Dud public servants are being given taxpayer-funded golden handshakes or generous early retirements because departments do not want to deal properly with under-performers, a new government audit has found.
A long-anticipated Australian National Audit Office report on so-called "performance management" processes for public servants found between 14 and 30 per cent of employees in some of Canberra's biggest government departments believed their bosses dealt effectively with under-performing colleagues, with significant areas of improvement identified.
A long-standing frustration for many public servants, the audit considered performance management processes in a range of departments and agencies, including the Australian Tax Office, the departments of the Attorney-General, Veterans' Affairs, Social Services, Industry, Innovation and Science, Agriculture, IP Australia and Canberra's National Film and Sound Archive.
Social Services had the highest number of staff found to be "less than effective" between 2012-13 and 205-16, with 338 employees or 3.06 per cent for the period. Among that group 19.2 per cent had been rated less than effective more than once.
The Attorney-General's department had 176 staff identified for performance management in the period, 2.73 per cent of its total workforce. Veterans' Affairs had 149 staff in the category, of which 10 per cent had been rated less than effective more than once.
Agriculture and Water Resources had 173 staff found to be under-performing, or 0.92 per cent of its workforce, of which 18.5 per cent were repeat poor performers. The Tax Office had 408 staff in the category, or 0.67 per cent of its workforce, with 7.6 per cent rated ineffective more than once.
The report said performance gaps could be difficult to identify for some of the types of work commonly done within the public service, including in areas of policy development and research. It said some staff took sick leave during performance management processes.
"It is not uncommon for employees undergoing under-performance processes to access certified sick leave as either an avoidance technique or because undergoing the procedure itself can exacerbate underlying medical conditions (particularly mental health conditions) or create stress-related conditions," the report said.
"From the manager's and agency's perspective this results in a drawn-out, complex process with difficult judgements to be made about how to best to progress the case."
Dealing with dud public servants isn't a new challenge for government.
A 1920 royal commission report held by the National Archives found "manifestly incompetent" bureaucrats who had been hanging around for years were next to impossible to dislodge from their jobs, labelling them "decent duffers".
The report, tabled in Parliament this week, warned some public servants identified for performance management took advantage of official processes, "including making allegations of bullying and harassment against their manager".
"Under-performance is generally not effectively dealt with in performance management processes, including during the probation period in most agencies, and structured under-performance processes have been infrequently used."
Senior managers had often avoided addressing staff under-performance because of a lack of incentives, support and their own capability.
Despite being common across the public service, the report said probation periods were generally not used "to robustly test the suitability of newly appointed employees", other than at the ATO and the Film and Sound Archive.
The report said the causes of under-performance included personal problems, physical and mental health issues, misconduct including minor absenteeism or behavioural issues, ineffective training and recruitment processes that fail to identify candidates with the capabilities for the job.
"Most agencies could streamline their underperformance procedures to remove repetition and prescription while still ensuring procedural fairness, although provisions in three agencies' enterprise agreements restrict flexibility in this regard.
"In addition, some agency procedures contain requirements that are in excess of those required by legislation or regulation for senior executive service or non-ongoing employees. Not all agencies have transparent procedures for their senior executive service employees, and probation procedures could be improved in all eight agencies," the report said.
Former employment minister Eric Abetz said slack public servants were wasting taxpayer funds and departmental bosses needed to take action.
"Taxpayers expect the public service to be lean, efficient and focused on delivery – not to allow for professional slackers who have turned underperformance into a victimhood industry at huge expense to the taxpayer," the Liberal senator said.
"Instead of this 'job for life' mentality that exists in many APS agencies, the public service should be refocused to become outcomes based and see underperformers managed more effectively – including a preparedness to let staff go."