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Reviews warn of failure to deal with public servants' underperformance

Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick.

Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

The federal bureaucracy must learn to deal effectively with unmotivated and incompetent staff, a series of reviews has found.

The problem has emerged as a common theme in independent investigations of 14 government agencies.

Some of the reviews, published by the Public Service Commission, say supervisors and managers are afraid to confront underperformers, lest they be accused of bullying.

Do you know more? Send your confidential tips to ps@canberratimes.com.au.

A survey has also found that more than five in six public servants say their workplaces handle underperforming staff poorly.

Last week, Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick said the bureaucracy needed to address underperformance as ''we do not have resources to carry those who deliberately do not pull their weight''.

However, he said it was more important to nurture ''the vast majority of APS employees who are well motivated and skilled''.

The report on the Department of Human Services, which includes Centrelink and Medicare staff, cited high levels of unscheduled staff absences as a sign of reluctance to tackle ineffective workers.

The reviewers had ''received feedback that the department could be better at 'early intervention' to deal with underperformance issues, the implication being that problems are addressed only once negative impacts on individual and team output have become obvious or overwhelming''.

The Department of Social Services was told poor performance was ''a challenge'' for its future capability. ''Indeed, dealing with underperformance seems to be deeply counter-cultural and is actively avoided.''

The report on the department noted that during the latest round of performance assessments, ''97.7 per cent of staff received the top two ratings'', suggesting that honest conversations were avoided.

''Good managers suffer without the necessary corporate human resources support. More support is provided to the poor performer than to the manager.''

The Taxation Office's review said managers ''find that the time and effort required to address poor performance is prohibitive''.

''The agency allows processes to stall, taking a risk-avoidance approach which fails to adequately consider that the inability to resolve underperformance can have enormous costs in time, money, and lost productivity, including through a negative impact on fellow workers and agency culture.''

In Customs, some ''supervisors and managers are reluctant to have difficult conversations … They feel unsupported by the agency when they address underperformance and may be deterred from beginning the process for fear it may be perceived as bullying and/or harassment''.

Infrastructure Department officers ''identified underperforming staff as a serious issue'' while Immigration Department employees ''reported that, on many occasions, underperforming individuals were moved into other areas rather than their underlying performance issues being addressed''.

Staff in the now defunct Resources Department ''believe that individual performance management is applied inconsistently … and a disproportionately large number of staff are highly rated''.

The Industry Department was alone in drawing praise: reviewers found the way it managed underperformance was ''strong, with most cases resolved before a formal process is required''.

''This reflects the department's proactive approach to managing individual performance by providing mandatory management training for executive level staff and a very hands-on and supportive approach by the human resources area in matters of underperformance.''

43 comments

  • During my APS career, I tried repeatedly to manage underperforming staff and each time was let down by senior management and HR staff who lacked the fortitude to back me. I left the APS after getting nowhere with the all day internet surfers, the people who spent half the day on smoke breaks, those who came in early logged on and went for a half hour coffee break and still recorded flex, the Monday and Friday sickies, the overpromoted graduates, the time serving deadwood, mates promoting mates, and the just plain incompetent. I saw all the lurks.

    Along the way I was fortunate to work with many high calibre and hard working SES, executive level and frontline APS staff, many of whom were frustrated that they were carrying these bludgers.

    The last paragraph of the article sums up in three points just what is needed, proactive performance measurement, training for managers and supervisors, and hands on HR staff. I would add the following, clear work goals, good leadership at junior levels, better selection and promotion processes, and reform of the entitlements culture widespread in the service.

    Commenter
    Alice
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    December 09, 2013, 7:49AM
    • Spot on! Get rid of flex time as well. Bring the PS more in line with real world working conditions.

      Commenter
      The Word
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      December 09, 2013, 8:13AM
    • Flex time is not just a public service thing and if managers had better control to stop (a percentage of) staff misusing it there shouldn't be a problem.

