core capabilities are for driving that business model and, importantly, the extent to which your current workforce aligns to those capabilities,’ people would typically not be able to answer.”

Part of the problem, he said, was a lack of “the capability in our organisations to talk about capability” with no genuine strategic workforce management to speak of. Effective collaboration with all different kinds of organisations, and not just in service delivery but service co-design as well, is widely considered a key capability for the public sector of the future.

Unfortunately, more of the commission’s research from about two years ago showed NSW public servants were “at a very, very, very embryonic stage in any kind of meaningful journey about collaboration” despite thinking of themselves as quite skilled at working with others.

In a world where success requires collaboration, Head thinks there’s lots more work to be done, at least in his neck of the woods.

“I don’t believe at this stage that we have a clear sense of how we currently do it, how that compares even in our existing operating models with how we should be doing it [and] how we lift our current performance, but more importantly, how we envisage building organisations that are much more relaxed and effective in what will ultimately be a much more fluid and dynamic set of relationships with other players.”

Embrace the churn and break down the public-private divide

A question from Twitter reminded Lloyd that 43% of APS staff do not see themselves in the service by 2020, according to a recent independent survey. It would be “terrific” if that came to pass, he replied without hesitation.

“Those who are going, we love what you’ve done, and we appreciate it, you’ve done a fantastic job, but for the generation of new people coming through it’s very encouraging,” he said.

John Lloyd
John Lloyd

The APS commissioner was much keener to find ways to avoid crushing the enthusiasm that new graduates bring to the service, and address a decline in the under-30 age group which he is still investigating.

One of the key themes that came out of the session was the need to break down the divide between the public sector and other kinds of work and create a less insular public sector workforce. The commissioners see this happening not only through secondments with companies and charitable organisations but also by greater employment mobility between the public and other sectors.

Armytage, a former Victorian government mandarin who now plays a lead role in a ‘big four’ accounting firm, said the prospect of nearly half of current APS staff working elsewhere in five years didn’t worry her at all. She suggested the ideal public sector workforce would be a roughly even split between lifers, up-and-comers on the fast track to the top, and new recruits.

“I personally think that’s quite a healthy sign, not something to be overly worried about … because in my experience now from working outside the public sector, very often once people leave they think about what a fantastic job it was, and the breadth of opportunities they had wasn’t as narrow as it can be in some other sectors,” she said.

“Many [want] to go back at some stage into the future and maintaining that opportunity and the open door for people to go in and out of the sector, I think, has to be the way of the future.”

Head said the IPAA’s incoming president “nailed it” in his view, but also pointed out that in NSW, turnover was declining as staff with defined benefit superannuation schemes retired. He said it was important to be clear that significant workforce changes were looming, and that more rotation in and out of public service jobs for a few years at a time would be one feature.

Simpler recruiting processes that make it easier for both applicants and employers is one step in that direction.

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.