Susan Ryan’s guide to ending discrimination in public sector jobs


The Human Rights Commission’s year-long Willing to Work inquiry urges governments to redouble their efforts to reduce employment discrimination against people with disabilities and older Australians, aiming some of its most prescriptive recommendations directly at public sector employment and procurement.

The headline proposals include a new Minister for Longevity in federal Cabinet to co-ordinate other frontbenchers in a whole-of-government response to the inquiry via a cabinet sub-committee, guided by an independent advisory board of experts and stakeholder representatives.

“Organisations that are inclusive and diverse report tangible benefits in terms of productivity, performance and innovation … ”

There is also a call for twin national strategies based on “targets, actions, performance indicators and timeframes” and supported by a publicly funded “network of outreach workers” who would go into businesses, plus as an expanded role for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, which would have general “diversity” added to its remit and monitor the progress of the national strategies.

Public sector agencies have two key roles in wearing down the barriers of discrimination, according to the comprehensive report signed off by Age and Disability Commissioner Susan Ryan, whose dual role will soon be taken over by separate commissioners.

Based on 342 submissions and 120 public consultations around the country, it notes that as well as being big role-model employers whose combined staff make up 12.5% of the national workforce, Australia’s nine government bureaucracies can also influence the nature of private sector employment as big spenders.

Along with the rights of the individuals who are held back from gainful employment by discrimination, it also explains why experts increasingly see a strong commercial case for workforce diversity at both the organisational and national level:

“Benefits to the Australian economy as a result of increased workforce participation are well established including increased gross domestic product (GDP), reduced overall welfare expenditure and increased self-reliance in retirement. A 7% increase in mature-age labour force participation would raise GDP in 2022 by approximately $25 billion, while an estimated $50 billion could be added to GDP by 2050 if Australia were to move up into the top eight OECD countries for employment of people with disability.

” … Organisations that are inclusive and diverse report tangible benefits in terms of productivity, performance and innovation while also having access to a broader talent pool and an improved organisational reputation.”

Procurement power

Among it’s highest-priority prescriptions to drive change, Ryan’s report argues governments should consider leveraging “the capacity to shape and influence the market” through procurement strategies to get more older people and people with disability into jobs.

It calls on the federal government specifically to push for change by favouring suppliers that make an effort to give everyone a fair go through workforce diversity strategies, non-discriminatory recruitment and retention practices, or voluntary targets they are actively trying to meet.

This recommendation must be particularly important; it appears twice, identically worded but numbered separately, presumably so we know it applies to both disadvantaged groups. It also comes with the caveat that any new hoops for suppliers to jump through should not disadvantage smaller employers.

While there is already a provision in the Commonwealth Procurement Rules that allows public servants to give disability service providers a leg-up, the inquiry found the more extensive and quite successful Indigenous Procurement Policy “an excellent model” for stronger procurement policies that would aim to lift workforce participation among older people and people with disabilities.

Public sector employment

Education campaigns about the often unseen reality of employment discrimination feature prominently in Ryan’s recommendations, and she wants them to run concurrently in the community and throughout the nation’s public sector organisations.

Some of the inquiry’s longest and most complex recommendations are aimed squarely at the public service commissions of all nine jurisdictions, urging them forge stronger policies to recognise and reduce conscious discrimination as well as unconscious bias in recruitment.

On both disability and age discrimination, it recommends “both sector-wide and agency-specific publicity and/or education campaigns led by champions in each agency” to make the case for reform and convince public servants that affirmative action does not detract from the merit principle.

The Human Rights Commission also calls on every public service to “adopt sector-wide and agency-specific targets based on workforce data, build performance against these targets into performance management systems, and report on progress annually to public service commissions and in annual reports”.

All positions should be deemed “flexible” unless there are “sound documented reasons” for them not to be, according to the report, and the Australian Public Service should extend its currently limited RecruitAbility program to give people with disability a shot at all advertised positions.

Managers and human resources officers would also get “targeted long-term training” to give the new stronger diversity strategies a chance to succeed, under the recommendations. This would cover:

  • the benefits of employing older people and people with disability respectively and of a diverse workforce generally;
  • debunking common myths about health and safety risks, costs and absenteeism;
  • the nature of discrimination in employment;
  • flexible work practices;
  • availability of support and resources, such as to adjust workplaces for people with disability; and
  • how and where to obtain information and advice, including about various disabilities and what support they require

Working the public sector with a disability

Ryan’s report suggests all governments look into establishing staff networks for employees with disability and trying to replicate the success of the Northern Territory’s Disability Employment Program.

