Why is it so hard to get a job in the public service? It’s a question that I am often asked in my role as commissioner for public employment. But, unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer, because there are many reasons why a person might find it difficult to be selected to the public service. It may well be that when said and done, the person simply doesn’t have the experience and skills to be competitive when assessed on merit against other applicants.
However, there is also no denying other reasons that exist both in the myriad of application hurdles that we place in front of people applying to work in the public sector, and also in assessment processes that may fail to identify good applicants, and often take too long.
There is an immense range of historic, and often cumbersome, recruitment processes and selection “myths” that the public sector clings to. Many of these stem from a mistaken belief that to be fair there must be a consistent, one-size-fits-all system, with clear rules. However, this approach can all too easily create a situation where, in attempting to follow a set process and apply the “rules”, the selection panel loses sight of their real goal, which is simply to select the best person for the job.
One prime example of this, and a situation that probably puts off many prospective applicants, is requiring applicants to painstakingly address each one of a number of selection criteria. The underlying idea of essential selection criteria makes sense: “Here is a description of the key responsibilities, and a list of the knowledge, skills, qualifications and experiences that we believe you need to have to do this job well.” Such a list helps potential applicants to understand what is really sought in a job, to consider if they have the right capabilities and training, and also provides a framework against which a panel can assess and compare applicants.
But, how closely does the public sector really look at those selection criteria? Closer examination reveals that often they are repetitive, difficult to respond to, and in some cases do not really relate to the requirements of the job being advertised. Many of them ask for such things as “demonstrated high-level experience” or “high-level strategic thinking” without explaining what such experience might be, or giving an applicant any clue as to what is really being sought.“… the process has become a labour-intensive one, requiring paragraph after paragraph to be written …”
Perhaps a bigger problem with selection criteria arises, not just in how they are written, but in how we make applicants apply against those criteria. Originally designed with good intentions to give applicants an opportunity to demonstrate their wares, the process has become a labour-intensive one, requiring paragraph after paragraph to be written, setting out claims against each criterion. All too often the selection process became an “application writing competition” with the prize going to persons who sold themselves best in addressing selection criteria.
Similar concerns arise with assessment methods used by panels. In most cases a single interview, with a set of identical questions, was the main selection tool. Never mind if an applicant was a skilled capable worker who could offer a lot to the public sector. If they were nervous, or unlucky with the questions and “blew” the interview they didn’t stand a chance. But if an applicant had a good day and impressed at the interview they might very well win the job, even though on closer examination of proven work history they would not have been found to be so impressive. A whole raft of myths exist around the interview process (interviews are mandatory for all shortlisted applicants; all applicants must be asked identical questions; there must be questions for each selection criterion; referees should only be contacted for people who are found suitable at interview; etc.) Following these myths often leads to a panel not doing a fair and accurate assessment, to the job going to the best “salesperson”, and to applicants feeling bruised and battered after a horrible interview experience.
Another concern, and common complaint from applicants, is the amount of time it takes to complete the process. Not uncommonly it may take upwards of three months. What causes such long delays? “People are busy, there are lots of applications, we have had trouble getting the panel together, there are more pressing matters.” These are some of the excuses that are trotted out to justify the delay, and in some cases they may be valid. However, whatever the cause, there is no question that long delays contribute to the perceived difficulties in getting a job with the public sector. Not many good applicants can wait around for three or more months to hear if they have won the job. By the time the panel finally gets around to finalising the process, they may well have lost the best applicants to other jobs.
Lastly, if an applicant has persevered through the process, but does not win the job and seeks feedback, they frequently receive little or very unhelpful explanations as to why someone else got the job. This leads to dissatisfaction and distrust of the validity of selection processes, since without adequate explanation, applicants may imagine the process was not based on evidence of merit.
Simplified recruitment in NT public service
With the level of fiscal restraint applied to public service jurisdictions across the country, it is essential that when hiring we get the best person for the job. The hiring process needs to ensure that the most talented and capable people are considered. The hiring decision needs to be based on good evidence of proven capability and capacity, and we need to encourage applicants to apply and to feel confident in the strength and fairness of our selection processes.
In the Northern Territory public service, we have taken a hard look at how we can make the recruitment and selection process efficient and effective, and more importantly, how we can engender trust in applicants.“A commissioner’s determination was issued limiting job descriptions across government to one page …”
You will not be surprised to learn that the first casualty was the whole system of selection criteria. A commissioner’s determination was issued limiting job descriptions across government to one page, and setting out clear instructions on how to make selection criteria easier to understand and more open to those from outside the public sector. We embraced online technology through our eRecruit system. Applicants are advised that they must submit only a maximum one-page summary of their merit, with an attached resume that should identify relevant referees.
We made it a requirement that no person could be on a selection panel unless they had undertaken our merit selection training or completed the newly developed eLearning course. In just six months, we did in-person training for over 4500 employees — a quarter of our workforce. The training emphasises the importance of looking to proven work performance in assessing merit, and focuses on teaching panels to extract relevant information from referees in order to use demonstrated work history as an indicator of future capacity and capability.
Selection timeframes have been capped at a maximum of six weeks and, although that goal has not been reached, since the simplified recruitment procedures were implemented in July 2015 we already have statistical data indicating a 40% reduction in the timeline for selection processes.
Perhaps the biggest change of all in NTPS selection processes is that every single applicant receives detailed information about why the successful applicant was selected for the job, including a summary of the selected applicant’s skills, experience, education, qualifications, capabilities and how this information was verified through referees. The intention behind providing this detail is that all applicants will be able to do a “self-comparison” with the selected applicant, and in that way better understand what it takes to win a job in the public service.
The move away from providing detailed individual reports and copies of referee reports to unsuccessful applicants was expected to lead to complaints. In fact the opposite has happened, and we have received many reports from applicants saying that this was the most constructive feedback they have ever received in relation to their attempts to gain employment in the public sector. Now that they know why another person did get the job, applicants finally have a better understanding of what they might need to get similar positions in the future. There has also been a significant decrease in the number of appeals and complaints about selections, which we attribute to applicants understanding and accepting the reasons for the decision.
It is early days in this simplified recruitment process, and we will undertake a full review at the 12-month mark in order to have reliable data. Anecdotally there has already been much positive feedback from within the public service and from outside applicants, but the real test will be looking at the number of talented people we have been able to attract from outside of the public service.
We want to ensure that we are a culturally diverse workforce, that there are real opportunities for indigenous employees, and that we have employees with a wide range of backgrounds to better understand the issues and complexities within the community we serve. This is essential for a workforce that is required to be a model employer and to provide quality service to the public.
Craig Allen will be speaking on “Cutting the red tape — re-evaluating selection criteria” at the Workforce Capability & Skills Management Conference this June