Variety is the spice of work life, public servants and HR boss agree

By Stephen Easton

November 4, 2016

The Australian Public Service Commission has been gladly watching federal public servants change jobs increasingly often over the past few years, and wants the trend to continue.

So do a lot public servants, it seems. This year’s APS employee survey found over half who responded had applied for a different job the preceding year, mostly with a different agency.

Attitudinal questions on the APS employee census also confirm public servants like having opportunities to move around and try their hand on different projects with different teams. Senior executives see a lot more of those opportunities than those below them, however. According to the commission’s State of the Service blog:

“Almost three quarters of SES respondents agreed that their agency provides opportunity for workplace mobility, while less that half of APS level employees reported the same. Around 60 per cent of staff at all levels agreed that workplace mobility should be more common in their agency.”

The mobility rate — the combined rate of transfers and promotions — hit a high point of 3.1% of the APS workforce in 2007 and went through a couple of ups and downs before dropping to 1.1% in 2014, when only 0.2% of federal bureaucrats landed a more senior job and 0.8% transferred between agencies.

Commissioner John Lloyd has made it plain that he sees turnover as a good thing for the Commonwealth workforce, and the APSC reports the mobility rate began to turn around last financial year, reaching 1.6% for 2015 and 2.4% for 2016.

The likelihood of getting a promotion or moving sideways to a different agency increases with seniority, as one might expect. Up to and including APS level 5, over 80% of staff have worked for only one APS agency, while 41.5% of SES officers have worked for two or three and a third have experience in four or more.

There’s no surprise either that younger public servants are more interested in taking on temporary transfers, and that this interest generally wanes with age.

Lloyd has also been promoting movement between public and private sector jobs, by setting up a new “secondment service” and discussing private sector placements for APS staff with bodies like the Business Council of Australia, but the State of the Service data doesn’t cover how successful these measures have been.

And while over 60% of agencies have a program in place that is supposed to promote and encourage employees moving around internally, only about 17% have a policy around encouraging their staff to gain private sector experience.

About 40% have policies encouraging stints in different APS agencies and 28% recognise and support the value of work with public sector entities outside the federal sphere. According to the APSC:

“Many agencies that indicated they did not have a formal mobility policy in place noted that they were still supportive and encouraging of mobility, regularly encouraging staff development through transfers and secondments.”

Operation Free Range, the recently announced pilot program to create a pool of officially mobile public servants, is the next hope to ramp up mobility back to its 2007 peak of 3.1% and beyond.

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