I couldn't help but chuckle when reading the independent APS review panel's recommendations on investing in capability and talent development.
While aimed at the blue-sky big picture, any recommendation about "strategic recruitment, development and mobility to build the workforce of the future" is bound to flounder in the quagmire of on-the-ground recruitment practice.
This isn't the first time a report has suggested taking a strategic approach to the Australian Public Service workforce. Reports dating back more than a decade from the Australian National Audit Office, the Senate finance and public administration references committee and the Public Service Commission have all made similar recommendations, including "streamlining" recruitment. Even though job ads, with their accompanying documents, are an important part of the trust-building, public face of the APS, recent "reforms" do little to build an APS that, for the review panel, is "fit for the future".
- The selection criteria phase, during which departments identified criteria specific to each role. While mystifying to outsiders, this approach was consistent.
- The integrated leadership system phase, during which the ILS capabilities were the dominant criteria for judging applicants' suitability.
- The pitch phase, introduced by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 2016, which invites applicants to make a case for why they are suitable, based on a description of what an "ideal candidate" would offer. Some departments still use the ILS and a few continue to use specific selection criteria.
- requests to make a pitch explaining why you are the best candidate for the role, even though this is impossible without knowing against whom you are competing. Also, it's the panel's job to make this decision;
- continued reference to Cracking the Code, a document that makes only minor reference to the pitch approach, and which has no information about the ILS or work-level standards;
- lists of expectations and criteria, ideal-candidate descriptions, and references to the ILS and work-level standards, with no clear explanation of the relationship between these pieces of information nor how a panel will assess an applicant offering this mix of detail;
- spelling and grammatical errors, unexplained acronyms and convoluted sentences. Yet panels will exclude applicants based on their spelling, grammar and/or sentence structure;
- in some cases, no contact person to allow applicants to find out more about the role; and
- differences between what is asked for in the role description and what is specified in the online-application system.
So what evidence is there that this pitch approach, somehow stripped of non-essentials (although what these are is unclear), is faster, simpler and delivers more effective recruitment? Suited to someone with creative-writing talent who can concoct a convincing sales proposal (which is not your typical public servant), the pitch approach fails to provide a convincing alternative to selection criteria.
When it's all boiled down, it might not be selection criteria that are the problem, but a failure by selection panels to devote sufficient effort to clarifying how to conduct a selection, and sufficient time to complete the process quickly. In the meantime, channelling the review's language, championing transformative initiatives will surely enable 21st-century, integrated-workforce outcomes. Absolutely!
The review panel invites readers to let it know how to strengthen each proposal, what it is missing, and how to ensure lasting change. While it is probably uninterested in this level of minutiae, the APS will continue to struggle with recruitment so long as the process is unintelligible and decisions lack transparency.
The review's aspiration is "a trusted APS, united in serving all Australians". Recruitment practices that are consistent (while allowing flexibility), understandable, transparent and evaluated, so that they offer confidence that a merit-based decision is made, will more likely support initiatives that drive this aspiration.
We'll see what happens.
Dr Ann Villiers is a career consultant at Mental Nutrition. firstname.lastname@example.org