Recent Informant issues have scrutinised the role of selection criteria in merit-based recruitment. Should these criteria be used? And, if so, how? While my article in October gave a tongue-in-cheek account of life without selection criteria, I agree with Andrew Podger, who wrote in December that they need to be retained to support the merit principle.
Ironically, my article coincided with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's switch to a pitch approach to recruitment, which Paddy Gourley accurately critiqued in November. The department sells the new approach as "replacing jargon", being easier, and cutting through red tape. An "opportunity" replaces a typical job description, yet duties are described in such generic terms as to reveal little about what a person would do. Plus, PM&C no longer advertises jobs by classification, placing the onus on the applicant to determine what level they'll pitch for. No disadvantages for applicants here.
The pitch approach highlights one of the key factors that muddies the selection criteria-merit relationship: objectivity versus subjectivity. Selection criteria provide a common basis for assessing an applicant's ability, thus providing a semblance of objectivity. Anyone who's been part of a selection panel learns quickly that the process is not black-and-white, no matter how detailed the policies and procedures. There will always be some subjectivity stemming from first impressions, hearsay, personal experience, biases and prejudices. A well-crafted recruitment process implemented by skilled, committed staff should minimise the potential for subjectivity and maximise the chances of a decision that is fair and defensible. The more the application process becomes a marketing exercise, like the pitch approach, the greater the room for subjective judgment.
So, how do you judge a quality recruitment process using selection criteria? According to Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd, recruitment should be timely, straightforward, not over-engineered nor excessive, and should attract the best and brightest. On the face of it, there is little to debate here. Look more closely and there are some matters that need serious attention.
A timely process needs commitment and the ability to craft a transparent, structured yet flexible process that is fair, without necessarily treating everyone the same, and which provides procedural fairness. It must also be backed by practical HR support.
In December, Gourley reviewed Barbara Belcher's report on regulation and referred to her conclusion that current legislative requirements for recruitment are not numerous; rather, agencies have adopted overly regulated internal recruitment processes. This self-imposed red tape is mainly generated by well-meaning but narrowly focussed HR advisers. Many rules assumed to support merit, fairness, competitiveness or efficiency need reassessing. For example: minimal job description templates that don't allow for job context information, including expected outcomes as defined in the merit principle; restricting what information a contact person provides; allocating weightings to different types of applicant evidence; ignoring the application post-short-listing; insisting that only questions linked to selection criteria be asked at interview; and not allowing panels to ask follow-up questions.
Belcher recommends that lengthy written applications and use of the integrated leadership system (or ILS) as selection criteria be "discouraged". Dropped would be a better option. Here's why. The APS recruitment guidelines set out steps to take when planning for a job vacancy, including assessing the new job against existing work arrangements. In developing selection criteria, the guidelines say each criterion should relate specifically to the work to be performed, align with the job description and reflect the work-related qualities needed to perform the duties. Also, each criterion should be limited to one requirement. Using generic criteria like the ILS contravenes these guidelines, obscuring the relationship between criteria and work-related qualities. State public services that have adapted the ILS to create even more complicated capability frameworks may be upset, but all public sectors would be better off in a post-ILS world.
Another factor that works against quality recruitment processes is the range of competing, conflicting, uncoordinated tools and advice provided to managers to help with recruiting, selecting, inducting and developing staff. Take the matter of "potential", something you would surely consider when seeking the best and brightest.
The Public Service Commissioner's directions list examples of work-related qualities, including "demonstrated potential for further development". The APS talent management guide, released last year, devotes much attention to the importance of identifying and developing those individuals who show high potential.
Talent management focuses on individuals, recruited externally or discovered within, with the potential to successfully undertake critical organisational roles now and in the future. The guide says "external talent attraction aims to grow the breadth of the existing talent pool by bringing in individuals with business critical skills and experiences, fresh enthusiasm for the agency's work and the potential for career growth". I would have thought most new recruits should fit this picture. However, apart from PM&C "opportunities", I have yet to see a job description include "potential" as a work-related quality or identify a critical role.
As an exercise, compare the content of the ILS, the APS work-level standards, the Work-level standards – differences document, the APS recruitment guidelines, the full suite of Talent management documents, plus the reviews of agencies' organisational capabilities. Granted, these documents have different purposes and focuses, but they are related. Yet each presents its own terminology, frameworks and strategies. It's unsurprising that recruitment processes are over-engineered and burdensome for both applicants and panels.
Lloyd also mentions leadership as an area needing further attention. State of the Service reports dating back more than a decade have lamented APS management and leadership gaps, particularly those related to people and performance management. It's time that applicants interested in supervisory or management roles underwent a stringent recruitment process tailored to assessing management and leadership abilities, including handling performance and diversity issues.
During her consultations, Belcher heard comments that APS guidance is designed for larger, complex entities, and that smaller organisations need fit-for-purpose HR policies. Take, for example, increased staff mobility, something Lloyd is keen on. Laura Tingle eloquently described in her recent Quarterly Essay the profound impact the steady decline in our collective institutional memory has on the quality of political and policy debate. Neither agencies nor staff have much to gain by specialist professionals in smaller agencies – like Geoscience Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology and cultural institutions – enhancing their mobility beyond short-term secondments. Tingle suggests that rebuilding policy capability may involve "changing recruitment and promotion so that those who build up longer-term memory in a particular area are not effectively penalised for it".
In 2010, Gourley made a convincing case for changing the principle of open competition for APS jobs. He pointed out the inherent contradiction between open competition for vacancies and the notion of a career public service. Better, he argued, if "positions above base levels were not open to community-wide competition unless there were reasonable prospects of obtaining better applicants from outside the service". Such a move would streamline many recruitment processes and increase staff engagement, because prospects of career progression help retention.
Finally, any change to APS recruitment practice must take account of changes in technology, job-search behaviour, candidates' expectations and private sector practice. The Talent management guide says effective talent-attraction strategies should consider the role of social media, referrals and data from sources liked LinkedIn, Facebook and other global networks to identify quality candidates. Agencies also need to cater for mobile-savvy candidates, make greater use of Skype, build skills in assessing online portfolios, and divorce recruitment from available vacancies.
Addressing these matters can still deliver a recruitment process that is timely, streamlined and attract the best and brightest. Some changes would likely challenge how merit is interpreted and linked to selection criteria. It will take some imaginative thinking. But isn't that what we want in our public servants?
Dr Ann Villiers is a career consultant at Mental Nutrition. firstname.lastname@example.org