Healthy organisations continually build and renew their existing workforce by bringing in a mix of people with a wide range of skills and experience. A regular influx of people brings fresh enthusiasm, stimulates healthy competition and injects new perspectives into the business.
The private sector invests heavily in attracting and recruiting the best people, including graduates. The cost is weighed against the long term gains to productivity and business success. Organisations promote the many benefits of their brand and actively sell both the company and the role.
To continue to deliver the best service to the community, the APS needs the best minds and most dedicated people. However, the APS is up against vigorous competition from the private sector. Potential employees are looking for a dynamic, challenging and flexible work environment, and the APS will need to work hard to attract them.
What the APS needs
- To attract the best and most talented people.
- To emphasise the APS brand and the employee value proposition.
- Selection processes that are quick, simple and effective, focusing on the individual and the skills they bring.
I want the best and brightest people to aspire to work for some or all of their careers in the Australian Public Service. To do this we need to think carefully about the employment brand we project. This includes thinking about what distinguishes the APS from other organisations.
– John Lloyd PSM
Australian Public Service Commissioner
What we found
Current advertising practices are not effective.
Current practices do not establish the APS as a dynamic and desirable place to work.
There is a need to lift the employment value proposition of the APS and to promote the opportunities for interesting and varied work.
For the most part, APS job advertisements do not reflect the type of work today's employees want and do not encourage potential applicants to apply. APS job advertisements should promote the APS as an employer that offers the opportunity to do exceptional work that is challenging, varied and valuable.
Also, in a digital world where there is an opportunity to work differently, advertisements often fail to offer flexibility in relation to working arrangements, including hours and location, even though these options may be available.
An example of providing a flexible and attractive work environment—Job sharing
Job sharing is more commonly practised in the private sector, not just for existing company staff but in order to attract the most talented people who also need flexibility. The APS has the potential to offer flexible work arrangements, including job sharing. However, these arrangements are not always
used, with more traditional arrangements preferred, reflecting past practices that do not recognise the very real benefits job sharing can bring.
The potential for job sharing should be considered for jobs at all levels to ensure the broadest internal and external market of candidates is considered for all roles.
In many cases, advertisements use confusing, bureaucratic language that is off-putting for many potential applicants, particularly those from outside the APS.
They often list complex selection criteria that applicants must address in detail. The APS publication Cracking the Code is an indictment on just how impenetrable these criteria can be, and how addressing them depends on knowing the right formula, rather than having the right skills.
Advertisements are also designed to recruit to a particular classification level, locking out the opportunity to recruit on the basis of the skills and experience an individual can bring to a particular role.
A fresh approach to recruitment
To identify Australia's best digital talent, the DTO is looking at recruitment from the perspective of potential candidates, and seeking motivated digital specialists with experience in teams using agile methodologies. It recognises that much of Australia's top digital talent has never considered a
career in government and prefers defined period contracts that allow them to move regularly across interesting projects. Most roles are advertised for engagements of up to three years.
The DTO is not seeking detailed applications, but asks applicants to submit expressions of interest via its website outlining their areas of expertise. Applicants are asked to provide basic information, upload a resume and respond to a couple of questions as briefly or in as much detail as the applicant
chooses. They have the option of providing links to their social media profiles (e.g. LinkedIn, Twitter).
The APS expects people to come to it—it doesn't try to attract people.
– General Manager, Corporate Affairs
Jobs for a period of more than twelve months must be advertised on the APSJobs website. Many agencies have been slow to employ other possible advertising methods including social media. Advertising in APSJobs is connected to legislative requirements to notify government recruitment decisions in the
Public Service Gazette within certain timeframes.
As a central point for advertising vacancies in the APS, APSJobs should provide consistency and a sense of presence. It should promote the APS as offering the opportunity to experience an enormous and exciting range of work, that has the ultimate goal of serving the Australian public. However, APSJobs
is not fulfilling this role. APSJobs uses old technology and looks tired. It does not offer the user experience expected by potential employees. Its design is inefficient, it is not user friendly and it cannot be used on mobile devices, which is increasingly the preferred method of interaction1.
