Turnbull govt under pressure over blind recruiting for APS after Liberal Council vote

By Stephen Easton

Monday June 18, 2018

Alongside headline-grabbing proposals to sell the ABC and move Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the Liberal Party’s federal council has voted in favour of blind recruiting throughout the Australian Public Service.

The party’s peak forum for debating federal issues has reportedly adopted the policy as a way to reinforce merit-based recruitment that neither favours Anglo-Saxon and male candidates, nor provides a boost to the number of women and ethnic minorities in the workforce.

“It’s not about promoting minorities or creating barriers for minorities,” said Canberra-based Liberal policy convenor Ed Cocks, in comments reported by The Sunday Telegraph political editor Annika Smethurst.

Cocks, who has worked at the Department of Health since 1999 and stood for election to the ACT Legislative Assembly in 2016, will now lobby the Minister responsible for the APS, Kelly O’Dwyer, to take up the idea after an “overwhelming vote” in favour of the policy, according to the article.

The idea of blind recruiting has become very popular in human resources circles, as one measure to increase workforce diversity by removing bias — often said to be unconscious bias — against women and candidates who are older than most, those born and educated overseas, or people whose names are unfamiliar or hard for English speakers to pronounce. But the research is not as clear-cut as many people in the people-business believe.

“The jury’s out and more research needs to be done, because we don’t know if it works or not,” explained human resources academic Sue Williamson, a PhD-qualified researcher at the UNSW Canberra Business School.

Blanking these personal attributes out is logically supposed to give every applicant a fair chance of an interview by levelling the playing field, on the basis that it is already tipped in favour of Anglo-Saxon men in Australia.

But while there is reason to believe this holds true across the overall labour market, APS-specific research by the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (BETA) suggested the playing field might have already tipped the other way in the federal bureaucracy.

Getting an interview is only the first stage, of course, and is not certain that the results of the experimental trial accurately reflect how real recruitment decisions are made in the APS, either. More research including a blind recruiting pilot using real jobs could shed further light on this.

But either way, the political divide is clearly between those who believe in affirmative action policies and those who do not, preferring the idea of an equal chance for all candidates.

As BETA pointed out, its findings suggested agencies should consider abandoning blind recruiting — if they wanted this unofficial affirmative action to continue in the hope of boosting their workforce diversity, which is widely believed to be a factor that improves organisational performance.

It appears that Liberal representatives would prefer that any bias in favour of diversity — sometimes called positive discrimination — did not continue, if it really is happening.

In the course of her research, Williamson has found middle managers in the public service have mixed feelings about the idea.

“Managers are reluctant to use blind recruitment because they think it undermines their agency as managers, and if you’re trying to address unconcious bias, managers can do that themselves in other ways,” she told The Mandarin.

“So basically we just don’t know whether or not it works.”

She contends that a lot more research would have to be done before introducing a blanket blind recruiting policy to the APS. In Williamson’s view, the first BETA study was a “really good starting point” but she cautions that if the government does want to introduce the policy, it should do so on a trial basis to begin with.

Of course, Liberal parliamentarians are not obliged to enact the council’s views, as Malcolm Turnbull and other ministers have repeatedly explained, as they work to assure the nation they won’t be taking up the two far more controversial positions adopted by their party colleagues over the weekend.

The votes “do carry considerable weight as the stated position of the organisation on a range of policy issues”, however, according to the Liberal website.

It is likely that this new support for blind recruiting is linked with the suspicion that public sector diversity targets — such as those aiming to drive gender equality or increase the representation of people from Indigenous backgrounds — undermine the merit principle.

Sceptics of affirmative action typically argue that it is just another kind of discrimination, and see policies like blind recruiting as an alternative.

The Mandarin has contacted the Liberal Party for more details about the federal council meeting, as well as the Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, Kelly O’Dwyer, for the government’s view.

More to come…

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