Broadly speaking, governments and citizens can be reasonably satisfied with the federal public service – or the Australian Public Service, as it has been designated since the days of the Whitlam government in the 1970s.
Of course, it has shortcomings. They’re the result of lots of things, not the least of which is the poor quality of many of the reviews inflicted on it, especially over the past twenty-five years or so. The latest in this lamentable line-up is a “workforce management contestability review” sponsored by the Department of Finance, written by businesswoman Sandra McPhee and pretentiously titled Unlocking Potential: If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?
Whatever her qualifications for the task, and they’re not apparent, McPhee’s report displays a marked insensitivity to the specifics of personnel management in the public sector. Its fundamental method is to pile cliché after cliché on top of motherhood statements and mix up the brew with dozens of abstract nouns that could mean everything or nothing (but mostly nothing). McPhee is keen on “driving high performance,” for example, along with “workforce agility,” a “compelling employee value proposition,” “portfolio careers,” “linear upwards promotion” (could there be a downwards promotion?) and “sophisticated data analytics.”
Yet when she gets to “data analytics” she makes a hash of it. Her calculations about productivity losses on account of delays in recruitment, for example, are not worth a pinch of salt.
The report is larded with silly statements. The APS “needs to attract the very best people” is an impossible objective if it means it always needs to get the very best. It never has been able to do so and it never will. We are now in an “environment of increasing complexity” – compared to what? The environment Australia faced during the two world wars and their aftermaths, or faced with the 30-plus per cent unemployment of the 1930s? There’s real complexity for you. McPhee also says that the APS “needs to get smaller.” That’s just ideological thinking. The public service needs to be the minimum size necessary to do what governments want it to do efficiently and effectively.
McPhee also takes it upon herself to redefine the meaning of words. For example, she says that “agile employees are problem solvers, collaborative and resilient through change.” Steady up. Agile simply means nimble or quick-moving. This doesn’t mean that agile staff are good problem-solvers, and they may well be less collaborative than others because of their impulsive urge to do something, anything, so long as it can be done quickly. Resilience? There’s no reason to think that the agile are any more resilient than any others. McPhee looks as if she’s mimicking a prime minister who likes agility, but that’s no reason to give the word a vogue it can’t support.
The report not only gets many big things wrong, it also errs on smaller stuff. For example, McPhee says that the 1984 policy and legislative changes in the APS “had the catchphrase ‘let the managers manage’.” They did not; indeed, they were in some ways hostile to that notion. Further, she says that enterprise bargaining was introduced to the APS in 1997. In fact, it was introduced in the early 1990s by the Keating government. In themselves these errors are trivial, but they raise doubts about whether McPhee has failed to compensate for her lack of public sector experience by studying basic documentation relevant to her review.
While most of McPhee’s review is bad, it contains fragments of good. For example, she wants probationary service after appointments to be taken more seriously. She also recommends a more centralised approach to graduate recruitment, which is what applied until the 1980s. (But did McPhee use any “sophisticated data analytics” to discover whether recruitment delays, something she ardently opposes, are a feature of centralised versus decentralised methods?) In another return to the past, the review suggests more centrally designed and conducted induction training, especially for senior staff. That’s sensible, but again there’s no sign that any effort was made to discover why this practice withered on the vine.
McPhee is right to urge a better approach to something called “talent management.” The methods she recommends to achieve this noble aim are, however, a mass of further process and red tape. She believes that departmental secretaries should be “accountable for talent management,” which seems right; they’re responsible for selecting staff, after all. But then she says in relation to SES Bands 2 and 3 that “the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the public service commissioner should lead talent management for these critical cohorts.” This is to confuse responsibility. Moreover, how the prime minister and the cabinet secretary and the public service commissioner could properly “lead talent management” for some 650 staff at the Band 2 and 3 levels is impossible to imagine.