The legislative description of merit is unclear and the real meaning of merit has become distorted
The Australian public and private sectors support the principle of merit-based recruitment.
There is no suggestion that the APS move away from the principle of merit, rather that there is a meaningful definition that can be applied properly.
Merit has a 'god' status in recruitment practice.
– APS Deputy Secretary
Government and the public expect that the APS will make recruitment and promotion decisions based on a fair and transparent process that leads to the most suitable applicant winning the job, based only on the skills and qualities they have. The meaning of merit and its application in the APS should
clearly support these expectations.
The APS's commitment to merit in engagement and promotion decisions is stated in the APS Employment Principles, section 10A(1)(c) of the Public Service Act 1999 (the Act). The principle of merit is also underpinned by the APS Values that support being accountable, impartial and apolitical. The intent of the merit principle is to guard against patronage, bias and any other undue influence, through competitive entry.
Merit in recruitment is also an underlying principle in the private sector, but in contrast to private sector companies that apply a general interpretation of merit, the Act describes what merit means in the APS (section 10A(2)). The Australian Public Service Commissioner's Directions 2013 (the Directions)
include minimum requirements required to uphold merit (Chapter 2).
However, the description of merit in legislation is unclear and, as a result, agencies have built layers of unnecessary process. For example, at times:
- the existing requirement to provide a reasonable opportunity to all eligible members of the community to apply for a vacancy has led agencies to advertise widely
- the requirement for a competitive selection process has led agencies to use complex, cumbersome and ineffective selection processes to compare individual candidates against one another.
In 2015, only 34% of APS employees agreed that their agency applied merit appropriately2.
Myths about merit
These common myths limit potential applicants and delay the recruitment process
Myth – Complex selection criteria are mandatory
Applicants need only be asked to provide enough information to allow an initial assessment of their capacity to do the job. This may be as simple as a resume of their skills and qualifications.
Myth – Interviews are essential
Applicants need to be assessed against one another and against the requirements of the job. An interview is not the only way of doing this and other methods should be explored. At interview, candidates do not need to be asked identical questions.
Myth – A reference is required for all applicants
A referee's report is one way to get information to help to assess a candidate. It is not a mandatory requirement.
Myth – An advertisement must specify a particular classification level
An advertisement can cover a range of remuneration levels, with the final decision on classification based on an assessment of what the successful candidate brings to the job.
Myth – It's all about classification
It's about the role. The classification is a backroom assessment based on the work value of the job. This can be impacted by the skills and experience the person brings to the role.
Complex recruitment processes get in the way
Within the existing legislation, the proper application of merit is simpler than current practices suggest. A number of myths have evolved over time, leading to advertising practices and complex selection processes that result in poor recruitment outcomes and unnecessary costs, including:
- loss of potential applicants, particularly external applicants who will not engage with complex process and language
- failure to get the right person because the emphasis is on process not the individual
- loss of good people who do not wait for the process to be concluded
- productivity cost of carrying a vacancy. In 2014-15, the APS median time to start was 60 working days.
– Jane Halton AO PSM
Secretary of the Department of Finance
Timeframes for recruitment and impact on productivity
In 2014-15, the APS median time to start (from job advertisement to commencement) for internal and external candidates combined was 60 working days3, compared with the industry sample benchmark of 50 working days4.
Notably, external candidates face additional delays in recruitment. In 2014-15, the median time to start for external candidates was 68 working days.
The APS is funded to deliver government priorities and services, with the expectation that the right people and capabilities are in place. Long recruitment timeframes have a significant productivity impact for government and the community. Productivity loss across the APS is more measurable where candidates
are recruited from outside the APS. Internal candidates generally continue to contribute to productivity regardless of recruitment timeframes.
