Giving a commitment choice with the 'service spectrum'

By Harley Dennett

April 20, 2016

Come July this year, the Australian Defence Force will be the unexpected first cab off the rank in the race to implement a flexible, family-friendly workforce model for a modern government organisation.

Flexibility in government organisations has largely been interpreted in two flavours: 1) employees leaving work early to pick up kids from day care or undertake studies, while making up the time elsewhere; and 2) employees taking unpaid leave on top of their annual leave while retaining a right to return.

What the ADF found, at least for its workforce and organisational capability needs, is flexibility of that kind isn’t enough. It’s the flexibility of a rubber band, always returning to its original shape, as quickly as possible — but people and families don’t work that way.

” … managers should see enhanced capability, by having visibility and access to the entire pool of ADF people.”

The ADF has an extra problem to solve with its workforce: how to keep in contact with the highly trained personnel who have already walked out the door. It might need their skills again, in peacetime or in operations, and the ballooning costs of consultancies create added incentive to keep those skills around via the Defence employment offer.

Developing the fix for these problems has been anything but simple. While the APS must contend with the union ahead of any workforce change, Defence has much stronger historical and cultural legacy going back to 1901 and an ex-service community that fiercely defends the way things have always been done, even when those practices no longer appeal to a new generation workforce.

The Total Workforce Model that the ADF eventually arrived at has two defining components that combine to make it a world first, and arguably unique in government:

  1. ForceNet: a secure e-portal that connects all employees and ex-employees to their service, the department and each other; allowing the employee and the organisation to indicate their availability and career opportunities respectively.
  2. SERCATs: a sliding scale of commitment that allows full-time workers to reduce their hours without incurring disproportionate disadvantage, and part-time workers to upscale their involvement and pay without going through the burdensome recruiting process.

SERCATS: choice and certainty

Seven years in the making under the codename Project Suakin, the ADF’s new workforce model creates a sliding scale of employee commitment to the organisation. It does away with much of the rigid Member (full-time), Active Reserve (full-time, deployment) and Standby Reserve (part-time, weekend) trichotomy that Australia has used with only minor variation since federation in 1901. In it’s place are seven service categories — SERCATSs — reflecting a range of life stage needs.

That range caters for reserve members who have no service obligation, but are available for call out if a particular need arises — specialist medical doctors for instance — though to members who are only available during certain months of the year, or certain days of the week, through to regular members who seek just a slight degree of flexibility.

” … permanent members who want to serve flexibly will keep their full entitlements.”

Career managers in the ADF will support members to transition between these categories as their life stage needs change.

The most radical aspect of the sliding scale concerns entitlements. With approval, those permanent members who want to serve flexibly will be allowed to keep their full entitlements. An equivalent sliding scale of entitlements, pro-rata to the member’s hours, was considered but proved too costly and challenging to implement when factoring in the full range of subsidies to permanent members such as Defence housing, loans and reunion travel. Reservists pay and conditions will not change.

Current flexible workplace arrangements, such as the ability to work from home or full-time in a different pattern to core work hours, will remain unchanged.

One significant new benefit that wasn’t available to reserve members before, particularly those with only seasonal availability, is certainty of tenure and stability in terms of pattern of service in return for their commitment to serve.

There is also a SERCAT for public servants who are force assigned, but are otherwise not career managed by the ADF.

Filling organisational needs

Defence recognises it can’t escape the skills shortage that all Australian organisations face, with projections showing competition for workers will only increase over the next decade.

The very things that can make the ADF an attractive career choice for a young person — the adventure, travel and challenge — make it much harder to sustain when that young person starts a family or wants to try other things. When that moment is reached, more often than not, Defence loses more skilled capability than it can regain through lateral transfers.

It can’t keep 100% of its workforce — no organisation can — but it can make it easier for those personnel and skills to remain within reach. By acknowledging that it hasn’t previously made enough opportunities for part-time, casual and seasonal work, the ADF has developed the new workforce model to allow more of those personnel to stay in the system at a level that fits both organisation and member needs.

Having more of its members spend a significant period of their time with other employers, environments and cultures is also seen by the ADF as bringing an advantage. Much like how the APS is increasingly curious about what traits private sector workers can bring to the public service, the ADF also wants to ensure that the best of civilian skills, work practices and unique insights can also flow into its own capability.

Commanders and career managers who have a gap to fill should see enhanced capability with the new model, by having more visibility and access to the entire pool of ADF people.

Pulling all this off means incentivising ex-Defence members to keep their details current on the ForceNet e-portal, which is shaping up as a mix of Facebook, LinkedIn, Seek, and the traditional intranet news page. The earlier version of ForceNet, then known as the Defence Alumni Network did not take off despite an extensive marketing campaign to the Defence community, and it remains to be seen if the new version will have greater engagement.

There are still many unresolved questions before the Total Workforce Model can achieve all it sets out to, such as whether part-time workers will be considered for promotions, whether increasing management responsibility will remain the primary path for promotion, and how the powers to hire, fire and promote will change in personnel regulations.

While the details of regulatory changes have been unofficially settled, The Mandarin understands the decision has been delayed due to the swift approach of caretaker period.

Implementation of the ADF Total Workforce Model is expected to begin on July 1 and be complete by November 2016.

The ADF isn’t the only government organisation expected to implement its answer to these workforce concerns this year. Senator Michaelia Cash, in her capacity as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, is expected to release the APS workforce management review next week.

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