Flexible workforce reform blueprint hinges on ‘high performance’ culture

By Stephen Easton

Thursday May 5, 2016

The Commonwealth’s latest blueprint for public service reform attempts to set out how to develop the ideal government workforce — from the Turnbull government’s point of view — but large groups of people don’t behave the way you want just because you ask.

That’s where businesswoman Sandra McPhee’s report Unlocking Potential is supposed to come in, giving secretaries practical steps to drive the kind of changes that have been demanded since “efficiency through contestability” became the goal.

Australian Public Service commissioner John Lloyd told The Mandarin the APS would have to keep on doing “more with less” into the future and needs to have the most flexible workforce possible to serve government effectively. He envisages a public service that can be “continually refreshed as the business environment evolves and changes” and where it is “easy to easy for employees to move within and across APS agencies, and to and from the private sector”.

“Successful change management does not occur overnight.”

It probably sounds ideal from an employer’s perspective — a flexible group of highly engaged, agile, innovative and talented employees whizzing around from one challenge to the next, in between sojourns in educative private sector roles — but the thousands of rank-and-file staff members need also believe in it for it to come true.

Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Nadine Flood argues the best way to attract “a happy, motivated and optimally productive pool of workers” is to offer permanent full-time jobs with good training and professional development opportunities, and invest in modern tools and systems for them to work with. One imagines an agency like Centrelink is front of her mind.

But the commissioner is convinced that “the capacity for rapid deployment of staff” according to changing circumstances is “critical” to the future of government.

“Once in the APS, it should be easy for employees to move within and across APS agencies, and to and from the private sector,” he said.

“Mobility, internal and external to the APS, sets a strong foundation for striking a balance between depth and breadth of experience across departments and agencies. Committing to actions that enables talent to move around easily and in a way that supports the business needs is vital to a high performing APS.

“Associated with improved mobility is the more flexible use of staff. In the future I expect that the APS will be more creative in the use of the various modes of employment such as part time, casual, fixed term, contractor and labour hire employment.

“The employment modes can enhance agility by augmenting the backbone of an agency’s permanent ongoing staff to meet fluctuating and sometimes urgent needs.”

Positive, high performance culture

Lloyd reminds us that “embedding high performance in the culture of the APS through the actions in the review” is an essential element of the present vision for a more efficient and effective bureaucracy.

One of McPhee’s recommendations in this regard — to “centrally develop design principles for a positive high performance culture” — seems to have already been completed quite comprehensively by a team of academics who produced the report Strengthening the Performance Framework in collaboration with the APSC in 2013.

Lloyd nominates this recommendation along with an overhaul of the APS jobs website as one of the easy opportunities for “fast action” that were presented by McPhee’s report. Mandarins began a “collaborative approach … to develop consistent principles to support a positive, high performance culture for use across the APS” soon after the report reached them in December.

Designing and redesigning principles for this change is much easier than the cultural change itself of course.

“Successful organisations are attuned to change, yet understand that successful change management does not occur overnight,” Lloyd acknowledges.

He describes the shift that has been discussed and described in high-level APS reports for at least 15 years as a “dynamic undertaking” and says work is underway: “Initiatives have commenced and as we learn from these changes, will quickly become more widespread.”

Taking charge of talent management

McPhee also recommends public service bosses take charge of efforts to identify and nurture the top performers in their midst. But she warns that a focus on talent could end up “disenfranchising solid performers who aren’t identified as top talent” unless it occurs in the context of the long-awaited positive high performance culture.

Lloyd is particularly keen to see talent management come of age in the APS and says “investing more in those with the potential to contribute more” is a no-brainer for any organisation.

“It means keeping valuable people highly engaged by giving them work that stretches them,” the commissioner explained.

At the same time, the needs of the “sound performers” who don’t catch the eye of the talent spotters should not be ignored: “They will always continue to make a valuable contribution. Their capabilities will be enhanced to ensure that contribution is maintained in a changing environment.”

“APS leaders will have to engage constructively with the community and business.”

Lloyd also hopes the McPhee review will add impetus to another push he has advocated previously: simplifying the recruitment procedures that have been built up over time around the merit principle to speed them up. He believes current processes should make APS jobs more attractive to the cream of the talent pool, but fears they do the opposite.

McPhee’s observations of how the merit principle is applied led her to suggest there might be room to calm down a bit without opening the floodgates to nepotism, bias and undue influence. Her review spashes one deputy secretary’s view that it has “a God status in recruitment practice” in giant text and while she supports the principle itself, she contends:

“Within the existing legislation, the proper application of merit is simpler than current practices suggest.

A number of myths have evolved over time, leading to advertising practices and complex selection processes that result in poor recruitment outcomes and unnecessary costs.”

The APS commissioner agrees. “It is a fundamental requirement that the merit principle be adhered to,” he said. “However, I agree with the review that we have to be mindful that the merit principle’s application is not overlaid by excessive process. The underlying objective is to find the best person for the job.”

Echoing the comments of Department of Finance secretary Jane Halton, Lloyd says some agencies have created “self-imposed red tape … such as extensive selection criteria, over-engineered interview processes and elaborate reports” that slow the process down:

“It can take three months or more to run the full course. The best people for any position may not wait this long for a job.”

Tips for the SES

What do senior executives need to know about how the winds of internal reform are currently blowing? Lloyd told The Mandarin they need to be “open to learning and discovery, and embrace new ideas for delivering policy and program outcomes” and comfortable with “ambiguity and uncertainty” as the issues that face them become more complex:

“The community rightly demands a lot of government. Accordingly, APS leaders will have to engage constructively with the community and business.

“The APS Commission is taking a number of important initiatives, as are many agencies, to realise the leadership potential that the APS holds. This will be augmented by making it easier to introduce talented people from outside the APS.”

Unlocking the Potential refers to the APSC working as more of a “business partner” with agencies, and the commissioner says the central human resources body has been working more closely with agencies following a restructure:

“It is taking on a more consultative-based business model in some of its services, including co-designing and developing products and guidance with agencies, and partnering with agencies in implementation.”

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