The estimated productivity lost during the median time taken to recruit external candidates in 2014-15 equated to approximately 689 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) or $53.8 million. Reducing the median time to start by 18 working days to the industry sample median of 50 working days would have reduced the
productivity loss by approximately 183 FTE or $14.2 million5.
Clearly, while a reduction in the number of days to recruit from 68 to 50 may not be large, the overall impact on productivity is significant.
It is important to note that productivity improvements do not equate to financial benefits such as cash savings. While the public sector faces challenges in measuring productivity6, it is still useful to consider the effect of lost output associated with carrying a vacancy for an extended period of
time. Despite agency efforts to cover the workload of a vacant role, there will inevitably be an impact to the overall productivity of the APS.
A merit process is required for all promotions
A merit process is generally applied to promote an existing employee, even in circumstances where the employee has consistently shown that they can perform at the higher level, or where an employee has been identified on a succession plan. This causes delays for the business and incurs costs associated
with unnecessary process, including the time of other applicants and evaluation panels. It also fails to appropriately recognise or reward an individual's performance.
– Senior Leader
New South Wales Public Service
Merit in the Canadian Public Service
Merit in the Canadian Public Service was redesigned to provide agencies with greater flexibility in recruitment. Canada's Public Service Employment Act 2003 allows agencies to choose whether to advertise a vacancy, and whether to conduct an internal or external recruitment process. These choices must be consistent with the agency's HR plan, workforce planning targets, and the core public service values (including merit).
Successful candidates in the Canadian Public Service must meet the essential qualifications for the position, and should support present and future organisational or operational requirements. The Canadian legislative description of merit does not include a reasonable opportunity to apply. Hiring managers
do not need to consider more than one person for a role. Agencies are able to promote employees based on performance or identified talent management.
The existing APS classification system
The existing APS classification system has 11 levels. In most circumstances, movement to the next level is only through promotion to a new position following a competitive selection process. It is unclear how this rigid system supports a flexible workforce or enables employees to be recognised and
rewarded for their individual skills, contribution and performance.
Employees can appeal promotion decisions
Current rules provide that APS employees who are unsuccessful in their application for a promotion to a position at the APS 2-6 level may be able to appeal the decision to the Merit Protection Commissioner (MPC) without the responsible agency undertaking an initial review.
Comparatively few promotion decisions were reviewed in 2014-15. Out of 2,910 promotion decisions, only 41 were considered by the MPC. Of these, one was overturned. There were similar outcomes in 2013-14, when 233 decisions were reviewed from a total of 5,052 promotions. Only two were overturned.
Although the total number of decisions overturned is low, the right to review promotion decisions adds to the time it takes to fill vacancies at the APS 2-6 levels. It also perpetuates an overly risk averse approach, with practitioners setting in place complex processes 'in case of review'.
There is a view that the potential for review of a promotion decision by the MPC supports merit, as it provides assurance that processes are conducted properly, and presents an opportunity for the MPC to assist agencies to further develop their recruitment skills. However, limiting access to promotion
reviews need not compromise merit. There should be a balance between agency accountability for their management decisions and external oversight.
This should also be the case for other management decisions that can be referred to the MPC for review.
Promotion reviews in the New South Wales Public Service
Prior to the Government Sector Employment Act 2013 (GSE Act), New South Wales public service employment practices were managed through the Industrial Relations Commission. Promotion appeals progressively fell into disuse with very few appeals lodged and almost none successful. Under the GSE Act, the Industrial
Relations Commission no longer hears promotion appeals. Instead, Part 4 of the GSE Rules sets out the requirements in relation to internal reviews of promotion decisions. In short, the Rules state that an unsuccessful candidate may request a review on the grounds that the process was improper. The review
is conducted by a senior executive appointed by the Agency Head and is conducted within 10 business days. The decision of the reviewer is final.
7. Renew APSJobs
An approach to market for outsourcing APSJobs is anticipated. Benefits include improving the APS brand positioning and providing a better, more engaging, exciting and contemporary user experience, leading to better reach and improved quality of applicants.
