Diversity, discrimination, bullying and harassment: APS returns to the data

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday August 14, 2018

The Australian Public Service Commission is months away from publishing its first update on 2014 workforce data suggesting public servants with a disability report twice as much bullying and harassment at work as their peers.

That alarming statistic came in the diversity section of the 2013-14 State of the Service report, the last published under former commissioner Stephen Sedgwick, before the APSC began changing its approach to publishing.

It moved to shorter, more regular updates through a State of the Service blog, which made its high-volume information output easier to digest but also reduced the quantity of information and quality of statistical analysis provided in the annual flagship report, to the dismay of commentator Verona Burgess.

Sedgwick’s final SoS report noted the ominous figure — 30% who ticked the disability box on the staff census also said they had been bullied or harrassed in the preceding year, compared to 15% among the rest of the APS — was only a slight increase on the previous year, when it was 29%.

This group of public servants was also consistently less satisfied with just about everything that added up to employee engagement: their own jobs, remuneration, work groups and immediate supervisors, as well as the senior executives of their agencies. The report said the commission was “planning further research in 2015 to gain more insight into these findings” at the time.

We asked the commission if it ever did the further research in 2015 on the experiences of people with disabilities in the APS and if so, what the results were. A spokesperson only said:

“The Australian Public Service (APS) recognises the importance of a diverse and inclusive culture. We continue to use our research to implement initiatives and strategies aimed at improving employment experiences and outcomes for a range of diversity groups.”

There’s been no further updates since 2014, but there will be soon. Last week an APSC spokesperson told The Mandarin that “in coming months” we could expect a progress report on the APS disability employment strategy with new data on “work experiences” plus another on how well the gender equality strategy is going.

Feeling included in the team

One positive in the 2013-14 employee census was broad agreement with the statement: “The people in my work group are accepting of people from diverse backgrounds.”

In 2013-14, this optimistic view mostly held up even when specific groups were singled out; even 82% of people with declared disability agreed. So did 83% of staff who declared Indigenous background, 85% of those from non-English speaking backgrounds and 87% of mature-age staff.

In each case, a comparison figure for the rest of the APS outside of that particular group was only a few points higher at most. But again, the biggest disparity (6%) was found between staff who declared disability and those who did not.

The old SoS report provided a wealth of statistics for all these groups plus women, showing how people from different groups thought to be at risk of discrimination actually have quite different views about what qualifies as bullying, harassment or discrimination, on average.

For example, mature-age public servants and those from non-English speaking backgrounds were both slightly less likely than the rest of the APS to say they had been bullied or harassed in the previous year.

The updated statistics related to people with disabilities that are coming soon will follow a progress report for the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy, published in May, which included some information on discrimination, bullying and harassment.

Indigenous staff in the APS

The new publication revealed that in the 2017 survey, 31.5% of self-identified Indigenous APS staff said they had been discriminated against in their current or former agency, and “1 in 5” reported they had been bullied or harassed.

It doesn’t provide stats for comparison with the broader workforce, unlike Sedgwick’s final SoS report, but it looks like that second number is slowly going in the right direction. Four years ago, bullying or harassment was reported by 23% of APS employees who identified themselves as Indigenous, compared to 16% for the rest of the APS.

The 2014 report also included figures for formal complaints: 44% of the Indigenous group had formally reported their perceived bullying or harassment through the proper channels, versus 37% for the rest of the APS.

The number of APS staff who choose to identify as Indigenous has grown markedly since the 2015-18 strategy set a goal of 3% by 2018. As of mid-2017 the number was 4,821 or 3.2% — more than at any time in the past 15 years, according to this year’s progress report, which notes this occurred even as the total workforce shrunk by 1.1%.

“Over the lifetime of the Strategy, the representation of Indigenous employees in the Commonwealth public sector has increased from 2.2 per cent at 30 June 2015 to 2.7 per cent at 30 June 2017. This is an overall increase of 1,332 employees, or 19.4 per cent.”

This growth has come mainly in the lower rungs of the hierarchy, although there was a 0.6% uptick at senior executive level. “Currently, the APS relies heavily on entry level recruitment to increase the representation of Indigenous employees,” the update explains; 86.6% came in at or below the APS level 4 in 2016-17.

There have been corresponding declines in the proportion of self-identified Indigenous staff who work in APS levels 5 and 6, and in executive levels 1 and 2.

The update also notes the median length of service among Indigenous public servants is four years lower than the APS overall median, and suggests that as one would expect, percentage-based diversity targets are easier to hit with scale; 43 agencies have no employees who identify as Indigenous, and 29 of those have fewer than 100 employees.

The 2014 SoS report noted people in this group “were generally positive about their employment experiences” in their survey responses. On average, they were more satisfied with their supervisors and agencies than  everyone else.

This year’s update shows some positive results in the 2017 APS Employee Census: 69.3% of Indigenous respondents “feel secured within their current role” and “almost 75 per cent reported that they enjoy their work and are satisfied with their current job”.

Mission accomplished?

While the Indigenous employment strategy has achieved its main goal — overall representation of people who identify as Indigenous to above 3% — the APSC says the statistics show there is more work to be done.

Its nine recommendations convey the message that agencies just need to stick to the plan, but are very generic and extremely short on specific, actionable guidance.

Portfolio departments should take the lead and smaller agencies should look to them for support, according to the review. It reminds leaders that “improving the opportunities afforded” to Indigenous staff is just as important as increasing their numbers.

“Agencies need to build internal reporting and data capability to better understand their workforce demographics,” the report continues. “This will assist in embedding diversity and inclusion into everyday work practices.”

A vague reference to using this data to adjust policy around job classifications and functions follows. Next, it is “paramount” that agencies use “lateral recruitment opportunities, internal mobility and contemporary recruitment practices” in aiming for diversity targets.

To get more Indigenous people into jobs above entry-level, the advice is: “More innovative and flexible approaches to recruitment, retention, and development need to be utilised to bring about meaningful and lasting cultural change.”

The report also recommends the elusive management cure-all of cultural change as a key remedy for bullying and harassment, but says nothing on how to bring it about in this exact context. It adds that agencies need “safety mechanisms” to protect staff who report incidents, which is clear enough, but also to “address unintended discrimination” in some way that is not explained.

Finally, “manager capability” is important. “Agencies should consider ensuring all managers are culturally competent and trained in addressing bias in decision making processes,” according to the terse progress update.

Conspicuously, the commission does not recommend agencies make a clear and strong stand against discrimination or employees negatively impacting others just because they are different in some inconsequential way.

The APSC plans to run a full summative evaluation when the Indigenous employment strategy has run its course at the end of this calendar year. This evaluation will involve detailed consultation with agencies, Indigenous employees, and the Indigenous SES network to understand the perception of the effectiveness of targets and the overall success of the strategy.

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