Lloyd vs state governments: 'you're politicising the public service'

By Stephen Easton

March 6, 2017

The Australian Public Service Commissioner has accused the Victorian government of improperly dragging its public servants into politics at both state and federal levels, and believes that maintaining impartiality is a key role for public sector human resources leaders.

John Lloyd made it clear he has no time for firies handing out how-to-vote cards at the ballot box in a speech to an HR conference focused on local government last month. According to his speaking notes, the commissioner identifies public service impartiality as “the bedrock of our system of government” and believes it is under threat from his foes in public sector unions:

“The active engagement of Victorian government employees in state and federal election campaigns is wrong. CFA employees for example handed out how to vote cards and door knocked wearing uniforms. This would not be tolerated in the Commonwealth.”

Lloyd also questioned the Queensland government decision to make “support for the government’s agenda” a selection criterion for departmental heads. Given it is kind of the whole point of a public service boss in the Westminster system, he hopes the Commonwealth never gets to the point where it needs to be stated so explicitly. There is a simple answer for public servants who feel uncomfortable with the sitting government’s agenda, he said, echoing the blunt advice given by former Foreign Affairs and Trade boss Peter Varghese:

“The public service supports the Government of the day to implement its policies. If you are unable to support lawful directions to implement policy then you should resign.

“A professional public sector is one that conscientiously supports the government of the day, irrespective of who is in power. There can be no dilution of this obligation. HR has an important role to play in ensuring an impartial APS is maintained. It is one area where the opportunities to compromise are very very limited.”

Lloyd’s appointment by the Abbott government to the APSC was controversial and was criticised by pro-Labor commentators. He was the first Australian Building and Construction Commissioner and has had a long association with the right-leaning Institute for Public Affairs.

The fundamental issues for public sector HR apply across all three tiers, the commissioner said. Agency leaders always need to “think and act strategically” about the “people dimension” of programs they run and he believes they could make better use of detailed workforce metrics, like that which the APSC collects.

Keep in mind that employees at all levels of an organisation are unpredictable and so are the results of their collective work, Lloyd advised the local government conference. He added a reminder that “trust in governments” is shrinking across the board, so people are demanding more transparency and accountability, and argued HR needs to be front and centre:

“This is due to a number of factors including performance, community awareness and ubiquitous social media. It follows that the scrutiny on the APS, it’s performance, size, entitlements, financial management, responsiveness to business and the community is more intense.

“We have to develop workforce strategies that recognise these influences. Transparency and accountability are now embedded requirements of public administration.

“In the middle of all this is the HR Manager/Leader. They should be at the key decision and planning table. They should have the same status and CFO and CIO. This is not always the case.”

Good HR leaders demonstrate their credibility and the value they can add at high level, but also listen to line managers and keep building their own skills and that of their team, he added.

There is always tension between head office and local outposts, whose leaders “often have a strong desire to run their own show with minimal interference from HQ” and it’s always challenging, in Lloyd’s view. The individual “circumstances and culture” of the business will come into play, but he thinks giving “a lot of discretion” to local managers is often the answer.

Central HR bodies like his own should “establish and manage a good framework and get involved in solving persistent problems or dealing with issues with an organisational rather than local dimension” at the same time as leading large whole-of-government reforms.

Lloyd also ran through the current thinking on talent management, staff mobility, performance management and the future of work that prevails in the Commonwealth government, in the wide-ranging speech.

He said the APS had traditionally been “reticent to select and intensely develop talent” and was “more focussed on equity and perhaps a confidence that talented individuals would emerge from the competition for promotion and selection” in the past. Now, he says it is aggressively competing for the best staff and trying to invest in its top talent:

“Now we are selecting individuals of potential in the SES ranks. We are rigorously assessing their strengths and areas for development. We will formulate intensive plans for their development. The qualities we look for are that our leaders be entrepreneurial, collaborative, visionary, enabling, inspirational.

“We also accept that public sector leaders need the personal qualities of courage and resilience.”

Being unable to compete on remuneration with the private sector at senior levels means governments need to focus on offering an ‘interesting, varied and challenging career” in the public service as a “selling point” to attract high-grade candidates. But a good talent management system must also look beyond first impressions and recognise that people go through ups and downs, said Lloyd:

“I have seen employees who reach a stage where they reassess their goals or where a work or life event impacts their attitude to work. Sometimes a mediocre contributor becomes motivated and a standout. And the reverse can happen, where the person of potential flat lines and loses motivation. A talent development system has to be able to accommodate these features.”

Lloyd reiterated the tenets of his ongoing drive to reform the tired, old and overly process-driven APS performance management regime, and his belief that more staff mobility between various levels of government, private sector or not-for-profit organisations can only be a good thing for all employers.

The commissioner touched on how he sees the digital revolution and big data changing the modern workplace, referring to predictions that “40% of current jobs will disappear by 2030” which might mean “more flexible and productive work places populated with more interesting jobs” for some organisations.

He noted the decreasing proportion of APS jobs that are full-time and ongoing and the increased use of contractors, and highlighted that fact that the Department of Defence now has more contractors than staffers. Employers of all stripes love everything about workforce “flexibility” and Lloyd thinks a lot of employees do too:

“Many people, not all, embrace the opportunity to work in flexible ways. Others welcome the ability to control their own affairs through contracting in preference to being an employee. For government businesses it offers flexibility to make best use of resources by offering a better fit between work, business planning and budgets.

“I think we have to get involved with this. Basically get with it or be left behind.”

But it’s clear that a lot of employees see the benefits of the increasingly transient jobs that are on offer and the modern gig economy that in some cases is easier to break into, but also undermines wages and provides little job security. Lloyd believes younger people embrace this new world in particular; they “shun hierarchy and eschew a lasting connection to the firm or agency” and should be seen more like freelancers than loyal employees.

“The challenge for the HR Manager to create a productive and harmonious workplace will be significant. I think workplaces that excel have a partnership type of culture. The employer empowers the workers to be creative and reasonably committed.

“They have fair pay and conditions. The workers’ personal circumstances and life demands are accommodated. The employees are connected to the goals and operating challenges of the firm or agency and want the outfit to succeed. This sounds reasonable but is not easy to achieve.”

Demonstrating his own support for the government’s agenda, Lloyd said Australia’s labour market would need to significantly deregulated to be internationally competitive and fired another shot in his own extremely drawn-out enterprise bargaining battle, which remains unresolved for a large chunk of the APS workforce after several years:

“Unions generally appear to be well off the pace as they labour under old notions that bosses are about ripping off the worker and they are the moral guardians of the dignity of work. They are too embedded in a system and values that are disappearing and accordingly their membership languishes at historically very low figures.

“So the future of work challenge is complex. It engenders hope and opportunity for some and concern and despair for others. HR will play an influential in achieving a good outcome.”

To be their best, HR teams need to constantly get ahead of emerging trends, according to the APS commissioner. They must act as “an honest broker and trusted adviser of line areas” while helping leaders make sense of piles of personnel data and making valuable contributions to strategic plans.

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