In general, governments and citizens can be reasonably satisfied with the Australian Public Service, as it has been designated since the days of the Whitlam government. It has shortcomings, of course. They're the result of lots of things, not the least of which is the abysmal quality of many reviews inflicted on it, especially in the past 25 years or so.
The latest in this line-up is a "workforce management contestability review" sponsored by the Finance Department and pretentiously titled Unlocking potential – If not us, who? If not now, when? It was carried out by experienced businesswoman Sandra McPhee, a director of several large public companies (including Fairfax Media, publisher of the Informant), with the help of a small group of public servants, the Nous Group and the Boston Consulting Group.
The report's fundamental method is to pile cliche after cliche upon motherhood statements, and mix up the brew with dozens of abstract nouns that could mean everything or nothing (mostly nothing). For example, McPhee is keen on "driving high performance", "workforce agility", a "compelling employee value proposition", "portfolio careers", "linear upwards promotion" (anyone for a downwards promotion?) and "sophisticated data analytics".
Yet when the review team gets to "data analytics", they make a hash of it. For example, their calculations about productivity losses on account of delays in recruitment are not worth a grain of salt. They assume that the 68 days (on average) taken to fill a vacancy means that nothing is produced from the position in that period. In practice, it's standard procedure for people to act in vacancies and for consequent ones to be otherwise filled in various ways, including by using temporary engagements. So it's wrong to assume that output from positions subject to recruitment is always totally lost. Indeed, on average, such losses are likely to be a relatively small fraction of that claimed in the report. Moreover, productivity has nothing to do with money saved or lost; it's the ratio of hours worked to unit of output produced.
And the report is larded with silly statements. The APS "needs to attract the very best people" – an impossible objective that never has and never will be achieved. We are, according to McPhee, now in an "environment of increasing complexity" – compared to what? That which the country faced during the two world wars and their aftermaths, or the more than 30 per cent unemployment of the Great Depression? There's real complexity for you. And McPhee says: "The APS needs to get smaller" – that's ideological thinking. The public service needs to be the minimum size to efficiently and effectively do what governments want it to do.
To further curdle the brew, McPhee's report tries to redefine the meaning of words. For example, she says: "Agile employees are problem solvers, collaborative and resilient through change." What rubbish. Agile simply means nimble or quick moving. It does not mean that agile staff are good problem solvers, and they may well be less collaborative than others because of their impulses to do things; anything so long as it can be done quickly. Resilience? There is no reason to think that the agile are any more resilient than any others. McPhee looks as if she's mimicking Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who likes the agile, but that's no reason to give the word a vogue it can't support.
Then McPhee, and presumably the public servants and consultants aiding her, throw in a handful of minor errors. For example, she says the 1984 policy and legislative changes in the APS "had the catchphrase 'let the managers manage' " – they did not. Indeed, they were in some ways hostile to that notion. Further, she says enterprise bargaining was introduced to the APS in 1997 – it was not. It was introduced in the early 1990s by the Keating government.
While most of McPhee's review is bad, it contains fragments of the passable. For example, she wants probationary service after appointments to be taken more seriously; that's a sound and obvious point. She recommends a more-centralised approach to graduate recruitment. That's what used to be done until the 1980s and it might be wondered if McPhee applied any "sophisticated data analytics" to see what recruitment delays, something to which she is ardently opposed, might be involved in centralised versus decentralised methods. There's no indication she's done so. Then, in another return to the past, the review suggests more centrally designed and conducted induction training, especially for senior staff. That's sensible but, again, there is no sign any effort was made to discover why this practice withered on the vine.
McPhee is right to urge a better approach to "talent management", whatever those words might be taken to mean. The methods she recommends to achieve this noble aim are, however, a mass of further process and red tape. McPhee wants "secretaries to be accountable for talent management". Fair enough. They're responsible for selecting their staff, after all. But then she says that, for SES bands 2 and 3, "the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the public service commissioner should lead talent management for these critical cohorts". That is, her recommendations confuse responsibility. Moreover, how the PM&C secretary and the public service commissioner could properly "lead talent management" for about 650 staff at the band 2 and 3 levels is unimaginable.
