Reviews warn of failure to deal with public servants' underperformance

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.

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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.''


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