The Ahead of the Game blueprint for reforming government administration recommended that the Public Service Commission work with agencies to streamline and simplify recruitment. It proposed developing best practice standards for recruitment that uphold the merit principle, including mechanisms to challenge prevailing recruitment myths.
In June, the commission launched a revised set of recruitment guidelines, a ''best practice guide'' designed to provide ''a resource that is easy to use, practical and explains the recruitment process''. The guidelines have several aims, among them to:
• Ensure the principle of merit is upheld.
• Dispel some widespread myths about the recruitment process.
• Encourage agencies to consider alternative recruitment processes.
While the guidelines are easy to use, practical and explain the recruitment process, some sacred cows remain unchallenged, raising questions about what constitutes best practice. Five areas come to mind.
Community access to jobs
Providing ''a reasonable opportunity to eligible members of the community to apply for employment'' is a long-held principle of the Australian Public Service. But what does ''reasonable opportunity'' mean in practice?
Advertising jobs on websites certainly gives the appearance that eligible Australians have a reasonable opportunity of applying for government jobs. Given that merit is about ''getting the best available person for the job'', a savvy recruiter would want to ensure that such people do apply.
One of the flaws of any recruitment and selection process is that you can only draw on those who happen to be looking for a job, or stumble across it, at the very time a job is advertised. Then applicants must decipher the job description, hurdle the selection criteria and meet the deadline just to get their foot in the door. So long as recruitment is restricted to specific jobs advertised at designated times, the applicant pool will be limited. Is this ''reasonable'' for the community and recruiters?
On the face of it, it may seem outrageous to consider the possibility of allowing people to put up their hand for public service employment at times other than designated job advertisements. To do so would mean changing current practice. But it's not impossible. Rather than complain about skill shortages and poor applicant pools, maybe it's time to reconsider just what a ''reasonable opportunity'' is.
Results and the merit principle
An irony of APS selection processes is that the definition of merit includes a focus on outcomes, and one of the core capabilities is ''achieves results'', yet job descriptions and selection processes place little emphasis on how a person will contribute to the success of an organisation.
Under the ''planning'' section of the commission's recruitment guidelines, readers are told that a job description ''describes what the person is expected to do. It is a picture of the purpose, scope, tasks, duties and responsibilities of the job.'' Further, the benefits of an accurate job description include ensuring that ''employment decisions are based on merit and work-related qualities required to do the job'' and ''highlights the expected standard of work to employees and management to help ensure effective performance on the job''.
Below the main guidelines text, a ''did you know?'' box says: ''The most effective job description details the key results to be achieved rather than just listing tasks to be undertaken.'' It recommends the job description include a brief explanation of the main duties and priority result areas. Yet the ''job analysis template'' in the ''manager's toolbox'' does not include a section for outcomes or results.
It is reasonable to expect that senior staff deliver results. A quick survey of band 1 senior executive service jobs on offer on the vastly improved APS Jobs website reveals that not one job description specifies what results the person in the role is meant to deliver. Nor do those for executive level 2 jobs. Even tracking to the more detailed job description on agency websites reveals a dearth of nominated results.
If the definition of merit includes results, why are they not included as part of a job description? At a minimum, best practice would suggest they be mandatory for EL and SES roles.
The ILS as selection criteria
The advice on preparing a job description says: ''Job descriptions should only reflect the essential or inherent requirements of the job.'' In addition, there is some subtle guidance that, if taken seriously, could overthrow some sacred cows about selection criteria.
One is: ''While there is no legislative requirement to use selection criteria as part of an APS recruitment process, many APS agencies request a written response to a set of selection criteria as the first step of a selection process.'' In a past Informant article, I raised the question of whether it's time to dump selection criteria as the basis for making merit-based staff selection decisions, or at least to consider other options.
Some tips are given on choosing selection criteria including that they should be:
• Focussed on the job's requirements.
• Clear on the work-related qualities needed to do the job.
• Written in plain English.
• Free from jargon and acronyms.
An information sheet in the guidelines points out: ''Targeted, clear and concise selection criteria make it easier for applicants to understand job requirements and submit an application identifying their skills and experience.''
Having read hundreds of job descriptions, most would fail on one or more of these requirements, making life difficult for applicants and selection panels alike. Use of the Integrated Leadership System as selection criteria makes it even more difficult to provide targeted, clear and concise criteria.