Further, McPhee recommends creating an unspecified number of "talent councils" composed of agency heads and band 2 and 3 staff who would "make decisions about developing and deploying critical talent across the APS". But hang on: by law, secretaries are responsible for making decisions about "deploying critical talent" in their departments. There is no rational reason to change the law to require them to bow to the will of "talent councils" wishing to put Jack or Jill in their organisations, or take them away. She is proposing any number of standing interdepartmental committees, bodies that traditionally have had all the agility of woolly mammoths, to take over a critical responsibility of agency heads. So, at another level, McPhee divides responsibility and confuses accountability. Indeed, how "talent councils" of busy people could effectively come to grips with partly managing the placement and development of tens of thousands of staff – if, as McPhee suggests, graduates are to come within their purview – is beyond the unimaginable.
"Talent management" (let's say it means the best possible placement of staff in jobs and making sure they're trained and developed, including through different work experiences) should remain an essential responsibility of agency heads and their line supervisors. A more systematic approach to senior staffing, aided by advice from the PM&C secretary and the public service commissioner or other departmental secretaries, may be useful – for example, in helping to provide wider experiences for senior staff, including secondments for special tasks. Agency heads could also provide information in a more organised way about those who may be suitable for secretary and other top positions. However, the suggestion that "talent councils" should "make decisions" about placing and developing staff is stupid, contrary to current law and wholly inconsistent with McPhee's recommendation that secretaries should "be accountable for talent management".
McPhee's consideration of merit in staffing is the darkest and most dangerous part of her report. "The legislative description of merit is unclear", she says, and she would like it to be reconsidered. She doesn't explain or analyse her assertion and she makes no suggestion as to how the definition might be improved. A clever drafter may be able to devise a sharper legal version but mucking around with it risks giving the impression, for scant benefit, that merit is a mutable plaything of legislative drafters.
However that may be, merit should not be redefined to be consistent with McPhee's "thinking", for she gives her game away when she says: "A modified approach to merit should be deployed ... where an employee has already established their credentials as the best person for the job." But how can anyone be confident that any individual is the "best person for the job" without an open competition? They can't. If McPhee's recipe were to be adopted it would be open to agencies to manipulate merit by, for example, arranging for people to act in jobs for a year or so and then, if their performance is satisfactory, putting their hands on the hearts and asserting, without justification, that such people are the "best ... for the job" and promoting them without a competition. That's not a "modified approach to merit", it's an abrogation of it. It would open the door to cronyism and patronage, and the efficiency, effectiveness and public confidence in the public service's integrity would be reduced. Quite a recipe.
McPhee's report is also startling for what it doesn't say. In 90-odd pages on personnel management, including recruitment and staff mobility, she makes no reference whatsoever to a core element of her subject: the system for fixing pay and conditions of employment. This is a striking omission because, at the moment, this system is the APS's most serious personnel management problem. Policy requires any improvements in remuneration to be 100 per cent offset by gains in productivity. As productivity can't be measured in almost any public sector organisation, increases in pay or conditions cannot be demonstrated or justified, and management, staff and unions are left with nothing they can realistically negotiate about. Without an end in sight, more than two years of agonising sham negotiations have greatly strained the trust between agency managements and their staff, and left about 80 per cent of public servants without a pay increase in that period. How could McPhee's review fail to address this shambles, and how might she square such neglect with her supposed sympathy for "compelling employee value propositions"?
As industrial relations negotiations are now conducted on an agency basis, pay and conditions are a crazy quilt of inexplicable and significant differences. Thus, people at the same classification are paid quite different amounts according to where they work. While one of McPhee's concerns is to promote greater mobility between public service agencies, the differential levels of remuneration across them almost certainly inhibit it on the whole; yet another problem to which she has turned a blind eye.
Alas, the foregoing falls short of commenting on many more of the McPhee report's failings, including unjustified calls for more fixed-period appointments, temporary employment and measures that would further undermine the classification system in ways that would cause another serious bout of classification inflation – but enough is enough.
On a jollier note, McPhee seems to have a wacky sense of humour. For example, she calls for "blame-free" sacking of the incompetent or those whose talents are thought to be no longer required and suggests that those in the firing line (no pun intended) see it "as a normal part of the employment cycle". She also latches onto an idea, supposedly from New Zealand, that the dispossessed might become "ambassadors" for the organisations from which they were given the flick. That's hilarious in a twisted way, although those affected might be disappointed that, having shadows cast on the rest of their working lives, attempts might be made to deny them the chance to be angry.
Finally, McPhee's report, which was signed off at the end of last year and has only just seen the light of day, was apparently endorsed by the secretaries board, one of whose legal responsibilities is to "model leadership behaviours." Irony rarely comes with a sharper barb.
Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. firstname.lastname@example.org