DIBP survey airs 'command & control' concerns, lost confidence

By David Donaldson

May 12, 2016

A survey of staff in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has found a “problematic” culture of command and control, a shift from focusing on “people” to enforcement and a lack of communication from senior management.

DIBP employees have also expressed concern about the ongoing enterprise bargaining process, resourcing shortfalls and an “emerging divide” between the Australian Border Force and the rest of the department.

It comes as 2000 employees signed onto a Community and Public Sector Union statement expressing a loss of confidence in the department’s senior management and a vow to campaign against the government in the election.

The report, undertaken independently by the Nous Group, is based on a mix of face-to-face focus groups with 177 staff and online responses in January and February.

Staff said the department’s “command and control” culture — a criticism commonly heard since Tony Abbott’s government decided to put Michael Pezzullo in the top job to renovate the department’s mission and structure — meant they tended not to be consulted, but instead told what to do. This “can result in inefficiencies, with too many people involved in decisions”, the report notes.

The document’s release comes days after Pezzullo gave a speech urging public servants “look beyond the iron cage of the clinical, flat, bureaucratised world”.

There was a small amount of good news, however. The report notes that, following the unification of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship with the Australian Border Force and Customs, staff had been “energised” towards a common mission — “the protection of the Australian border”.

“Brand image” is seen in a similar light: staff suggest the controversial new uniforms provide a “positive and professional image”.

There is a significant kernel of resistance to the change in purpose, however, with one in five staff indicating they do not view “mission focus” as a positive value, rather as “narrow” and “militaristic”, without an emphasis on people. Likewise, one in five staff question the change in “brand image”, seeing it rather as “paramilitary” and “exclusionary” to non-uniformed staff.

The number of people who responded that their team and other colleagues “live” the department’s behaviours fell from last year to eight out of 10.

The divide between the ABF and the rest of the department is reinforced by leadership focus and media strategy placing emphasis on the goals of the ABF over those of the broader department, staff argue.

Only three in 10 staff “feel they have had a sufficient opportunity to provide input and/or feedback about how the department will achieve its vision and mission”, which is significantly lower than the last survey in April 2015.

Many said that while staff dedication was the department’s “greatest asset”, many do not feel they receive appropriate recognition for their work and that reward system are “inconsistently applied across the department”.

Only one in 10 believe there is open two-way communication across the department. Although staff reported increased clarity around mission, many are still unsure how it applies to them.

A departmental spokesperson told the Canberra Times  there were “residual integration issues”.

“The leadership team’s challenge is to make sure that our staff have the right support in place so this potential can be fulfilled,” he said.

“We have developed an action plan to address these issues as matter of priority, including increasing staff engagement with our senior leaders, improving our award and recognition framework, and ensuring performance is managed consistently across the organisation.”

The Mandarin has contacted the department for comment.

Public servants to campaign against government

The government’s hardline approach to enterprise bargaining — which has seen increasingly bitter negotiations stretched out over two years — may have unintended consequences for the government.

Around 2000 Community and Public Sector Union members have signed onto a statement vowing to campaign against Malcolm Turnbull’s government in the upcoming election.

The statement reads:

We have lost confidence in the Department and Border Force’s senior management. We have lost confidence that Prime Minister Turnbull cares about Immigration and Border Protection workers, with our rights still under attack.

CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said employees had been failed by the department and the government.

We’ve heard from thousands of Immigration and Border Force workers whose anger and disillusionment with the Abbott and Turnbull governments has grown over two years as they’ve fought to hold onto their rights, conditions and take-home pay.

Having to have that fight while suffering messy and mishandled changes to their jobs with the creation of Border Force has only made that worse. These people, some of whom are lifelong Liberal voters, have decided it’s not just time to change how they vote but to actively campaign for a change of government.

DIBP’s eight ‘limiting values’

The workplace survey found eight politely named “limiting values”:

  • Bureaucracy and hierarchy: Staff experience of bureaucracy and hierarchy was linked to excessive red tape across the department, with too many escalation and approval processes. One third of staff also comment that processes are not streamlined and there is a lack of clear communication on decision-making responsibilities.
  • Confusion: Staff suggest that the confusion they experience is a symptom of the fast pace of change, further compounded by mixed messages and unclear roles and responsibilities.
  • Silo mentality: Staff suggest that silo mentality is reinforced through the lack of system integration and structural changes since integration that had broken up previously functioning teams.
  • Control: Staff refer to the ‘command and control’ culture within the department, explaining that they are not consulted rather told what to do. Staff suggest that this control can result in inefficiencies, with too many people involved in decisions. Other staff refer to their experience of control as a shift to enforcement and a move away from a people and humanitarian focus.
  • Cost reduction: Staff experience this in three key ways: a need to establish a fair and equitable enterprise agreement; concern over resourcing shortfalls which has placed additional strain on existing staff; and, a current lack of adequate investment in training.
  • Empire building: Staff note the tendency of some groups to focus on their own goals at the expense of others, impacting on resource and information sharing and the ability to release staff. Some staff also suggest that parts of the department operate in a “military style regime”.
  • Blame: Staff explain that when mistakes are made leaders look for someone to blame and this is role-modelled by senior leaders. Some participants also suggest that blame is placed as staff and leaders are unclear who is responsible. Staff further suggest that this has led to a culture of avoidance, as staff worry about getting it wrong.

And two “positive values”:

  • Brand image: Staff experience of mission focus was linked to greater clarity of mission and the emergence of a common goal that has united the two previous organisations. Staff commented that the standing up of the ABF has also energised the department towards a common mission — the protection of the Australian border. However, one in five staff indicate they do not view ‘mission focus’ as a positive value, rather as ‘narrow’ and ‘militaristic’, without an emphasis on people.
  • Mission focus: Staff suggest the new uniforms provide a positive and professional image. However, one in five staff do not see ‘brand image’ as a positive value, rather as ‘paramilitary’ and ‘exclusionary’ to non-uniformed staff.
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