Are public service job applicants now their own selection panel?
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Are public service job applicants now their own selection panel?

Replacing selection criteria with 'the pitch' has not improved government recruitment.

Who would have thought job applicants would be asked to be their own selection panel? It sounds bizarre, but that's what's happened with the morphing of "the pitch" approach to recruitment across the Australian Public Service.

Kicked off two years ago by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the pitch, as an application format, has become the method du jour, asking for a single 1000-word response to role requirements. Candidates are told to "state why their skills, knowledge and qualifications makes [sic] them the best person for the role". In order to make such a case, an applicant needs to know two pieces of information.

People don't offer their real reason for applying: 'I need to escape from my current hellhole.'

People don't offer their real reason for applying: 'I need to escape from my current hellhole.'

First, they need to know how applicants will be assessed. In the past, the selection criteria that formed the basis of a comparative assessment were usually listed clearly. Certainly, they were not always expressed clearly, and, with the advent of capability frameworks, were often cumbersome.

How applications are to be assessed these days is not always clear. A role description can include lists of requirements for "our ideal candidate" (sometimes up to 12 items), reference to the "integrated leadership system", instructions that the pitch take into account the position description and work-level standards, plus specialist requirements.

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How is an applicant to determine the relative priority of these requirements? Do contact officers or recruitment staff provide this clarity?

Second, applicants also need to know whom they are competing with. How else can one state why they are the best person for a job? This information is not only unknown to applicants, but determining who is the best person for a role is the selection panel's jobs. All applicants can do is state what they offer and its value to the role.

There are other inadequacies with current APS role descriptions. Instructions for applicants are at times poorly expressed, and use confusing and inconsistent terminology. On the one hand, applicants are asked to "address the assessment criteria and provide examples which demonstrate their ability to perform the duties of the position". On the other hand, they are told that "selection criteria are based on the capabilities and performance behaviours of the Australian Public Service integrated leadership system". In some cases, application instructions are incomplete, and need to be unearthed from the online recruitment system.

Applicants continue to be referred to the Public Service Commission's Cracking the Code to find enlightenment about how to apply for APS jobs. I have been pointing out the inadequacies of this document since 2013. Referencing Cracking the Code for applicants is both unhelpful, particularly for outsiders, and potentially misleading. Role descriptions can include directions such as: "For further information on writing your statement of claims, please see: Australian Public Service Commission's Cracking the Code publication; Australian Public Service Commission integrated leadership system; APS work-level standards." Cracking the Code does not provide information on writing a statement of claims, nor a pitch, nor the ILS.

Cracking the Code's fact sheet 5 ("Addressing selection criteria") informs readers that: "The selection criteria describes [sic] the personal qualities, skills, abilities, knowledge and qualifications (if any) a person needs to perform the role effectively", that selection teams will "assess the responses of all applicants to each criterion" and that "some common examples of selection criteria include:

  • demonstrated capacity to communicate effectively;
  • good organisational and administrative skills;
  • proven ability to work as part of a team;
  • well-developed customer service skills; and
  • proven ability to manage projects."

Not only do many applications not ask for responses to criteria, these particular criteria are rarely used in APS role descriptions, with the possible exception of graduate recruitment programs.

The pitch is in part a marketing exercise, often asking applicants to state why they are interested in a job. When various criteria are listed in role descriptions, interest in that role is not among them. So what role does a person's reasons for wanting the job play in the initial assessment? An applicant is not going to offer the truth: "I deserve a promotion", "I need to escape from my current hellhole" or "you offer better flexible-working arrangements". What they will do is devise a creative, strategic reason that points to their value and desirability. Needing to convince a selection panel of one's interest in a role, separate from stated criteria, only adds to the murkiness of selection processes.

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With so many flaws in role descriptions, I can only wonder at how effective selection panels are at selecting suitable staff. When the Public Service Commissioner tells us "we are changing the employment framework to make it more flexible", perhaps this translates into ambiguous application requirements and hazy decision-making processes.

Dr Ann Villiers is a career consultant at Mental Nutrition and author of the best-seller How to write and talk to selection criteria. avilliers@mentalnutrition.com

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