Did the freeze on hiring put bureaucrats in the wrong jobs?

By David Donaldson

Monday December 21, 2015

One of the unintended consequences of the federal government’s public service hiring freeze? More people have ended up being given jobs they are not fully suited to, according to an academic conducting research on the Australian public service middle management.

Because outside recruitment was strictly limited under the government-directed freeze, which was in place from late 2013 until the middle of this year, many employees lacking the full skill set were placed in acting roles, says Deborah Blackman, professor in public sector management strategy at UNSW’s School of Business in Canberra.

Once someone is given an acting role they often go on to be given the job officially. Sometimes this means the process is not as competitive as it should be.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that when cuts are made in large organisations, the first thing to go is always the training budget. The APS has been no exception, Blackman told The Mandarin. When it is available, the remaining employees are less likely to have time to attend.

Deborah Blackman
Deborah Blackman

This means those being given jobs higher up than those they’re trained for are “not getting the help they need” in many cases. “It all becomes a bit of a spiral,” she said.

The freeze created holes in capability across the service, with jobs remaining unfilled and people being moved around to act in different roles. Inevitably, agencies tried to get around permanently abolishing positions, which would lead to the loss of funding for that job, by “freezing” the role and waiting for normal hiring conditions to return, Blackman says.

In the wake of the hiring freeze there has been a lot of churn in the APS, with people moving between agencies. A large amount of movement at the executive level has seen those lower down following their bosses around. Too much churn can hurt capability, as it tends to take between six and 12 months for anyone to become really good at a new job.

This kind of churn is not unique to the public service, but is particularly easy to see at the moment thanks to the end of the hiring freeze, thinks Blackman, who suspects the problem may be worse in service delivery than other areas of the sector.

This year we’ve also seen agencies working to bed down machinery of government changes. Blackman points out that while the departments themselves would say they’ve successfully implemented the changes, according to the literature around 80% of such reshuffles tend to fail to completely achieve what they set out to do.

“In some cases it becomes very distracting,” Blackman asserted. “They’re less focused on why they did it because they’re too focused on the changes themselves.”

Considering agencies she’s familiar with, Blackman has question marks over how successful the MOG changes have been.

“The way it’s been done creates issues,” she said. “There’s often very late notice of changes and it’s incredibly disruptive. If you asked the agencies, I think they would say it’s all bedded down, but I’d question that.”

Out with selection criteria

This year has also seen the spread of simplified job applications.

The New South Wales public service and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra have opted to do away with sometimes long lists of selection criteria that consume lots of time for the author and often remain unread by the recruiter in favour of a private sector-style single-page cover letter and CV. Other Commonwealth departments are considering doing the same.

Sue Williamson, an expert in public sector human resources also at UNSW’s School of Business in Canberra, is concerned that while some agencies definitely abuse selection criteria, the single-page approach could be less effective at controlling unconscious bias in recruitment.

She thinks “merit might be undermined” if the brief amount of space afforded under the new system makes it harder for those with gaps in their work history to convince recruiters they nonetheless have the skills to do the job.

“Skills that are transferrable, if you’ve been out of the workplace or in a different area, might not come through.”

This problem, if not properly accounted for, could particularly affect women, who are more likely to take time off work.

“I think it’d be too easy to miss the details of what some have done,” she said. “Skills that are transferrable, if you’ve been out of the workplace or in a different area, might not come through.”

She hopes departments implementing this system are looking at broader recruitment processes, too. Leaner applications require interviewers to be trained in how to draw out relevant information that’s not in the application, for example.

“It’s fine to aim to be like the private sector and get the documentation and time reduced, but the private sector also does recruitment very different to the APS,” she said.

“Are they looking at some of the innovative processes of the private sector around that as well?”

Williamson also “can’t believe” pay bargaining has been ongoing for a year and a half and looks like it “is not going anywhere”.

APS enterprise agreements started being negotiated in March last year. While 11 agreements have been voted up by employees, these are mostly in smaller agencies, with perhaps 140,000 Commonwealth public servants still working under out-of-date agreements.

“It’s saving the government lots of money,” she noted.

While the government has of course been loth to meet union demands on pay, conditions and hours, so-called “streamlining” of agreements has also met union hostility. Williamson says this idea, favoured by management, “is to have agreements that just contain entitlements and not extra material”.

“Performance management would be hived off to organisational policy and aspirational statements taken out,” she said. “The government is trying to make the agreements a black letter law contract.”

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