Job selection criteria are misused too often, and it is understandable that Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd and Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Michael Thawley are concerned about wasted effort on bureaucratic processes. But removing selection criteria would throw out the baby – the merit principle – with the bathwater.
Many of our rapidly developing neighbours – Indonesia, China, Vietnam – are keen to learn from Australia and other advanced democracies about how to build a professional civil service to administer the policies and programs of their political leaders fairly, efficiently and effectively. They know that the merit principle is central to a professional civil service.
There is a real danger, however, that we in Australia are losing sight of the central role of merit and the processes that assure its application. I remain concerned that the 2013 amendments to the Public Service Act dropped the principle from the list of Australian Public Service values and only included it as the third in a list of "employment principles". Merit was in fact the main theme of the 1856 Northcote-Trevelyan report, which is the foundation of the civil service in Westminster countries.
It is impossible to think of "merit" without applying some criteria to appointments and promotions through a competitive process. Selection criteria assure the integrity of such decisions and allow any appeals to be managed with confidence. Public Service Commission staff surveys and censuses consistently reveal widespread unease already about the application of the merit principle; removing these criteria would substantiate that lack of confidence.
It is true that the way selection criteria are used can obfuscate proper assessment by promoting unnecessary documentation filled with jargon and generalities. The extension of the commission's "integrated leadership system" to all classification levels may well have exacerbated the problem by encouraging a focus on a single set of generalist criteria. Rather than helping to define merit for each level and position, such universal application risks making the criteria meaningless at every level and for every position.
This was never the intention of the original ILS, which was widely welcomed in 2004 precisely because of its practical flavour and the way it distinguished each of the leadership criteria by classification level, encouraged extra criteria for executive-level positions and consciously omitted application of the leadership criteria below ELs. It also emphasised the importance of specific management responsibilities at different levels and of technical skills, particularly at lower classification levels (but often also at EL and senior executive service levels).
With hindsight, I regret not issuing to the whole Australian Public Service the guidance I gave to staff in the commission (and previously the Health Department) about how I preferred to see selection committees present their merit-based assessments. This focused on how the selection criteria should be addressed in committee reports, and recommended that the summary assessment of each short-listed candidate follow the following template:
- A paragraph describing the candidate's experience and expertise (from the CV).
- A brief assessment against each criterion beginning with a description of the candidate's relevant experience or expertise (mostly from the CV), material from referees that informed the committee about the candidate's performance as well as experience (and/or potential), and finally any evidence from the interview.
- A summary assessment about the candidate's degree of suitability for the position.
The overview report could then be brief, highlighting the relative standing of short-listed candidates against each criterion and their overall standing.
This guidance reflected not only the priority I gave to candidates' CVs, and the low priority I gave to applications' often long and superficial written responses to selection criteria, but also ensured interviews were not too heavily relied upon, a common cause of gender and other biases in selection.
The Public Service Commissioner and PM&C secretary seem to be similarly keen to give more weight to CVs, but reports of their views suggest that, in trying to cut "red tape", they might not be rigorously relating the CVs to specific selection criteria or ensuring careful assessment of performance.
There are other processes that underpin the application of the merit principle. These include duty statements for each position (or group of positions) and work level or classification standards; these need to be matched to guard against classification creep, a problem the APS evidently has in spades at present. Other useful tools include job evaluation techniques and competency standards.
There are other mechanisms that can help the process of getting the right people into the right positions, developing their capacity to perform well and building organisational capability. Brief descriptions of the roles and responsibilities of organisational units – sections, branches, divisions, project teams – and summaries of the skills and knowledge each unit needs to perform well (e.g. legislation, industry, professional field, subject matter policy expertise, service delivery expertise, program history) can help guide the orientation of new staff and individual development plans for all staff. Involving a manager-once-removed in the development and appraisal process can also ensure staff are properly counselled, not only about "what's my job" and "how am I going" but also about "what's my future". This is essential also for succession planning.
Following Ahead of the Game report, the Public Service Commission conducted a series of capability reviews that confirmed serious weaknesses (for example, in strategic policy analysis and advice). However, there is a widespread lack of the human-resource-management expertise that is needed to address the weaknesses identified in these reviews. This includes the failure to maintain proper discipline in people management, whether in appointments and promotions according to merit, or classification standards, or measuring workloads and staff requirements, or developing staff or setting pay. The processes involved should be seen as critical disciplines to enhance organisational capability and to be applied with expert judgment, not dismissed as "red tape" and replaced by crude and subjective assessments that may be open to inappropriate political influence.
Andrew Podger is a professor of public policy at the Australian National University, a former public service commissioner and a former Health Department secretary. firstname.lastname@example.org