The information sheet also says: ''There is no requirement for agencies to use the Integrated Leadership System capabilities as selection criteria.'' Further: ''The original intent of the ILS was to provide a common language to support consistent whole-of-government capability development. It was never designed to be a recruitment tool.''
Given these statements, what steps will be taken to change the practice of using the ILS as selection criteria? We are told: ''Feedback from applicants and agencies has indicated that at times the language used in the ILS, when used out of context, can be a barrier to applicants, particularly those from the broader Australian community, from applying.'' This practice hardly supports giving people a ''reasonable opportunity'' to apply for government jobs.
Selection panel training
The best practice guidelines say employees on a selection panel ''may wish to participate in training to prepare for the role. This can be provided by the [Public Service Commission] or the agency itself'' (my italics). Given the cost of recruiting staff, why is the guideline only a ''may'' rather than a ''must''? Some agencies recognise the importance of training and make it mandatory for at least one panel member to be trained. Most books on staff selection recommend people be trained.
It is so easy to focus on ''interview performance'' as a gauge of job suitability. Many selection reports refer to the quality of an applicant's ''interview performance'' to justify selection decisions. Panels readily extrapolate what a person is like from what they see and hear at interview, based on superficial questioning, selective listening and early impressions.
Thousands of public servants have sat through my video of two fictional characters, Gillian and Roger, being interviewed for an APS6 job. Regardless of whether my audience is viewing these interviews as selection panel members or applicants, I have never found consensus on how these people are rated. Even with just a simple three-point scale - suitable minus, suitable, suitable plus - I often have a spread across all three ratings for both candidates. How can this be?
While the fictional nature of the video has some effect, discussion of the assessment results usually points to a strong element of subjective interpretation. Based on what is said, what is left unsaid, the actual words used, and body language, people readily slide into judgements about a person's intentions, motivations and what sort of a person they are. Gillian is often seen as self-serving, ambitious and not a team player, all based on a brief description of one incident. Roger has been seen both as a poor manager, shifting responsibility onto others when it's his call to make a decision, and as an astute people manager, again based on one incident.
Perceptions of time also play a role in whether these applicants are even listened to. How strong this effect is depends on the order in which the interviews are shown. If Gillian is shown second, her responses are judged as long-winded, rambling and irrelevant. Yet if what she says is actually listened to and linked to identified desired behaviours, there is a structure and most of the information is relevant. Unless selection panels are highly aware of their unconscious biases, these interpretations go unchallenged.
The guidelines confirm that behaviour-based and scenario-type questions are preferred interview options. The former is used because ''there is evidence that past performance predicts future performance''. While past behaviour must be taken into account, three questions need to be considered. Is one example enough to predict future performance? Is sufficient attention given to results? Are panels skilled at drilling down into an example?
If a panel is trying to assess future success as defined in a job description, then past success, rather than just past experience, must be considered. I can be a strategic person, with an extensive network of productive relationships, strong negotiation skills and a high performing team, yet still deliver little of substance for an organisation. Examples based on the STAR structure (situation, tasks, actions, result) can give some indication of what a person has done and with what impact, but the focus is mainly on skills and experience. If a job description identifies the results sought, then much of the interview would focus on the applicant giving multiple examples of the results they have delivered, how they have contributed to an organisation, and what difference they made.
Typically, an applicant who gives insufficient information, doesn't say the right buzzwords or gives poorly structured information receives the thumbs down, with little opportunity to expand, correct or adjust their response. In order to conduct an effective interview, panels need to be trained in crafting quality questions and in drilling down into multiple examples rather than taking one instance at face value. Even when staff attend training, there is no guarantee they will transfer their training to actual behaviour. Several factors work against this transfer occurring: few opportunities to be involved in selecting staff; internal policies that contradict good practice; low manager support; and low delegate scrutiny. Best practice would make regular selection panel training mandatory.
The one interview myth
Panel members are rightly reminded that there is no legislative requirement to conduct an interview. Yet when interviews are held, which is still often the case, much of the selection decision falls on just one interview. There is no mention in the guidelines that a panel could conduct more than one interview. Companies rated as ''best places to work'' regularly conduct several interviews. While this approach would potentially add to the cost and length of a selection process, if conducted by trained people, it could result in better selection decisions.
The recruitment guidelines confirm some good practices. Best practice recruitment guidelines would go beyond supporting the status quo. Setting a higher bar encourages rethinking what is taken for granted and would support the transformation defined in the blueprint.
Dr Ann Villiers is a career consultant with Mental Nutrition and author of the best-selling How to write and talk to selection criteria.