Why do 98% of APS stay in the same organisation? Secretaries want to find out

By Harley Dennett

Friday March 23, 2018

Why move organisations? Australian Public Service senior leaders offered their reasons.

It was a left-field question, a stray bullet, for a forum about policymaking, but struck a chord with the public service’s senior leaders who have clearly been grappling with it themselves.

In the last APS statistical bulletin figures, staff mobility was just 2.1%.

A former Foreign Affairs and Trade official who recently moved to the ACT government asked the panel of senior government leaders at the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s Doing Policy Differently forum yesterday what leaders could do to make mobility easier.

When you’re relatively junior in your career, have a mortgage and possibly children, it can be scary, the questioner noted.

Clinging too long

The first response was probably not what most junior public servants want to hear. Dr Heather Smith, secretary of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, noted the statistical likelihood that most young people will have multiple careers throughout their lifetime. When your time is up is still somewhat tied to when you’ve stopped being effective in your current role.

“It’s not necessarily the scariness of changing jobs, it’s really knowing a point [in time], whether it’s through your performance management process, whether it’s through the skills you’re developing, whether you’re keeping your freshness and looking for opportunities, and constantly asking how can I do this better, should I go and do something else. It’s actually thinking about your career management.”

Moving prepares you for collaboration

Smith also warned against the trap of assuming skills are all you’re picking up when you move around. In the public service, effectiveness is closely related to collaboration, and the networks, relationships and understanding of organisation cultures could be more useful than subject matter:

“In order to be a really effective public servant going forward, if you stay in the public sector — where you do have that stability — you’re going to be so much more influential by understanding no so much the content that you have, but how you understand culture and institutions and how you apply that in another institution to get better outcomes. It’s all about that collaborative ability and having those networks and relationships. That’s what you get from mobility, not — from my point of view — what different skill sets.”

It’s what promotion boards look for

Frances Adamson, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, says mobility is a factor for the people who run the promotion rounds.

“It’s easy to say ‘move’,” Adamson admits, “and we like to encourage you to move and do the mobility thing because we know the people who do that are the people in our future leadership.

“I know that when we run promotion rounds at SES Band 3, the people who do the strongest, the people who come through the whole thing are the people who see things from a number of different perspectives and have that experience.”

It wouldn’t be so scary if more people did it, Adamson notes, drawing on the dire APS statistical bulletin figures. “In order to encourage more people to do it, you’ve got to make it easier, and just as with women in leadership, or elements of diversity, that is something that could benefit from greater thinking and practical conversations and consultation.”

Read more at The Mandarin: What really bothers your secretary.

Top image supplied by IPAA ACT.

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