A key issue for people with disability who work in government jobs is they often need special equipment but find it is not immediately available. The report argues that procurement policies should ensure that agencies only ever buy information and communications technology that is designed so anyone can use it, explaining:

“Accessibility in ICT, sometimes called inclusive design, digital inclusion or universal usability focuses on making technology available to and usable by all people, whatever their abilities.”

As well as recommending that all eight governments “mandate the purchase of accessible ICT” for their staff, Ryan’s team considered what definition of “accessible” they might apply. Standards Australia is currently working on adapting a European standard for exactly that, so there is the recommendation that all jurisdictions “actively participate in the discussions”.

The federal Department of Finance has already committed to add the forthcoming standard to the Commonwealth Procurement Rules, according to the report, but just to be clear, it recommends:

“That the Australian Government require all new technology products and software used in the Australian Public Service meets accessible design guidelines currently being developed by Standards Australia. In leading the implementation of the standards, it is also recommended that government facilitate an accessible ICT champions group with key employers and industry groups to embed the standards more widely across the Australian ICT landscape.”

Ryan also thinks the Commonwealth should “implement service level standards to drive a whole-of-government approach to accessible ICT procurement and development” and her report adds:

“These standards should apply to all ICT whether procured externally or developed in-house by an APS agency and should ensure that staff are adequately trained to implement accessible standards.”

The inquiry confirmed that employment rates for people with disability in all public services — between 1.3% and 3.3% — are much lower than the figure of 8.8% for the overall Australian workforce, and on the decline in most jurisdictions, except the ACT in recent years. The report adds:

While it is not possible to establish causation, it is also notable that the ACT is the only jurisdiction that has sector-wide initiatives, including targets for employment of people with disability, and the appointment of a ‘Whole of Government Inclusions Manager’.

The Victorian government, on the other hand, could not provide any data on how many people with disability it employs and its public service commission “does not have the power or responsibility to deal with equal employment matters across government”.

The inquiry found most jurisdictions had programs in place to monitor and increase employment rates, and ensure employees with disability are supported and treated fairly, but couldn’t assess their effectiveness:

“… in most cases the Inquiry was not able to acquire reliable or objective evidence on whether programs and initiatives had been evaluated, or what the outcomes of evaluation were. Some initiatives in some jurisdictions were able to refer to conclusions of ‘reviews’ but none seemed to be able to provide robust objective evidence to support the conclusions.”
The report comments on the APS As One program as “one of the more robust and formal approaches” but still found it could have been subject to much more objective assessment. In general, the inquiry concluded that devolved approaches which leave responsibility with individual agencies are not working and:
“The absence of objective data, formal evaluations, monitoring or reporting leads the Inquiry to conclude that there is significant room for improvement.”

Fair go for older Australians

The inquiry found the expectation that governments should be model employers alive and well, but the fact that plenty of older public servants keep their jobs is masking the problem for others on the outside.

State and federal public services are generally older than the wider Australian workforce, but data indicates that is a result of retention rather than recruitment, with new recruits aged under 45 outnumbering those over 45 by almost five times. According to the report:

“Given the larger proportions of older workers in the public service, many public service managers, perhaps understandably, do not perceive that there is a problem.

“This might help to contextualise the lack of strategies or initiatives found by the Inquiry to ensure that public service recruitment processes and employment practices are inclusive and non-discriminatory towards older workers.

“There are also few measures in place to maximise the retention of older workers. Those that were identified to the Inquiry were limited to the availability of flexible or transition to retirement arrangements.”

The APS commission agreed that older people are less likely to win entry-level roles “because they are seen as a role for a young person, who will move on to a career and move up in public service”. Ryan’s report wants mandarins to recognise “the presence of older workers per se does not necessarily mean that employment and retention practices and workplace cultures are inclusive and non-discriminatory”.

One submission quoted in the report comments that there is no clear and specific policy against age discrimination in the APS and suggests the APSC “needs to show leadership by deliberately mandating recruitment policies that do not discriminate against older applicants, and, instead, provide practical incentives for hiring them”.

A significant number of submissions and consultations indicated anecdotal evidence of age discrimination in public service recruitment. The inquiry repeatedly heard that in the public services:

  • there is an aversion to employing and retaining older staff;
  • older staff are targeted for redundancies during contractionary periods;
  • older staff are pressured to retire;
  • older staff are overlooked for development opportunities, training and promotion; and
  • older staff do not feel valued, experience discrimination, and may find themselves in an environment which inhibits them from contributing to their workplaces as fully as they could.

According to some contributors, recruitment agencies are often brutally honest about the fact that APS agencies are reluctant to interview over-45s, while others felt sure they were unfairly knocked out of contention for various roles based primarily on their age.

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