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Public servants no longer able to snoop on job rivals

The successful job applications of federal bureaucrats used to be open to public scrutiny.

The successful job applications of federal bureaucrats used to be open to public scrutiny. Photo: Lyn Osborn

Public servants can no longer read the job applications of rivals who beat them to a promotion, the information watchdog has ruled.

People have long been able to use freedom of information law to access almost all details about government recruits, including their job applications, referee reports and any notes made by selection panels.

However, Australian Information Commissioner John McMillan has moved to protect bureaucrats' privacy following a disputed promotion in the Department of Human Services.

Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan.

Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan. Photo: Gary Schafer

Professor McMillan, who oversees FOI and privacy law, was convinced by changes in privacy legislation, community attitudes and internet technology, which made it easier to disclose personal details "to the world at large".

A male worker at the department, "Y", had applied for a job in 2011, which was won by a female colleague, "X".

Y and another unsuccessful candidate asked Merit Protection Commissioner Ann Godwin to review the decision, though a review committee affirmed X was the best candidate.

Y then filed an FOI request for the documents related to the decision, and Ms Godwin's office agreed to release: a four-page selection summary; a comparison of the applicants; X's job application, resume and claims against the selection criteria; her referee report; and nine pages of handwritten comments the selection panel had made about her. Some details, such as X's name, phone and date of birth, were censored.

Ms Godwin's office also decided Y could view, but not keep a copy of, X's submission to the promotion review committee, which included photocopies of her awards and qualifications.

However, X challenged the decision to disclose her personal information, expressing fears for her personal security and safety.

She was also concerned Y might alter or misuse the documents, which she had given in confidence, and said she believed he had made false accusations about her in the promotions appeals process.

She also said she and Y worked alongside each other and disclosing her private information would affect their professional relationship and potentially ruin her reputation.

Professor McMillan acknowledged the law had previously deemed that "a successful applicant's [job] claims should be opened to public scrutiny and their claim to privacy should be deemed as abandoned".

But he pointed to growing concerns about how the internet could be used to breach bureaucrats' privacy.

"Material that is published on the web may remain publicly available for an indefinite period," Professor McMillan said.

"It may cause anxiety to a public servant that material about their suitability for a particular appointment can be publicly available long after the appointment and to an indeterminate audience.

"There is also a growing and understandable concern that personal information that is made available on the web can be misused or used differently by others; for example, for identity profiling or theft or unwanted contact."

He ruled that Y could access the selection panel's summary of its decision to give X the job – with her identifying details removed – but not the other documents.

Public servants regularly doubt the merit of recruitment, though few lodge a formal challenge.

The 2008 Whistleblowing in the Australian Public Sector study found one in three federal bureaucrats said they had direct evidence of favouritism in a hiring or promotion decision.

However, the Merit Protection Commissioner received just 44 requests to review a promotion in 2012-13.

19 comments

  • "Public servants regularly doubt the merit of recruitment" due to concerns about nepotism and cronyism. Private enterprise has some degree of protection - a privately owned organisation has the owner's natural concern about maximising their returns that help ensure the best person gets the job, and public companies have the obligation of directors. The public service has no such protection.

    Ministers generally refuse to take any sort of responsibility for the departments/agencies in their care, leaving management to do generally whatever they want. The public service has no real independent monitor, so staff who feel they have been disadvantaged have no real recourse.

    One possible (probable) outcome is a public service that friends and relatives gain control of areas of it, increasingly populating it with like-minded people, leaving a public service with its own agenda and that is far less efficient than it would otherwise be.

    We get the government we deserve, and we get the public service we deserve.

    Commenter
    John
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    February 10, 2014, 9:00AM
    • Very true......and nepotism gets worse when the govs make jobs scarce.
      So we end up with clever people sitting at home that could make a real difference in our society.
      Pollies are not setting a good example either, when they fill up their offices with family members and acquaintances, and then those same office staff somehow end up in the political party as a politician in the senate..

      Commenter
      Jeffrey M
      Date and time
      February 10, 2014, 10:39AM
  • Firstly, its not a promotion when you have to apply for a new position, its a job application. promotiion is upward movement without having to apply for the position as a new job. Defence uses the promotion system, APS dont. When was the last time an APS4 left on Friday and came to work on Monday as an APS5 without having to apply for the higher job? long long time ago. re the story above, i guess some people dont like being out done.

    Commenter
    Fred
    Location
    NT
    Date and time
    February 10, 2014, 9:33AM
    • Thanks, Fred. I think it works differently depending on the workplace and the individual job. The Merit Protection Commissioner regularly sets up promotion review committees to examine "promotion" decisions, and they're usually contested promotions that involve applications and multiple, competing candidates.

      Commenter
      Markus Mannheim
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      February 10, 2014, 9:50AM
    • Public servants MUST apply for promotions, they can't just move up a level based on performance. Such rounds MUST be open to the public, so seeking promotion can be scary.

      Another way of getting promoted is to apply for a role in a different section (where your mate works), get the offer and then choose not to move sections. This is equally annoying practice for some of the management levels because you find people can creep into roles without the position ever being advertised.

      APS is a beast that I don't think anybody fully understands except for politicians... that whistle blower nurse comes to mind. Her whistle blowing exposed a fault in the Labor party... Johnny Howard gave her a senior executive position straight away, then she was gifted a seat in parliament. Happens!

      Commenter
      Sonny Bill
      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 3:59PM
  • A very timely move, no doubt the public service will end up with all liberal party members and family of liberal politicians. It will become a closed shop no different to how the Vatican in Rome is controlled, not in the interest of its catholic members but in the interest of the money trail. For those people out there who are jumping for joy about a Royal Commission into the Union Movement had better be aware this country is now on a very slippery slope of having a federal government in power that will have huge elements of corruption in its members and lobbyists that this country has never seen before.

    Commenter
    Sandra
    Location
    4209
    Date and time
    February 10, 2014, 9:51AM
    • Are you serious Sandra? The public service has more left-leaning staff than just about any workforce short of a Union.

      Commenter
      BAG
      Date and time
      February 10, 2014, 2:22PM
  • There will always be a candidate that feels that the successful applicant is not up to the job. I once missed out on a job because there was no-one suitable to relpace me in the job I held at the time ! And the corporate world is full of yes-men that follow their "mentor" arounf the organisation . . .

    Commenter
    MST
    Date and time
    February 10, 2014, 9:54AM
    • Hi Markus, having been in both military and APS, there is a very real difference in upward movement. In the APS you have to apply for a higher position, go up against others applying for the same position as well as the general public. There is no seniority list for APS, if you wish to progress, even in your own department, own building, own floor, you have to apply, you are not promoted into the position. A promotion is clearly a different process. You said it yourself Markus, in your reply to me, “usually contested promotions that involve applications and multiple, competing candidates” ? All applying for a job, not being promoted into it. Promotion - the action of promoting someone or something to a higher position or rank or the fact of being so promoted.

      Commenter
      Fred
      Location
      NT
      Date and time
      February 10, 2014, 10:14AM
      • You are splitting hairs Fred. Regardless of the technicalities of a process, the term "promotion" is standard in the APS. (And I've been both ADF and APS too)

        Commenter
        RGY
        Date and time
        February 10, 2014, 10:51AM

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