It has been refreshing to see government agencies adjust their selection processes to make them more user-friendly to applicants. These changes have included simplifying the form of applications, explaining how to prepare a response, and reducing the number of steps in the selection process.
One element in an agency's support for applicants that now needs updating is a booklet produced by the Public Service Commission called Cracking the Code: How to apply for jobs in the Australian Public Service.
Published in 2007, this booklet sets out to dispel some of the myths about the APS and help people new to the public service tackle their application in an informed manner. At the time, it was a useful document. These days, it has some deficiencies because selection processes have moved on.
Typically, agencies suggest something along these lines: ''For guidance on applying for positions in the APS, including how to address selection criteria, please see Cracking the Code.'' This can be followed by criteria that are not reflected in the booklet, making the advice of limited use to applicants.
Specifically, Cracking the Code needs to extend its advice to cover the reality of today's application processes. This means mentioning several key details:
- The integrated leadership system and how capability frameworks are being used as selection criteria. The only type of selection criterion offered as an example in Cracking the Code is a job-specific one, namely: ''Well-developed written communication skills.'' This type of criterion is now used by only a few agencies, so is no longer typical of what applicants can expect to write about.
- The various types of applications now being sought. These include:
- Responding to specific capability-based questions, some of which may cover two capabilities and involve interpreting them in the context of an agency's own capability framework. For example, the Health Department asks applicants to cover both ''strategic thinking'' and ''achieving results'' when responding to this question: ''Describe a recent achievement, project or task that you are particularly proud of - one that demonstrates achieving results in difficult circumstances. Describe how that achievement contributed to your organisation.''
- Writing a short statement (1000 words or two pages) that makes a case for a job based on the information provided and often including the integrated leadership system. For example, applicants can be advised that they are not required to write specifically to the selection criteria, but are requested to ''submit a two-page letter (maximum 1000 words) covering their experience and achievements relevant to the advertised position, required capabilities, CV detailing recent employment history and referee details.'' For this form of application, the STAR-based advice (situation, task, actions, results) in Cracking the Code is of limited use.
- The need to consider criteria responses within the job context, taking account of the duties as well as the agency context. Agencies can give applicants guidance on this, such as: ''You should focus on how your experience, achievements and capabilities will enable you to successfully undertake the responsibilities of the role.'' Cracking the Code implies that criteria can largely be taken at face value, in isolation from any other information.
Clarifying the target audience for the booklet would also make it more useful. The booklet gives a sense of being designed for entry-level applicants yet the example given is for an APS6 role. It would be interesting to ask managers if the example provided on page 13 would ''cut the mustard'' for short listing. Given the expectations of public servants these days, I suspect it wouldn't.
Some tips on writing to selection criteria also need updating. Applicants are advised to ensure that all aspects of a criterion have been addressed. This was sound advice at the time of writing, but it no longer applies in every case. Where capabilities are used, agencies often explain that applicants do not need to address all the dot points under a capability. Similarly, while some criteria still use expressions such as ''demonstrated'' and ''well developed'', most no longer do so.
The 2011-12 State of the Service Report devotes a chapter to workforce planning. Workforce risks mentioned include inability to recruit appropriately skilled employees and inability to hang on to such staff. Updating Cracking the Code to provide current advice to applicants, whether external or internal, would make their life easier and help agencies address these workforce risks.
Dr Ann Villiers is a career consultant at Mental Nutrition and the author of the bestseller How to write and talk to selection criteria.