8. Examine the legislative description of merit, with a view to simplifying
Section 10A(2) of the Act and Chapter 2 of the Directions should be reviewed to ensure they are clear about the circumstances where:
- a limited field may be reasonable and appropriate, and/or
- an assessment of the candidates against the requirements of the job is sufficient.
It is noted that any legislative review will require further analysis, legal advice and consultation.
9. Allow a modified approach to merit for promotions in defined circumstances
A modified approach to merit should be developed in circumstances where an employee has already established their credentials as the best person for the job, including through a talent program.
10. Apply merit through simple and appropriate recruitment processes
Agencies should be encouraged to remove unnecessary processes that have evolved over time, but are not required by legislation and are not finding the best person for the job. There is no one single process that suits all recruitment needs; HR practitioners should not be locked into always advertising
in a certain way, recruiting to classification levels or running complex interview processes.
It is important to invest in selecting the right person, but there can be different ways of doing this. The process should not lead the outcome.
- Decisions around where and how to advertise, and how to run a fair and transparent selection process will depend upon the:
- nature of the work
- number and type of applicants who may be suitable
- existing operating environment, including external competition for talent.
- Finding the best applicant for a job—the person with the greatest merit—will involve a transparent process that fairly assesses the skills and qualities of an individual against what is needed by the business.
- Process should not take the focus away from the real value an individual brings. A rigid approach to recruiting for levels can restrict the applicant pool.
- Recruitment processes should facilitate participation by all diversity groups. A fair and effective process should provide a level playing field. It cannot embed bias against a particular group of candidates.
- A complicated merit process should not be justified by a perception that it is a requirement particular to the APS. Merit is also an underlying principle in the private sector.
11. Review the APS classification system
Review the APS classification system and its application to determine how it can more effectively support an agile and high performing workforce.
12. Centralise transactional recruitment activity for some cohorts
For some cohorts—e.g. graduates—there may be an advantage in managing advertising and recruitment centrally. In this way, positions can be offered across a number of departments and agencies.
The arrangements could be managed by an identified centre of excellence.
Agencies could opt-in to any centralised arrangements, depending on their in-house capabilities and business needs.
Such an approach has benefits that include:
- a focus on the APS brand and the breadth of opportunities—this may attract more applicants and improve APS competitiveness
- an improved experience for new recruits by removing the need to complete multiple applications
- facilitating a coordinated approach to mobility and development
- potential savings from economies of scale in marketing, assessment and administration.
13. Review the system of appeal for management decisions, including promotion decisions
The current system of appeal is out of step with wider employment practices and should be reviewed. Appeals for most employment matters should be managed at the agency level.
1 researchacma, Report 1 – Australians' digital lives, Communications report 2013-14 series, ACMA, Commonwealth of Australia, 2015.
2 Australian Public Service Commission, State of the Service Report 2014-15, p. 28.
3 Working days include the number of days from the date the opportunity was gazetted to the earliest of: the candidate's start date for new engagements; the date of gazettal plus 10 working days for promotions at the APS 1-6 level; or the date
of gazettal for all other promotions and transfers. APS data is sourced from APSJobs and is based on data entered by agencies.
4 Time to start for professional, non-sales positions in the Mercer (Australia) Human Resource Effectiveness Monitor 2014 is defined as the total number of working days taken to recruit candidates, starting from the date a job requisition
is approved, to the date the candidate commences employment.
5 Productivity loss associated with extended recruitment timelines for external candidates is the median time to start as a percentage of the number of working days in a year across the workforce (approximately 228 days).The percentage loss
is converted into the equivalent FTE by multiplying the proportion of loss by the number of engagements. The equivalent FTE is then multiplied by the median APS base salary from the 2014 APSC Remuneration Survey for an estimated cost. A similar methodology was used to estimate the productivity cost of
employee sick leave and is described in the Australian Public Service Commision, State of the Service Report 2013-14, p. 129. Calculation steps are provided in Appendix B.
6 Australian Public Service Commision, State of the Service Report 2013-14, p. 21.