Cubicle farms get the chop: bureaucrats told to go free range

By Stephen Easton

Thursday October 6, 2016

One of the biggest factors in employee engagement is boredom; most jobs involve doing at least some tasks over and over. At the same time, greater employee mobility is often touted as a better alternative to regular restructuring.

If a change is as a good as a holiday, as they say, then federal public servants should jump at the chance to fly the coop more often and apply their skills on secondment as “free range employees” who can be easily drafted in to fill capability gaps.

The Commonwealth human resources agency is taking applications for the register of mobile employees, who will be seconded to critical roles throughout the Australian Public Service as “determined by robust workforce planning and metrics” once Operation Free Range kicks off in 2017, an idea that came out of the recent APS WorkHack event.

“The idea you could map capabilities with workforce planning; that would be excellent.”

The project is billed as a pilot, which aims to “test the benefits of inter-agency immersive development experiences; work through the barriers that impact negatively on mobility between agencies; and evaluate the potential of the program for broader application across the APS”.

There will be a vetting process before applicants can be added to the free range list. A spokesperson for the Australian Public Service Commission told The Mandarin:

“The vetting process for applicants is still being developed. We will determine the criteria based on the needs of agencies participating in the pilot. The criteria will be robust and will ensure we have a list of talented people with the capability to be mobilised quickly to address business needs across the public service.”

Arrangements between home and host agencies are expected to be “negotiated flexibly” and as far as possible, “tailored” to meet the professional development goals of the free range public servants.

While secondments are nothing new, the centrally-run program “aligns employee capability with business priorities” across the service, according to the APSC, which enthuses: “Evidence from other sectors shows the potential for all parties to benefit from a supported mobility program.”

Employee mobility increases productivity, so the commission is keen to increase the 2.4 % of ongoing APS 1-6 staff and “only” 40% of Executive Level 1 and 2 staff who were seconded in the past five years.

According to some in the field of public administration, the standard structure of government bureaucracies might have outlived its usefulness.

Canberra-based University of New South Wales business professor Deborah Blackman favours any push to increase employee mobility, especially if it could reduce the frequency of machinery-of-government changes in response to changing priorities.

Instead of the silos created by the various agencies within departments and organisational clusters that are often rebuilt at the request of government, the public administration and human resources expert sees a lot of value in having a pool of public servants who can be easily deployed wherever their skills are most needed in response to changing circumstances and government policy.

“The idea you could map capabilities with workforce planning; that would be excellent,” she told The Mandarin.

From some of her research work, she says it’s clear that secondments are quite popular with both public servants and the agencies on the receiving end. Sometimes, however, managers are reluctant to let staff members go.

While the new program will still involve some give and take, Blackman suspects it will be less likely that managers will put the kibosh on secondments that take away staff who are on the centrally managed list, given their agencies will have formally agreed to participate in Operation Free Range.

The commission says home agencies will benefit through:

“The retention of valued staff, through providing professional development opportunities and expanded career pathways. Secondments offer the opportunity to share expertise and fresh ways of doing things, with staff returning to their home agency at the end of a time-limited project.”

For host agencies, the new form of secondment will “enable the formation of strong links and partnerships between agencies and enhance awareness of whole-of-government priorities” and, of course, participants might also gain new experience:

“The more mobile people are, the better they relate and communicate. Secondments develop skills and capability, provide new perspectives, build resilience and offer personal and professional growth that can enhance career opportunities.”

The government’s mobile minions will gain skills in “learning agility; self-awareness; comfort with ambiguity; and strategic thinking” which are important in “today’s complex, turbulent work environment” according to research from Harvard University cited by the APSC. They are supposed to develop “bigger minds” as well as new technical skills — and a related benefit is that variety might help the APS attract and retain younger staff.

It would also be a concrete step towards the more “agile” government that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would like to see, but has largely struggled to explain.

Success on unscheduled absences

Along with the need to increase mobility, another long-standing goal of the APSC is to reduce the rate of unscheduled absences, mainly from sick leave.

The APSC’s People Strategy team brings word in the commission’s October newsletter that the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science has had some success in this regard, bringing down unscheduled absences from 13.5 to 11.1 days over two years.

The result is attributed to the department’s “Employee Safeguard Plan” which involves “communicating clear expectations regarding attendance and spending time with employees who take frequent, unexplained absences”.

This is all part of a “multipronged approach” which “incorporates strategic HR initiatives aimed at improving psychological safety for all employees, more workplace support options and improved manager capability”.

The newsletter adds that return-to-work support for employees at DIIS has also led to “significantly lower workers compensation premiums”, and is supporting unwell employees through another new internal program called “Health Safeguard”.

This involves “psychosocial assessments, diversity initiatives, wellbeing programs and a mental health toolkit” as well as a pilot project investigating return-to-work interviews and the offer of working from home for employees with various health issues or short-term caring responsibilities.

Managers at Industry are supported through “information sessions, focussing on case studies, real life scenarios, building rapport, early intervention strategies and ongoing communication” both before and during discussions with “high users of unscheduled absences” — those who take 15 days of unscheduled absence over 12 months, or nine days of leave without medical evidence, or more.

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