      Flex time allows families where both parents work better manage school drop off and pick up. It also means that everyone is arriving and leaving work at the same time. Spreading out the load on our roads and public transport is a major positive side effect of flex time.

      But, yes, it is annoying seeing colleagues misuse the system - but that is a management issue not a flexitime issue.

      Commenter
      RGY
      Date and time
      December 09, 2013, 9:20AM
    • In the agency I used to work for, flextime was mutually beneficial. If the minister's office wanted information at 8am or 6pm, flexitime meant that there were generally staff willing and able to work. An 8:30 to 5 model wouldn't have allowed that flexibility.

      Commenter
      Nick
      Location
      Bungendore
      Date and time
      December 09, 2013, 10:25AM
    • Sounds very familiar. I've been there, seen that and quit. Worse in the last 15 years of my APS service. Comfort was you can self-manage. Moving horizontally in the system before being converted into one of them ie can't beat it then lick it!
      Quit decision made due to disappointment after a horizontal move from one agency to another in the hope of a better more productive work culture, but situation gets from bad to worse, despite a pay increase.
      Also, the problem is partly caused by the supervisors who are reluctant because if tough action is taken to deal with "incompetent" subordinates, their own incompetence might be exposed too.

      Commenter
      d Nguyen
      Location
      ACT
      Date and time
      December 09, 2013, 11:39AM
    • Alice, as an EL1 (with a private sector background) I hear your pain! The issues in my department are ineffective HR policy, overly supportive APSC guidelines, and an irrational fear of litigation. There's also an APS wide culture of submitting fatuous Comcare claims for bullying everytime performance becomes an issue, and these are assessed on a 'no fault' basis. If this is ever to change it's not the willingness and bravery of EL and SES staff which need to be addressed, it's APSC guidelines, Comcare assessment provisions and departmental HR policy which need attention.

      Commenter
      AJB
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 09, 2013, 2:04PM
    • I can hear the bleeding hearts already....what a bout me, what about the real world, its the unions, doing your proper job...get rid of flex time...sounds like another Liberal catch cry straight from the crypt.
      What a pack of slaves we have become. Just another attack on an easy victim. We all pick on solicitors and barristers but they seem to be going alright in out fair and just legal system.

      Commenter
      ray pace
      Location
      narrabeen
      Date and time
      December 09, 2013, 2:16PM
    • I'm not convinced that many of the commentators grizzling here have actually managed anyone in the PS? I had over 40 years in the Commonwealth and ACT Governments and never found it difficult to sack someone. Provided you followed due process and kept factual records, and at times involved the union, yes the union (CPSU), the process was not too torturous. Sometimes a candid discussion with the person involved; selling the point that a 'change of career might massively reduce theirs and others stress levels. After all, I would advise them, that there is 95% employment 'out there' and a workplace change may well re-motivate or re-inspire them. I believe that it is in the way the process is managed from the beginning that can make it a very difficult or alternatively a simple and straight forward action. I'm very comfortable and proud to state that I successfully dispatched around 10 or 11 under-performing staff over the years.

      Commenter
      Ophelia Knobbs
      Date and time
      December 09, 2013, 4:05PM
  • Qs the Public service is underperforming is becasue
    a)The Taxation Office's review said managers ''find that the time and effort required to address poor performance is prohibitive''.
    b) The managers in part a) should all be sacked
    Thank God they are not trying to turn a profit ..er aren't they the department that collects money off the rest of us ??. Here's some advice ' Hire slowly FIRE FAST'

    Commenter
    Dan
    Date and time
    December 09, 2013, 7:56AM
    • The current process just does not work and there is no real incentive for managers to do it. I myself know of an APS6 who could/would not perform to even the standard of an APS2 yet it took an EL1 18 months and micromanagement in an almost full-time capacity to get rid of this bludger.

      Commenter
      TuffGuy
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      December 09, 2013, 8:08AM

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