Further, McPhee recommends the creation of an unspecified number of “talent councils” composed of agency heads and Band 2 and 3 staff, which would “make decisions about developing and deploying critical talent across the APS.” But hang on, by law, departmental secretaries are responsible for making decisions about “deploying critical talent” in their departments. There’s no rational reason why the law should be changed to require them to bow to the will of “talent councils” wishing to put Jack or Jill in their organisations, or take them away. In effect, McPhee is proposing any number of new interdepartmental committees, bodies that have traditionally had all the agility of woolly mammoths. How these groups of busy people could effectively come to grips with partly managing the placement and development of tens of thousands staff (if, as McPhee suggests, graduates are to come within their purview) is unimaginable.
Talent management (let’s say it means the best possible placement of staff in jobs, and making sure they’re trained and developed, including by different work experience) should remain an essential responsibility of heads of agencies and their line supervisors. A more systematic approach to senior staffing aided and assisted by advice from the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the public service commissioner, or secretaries of other departments, may be useful in helping to provide wider experiences for senior staff, for example, including secondments for special tasks. Agency heads could also provide information in a more organised way about those who may be suitable for secretaryships and other top positions. But the suggestion that “talent councils” should “make decisions” about the placement and development of staff is nuts, contrary to current law and wholly inconsistent with McPhee’s recommendation that secretaries should “be accountable for talent management.”
McPhee’s consideration of merit in staffing is the darkest part of her report. “The legislative description of merit is unclear,” she says, and she would like it to be reconsidered. She doesn’t explain or analyse her assertion and she makes no suggestion as to how the definition might be improved. A clever drafter may be able to devise a sharper legal version, but mucking around with it risks giving the impression, for scant benefit, that merit is a mutable plaything of legislative drafters.
However that be, it should not be redefined to fit with McPhee’s thinking. She gives the game away when she says that “a modified approach to merit should be deployed… where an employee has already established their credentials as the best person for the job.” But how can anyone be confident that any individual is the “best person for the job” without an open competition? If McPhee’s recipe were to be adopted, it would be open to agencies to manipulate merit by, for example, arranging for a person to act in a job for a year or so then, if his or her performance is satisfactory, put their hands on their hearts and assert, without justification, that this person is the best for the job. That’s not a “modified approach to merit”; it’s an abrogation of it. It would open the door to cronyism and patronage, reducing efficiency and effectiveness, and public confidence in the integrity of the public service. Quite a recipe.
McPhee’s report is also startling for what it doesn’t say. In ninety-odd pages on personnel management, including recruitment and staff mobility, she makes no reference whatsoever to a core element of her subject, the system for fixing pay and conditions of employment. This is a striking omission, because at the moment this system is a gaping wound. Policy requires any improvements in remuneration to be 100 per cent offset by gains in productivity.
Because productivity cannot be measured in almost any public sector organisation, increased pay or conditions cannot be justified and management and staff and unions are left with nothing they can realistically negotiate about. Without an end in sight, more than two years of agonising, sham negotiations have put great strains on levels of trust between agency managements and their staff, and left some 80 per cent of public servants without a pay increase in that period. McPhee’s failure to address this shambles leaves us only to speculate about how she might square it with her “compelling employee value propositions.”
Further, as industrial relations negotiations are now conducted on an agency basis, pay and conditions are a crazy quilt of inexplicable and significant differences. Thus, people at the same classification are paid quite different amounts according to where they work. One of McPhee’s concerns is to promote greater mobility between public service agencies, but differential levels of remuneration almost certainly inhibit it.
Space is too scarce to comment on many more of the McPhee report’s failings, including its unjustified calls for more fixed-period appointments and temporary employment, and its potential undermining of the classification system in ways that would cause another bout of classification inflation. But enough is enough.
Except to mention that McPhee seems to have a quirky sense of humour. She calls for “blame free” sacking of the incompetent or those whose talents are thought to be no longer required, and suggests that those in the firing line (no pun intended) see it “as a normal part of the employment cycle.” She also latches onto an idea, supposedly from New Zealand, that the dispossessed might become “ambassadors” for the organisations that gave them the flick. Those affected might be disappointed that, having had a shadow cast over the rest of their working lives, attempts might be made to deny them the chance to be angry.
Finally, McPhee’s report, which was signed off at the end of last year and has only just seen the light of day, has apparently been agreed to by the Secretaries Board, one of whose legal responsibilities is to “model leadership behaviours.” Irony rarely comes with a sharper barb. •