I have continued to use my statutory functions to assist agencies to embed the APS Values and Employment Principles, and ensure that employees behave in a way consistent with the Code of Conduct. The Merit Protection Commissioner, as an independent statutory officer, continues to provide an authoritative voice of reason in an often fractured employment relationship and assists in returning the workplace to productive equilibrium.
My focus for 2014–15 has been to consolidate gains in productivity, quality and timeliness of the review function. At the same time my office worked with agencies to improve decision-making and the handling of employment disputes.
Throughout the year I continued to support the Australian Public Service Commissioner with his statutory responsibility of promoting the APS Values, the Employment Principles and the Code of Conduct.
I have also contributed to the corporate governance of the Commission as a member of the Executive, including as independent chair of the Commission's Audit and Risk Management Committee.
Independent review by the Merit Protection Commissioner supports accountability in the APS employment framework and promotes fair and impartial employment decision-making. It is a cost-effective way of resolving employment disputes without the need for recourse to courts or tribunals. While it is difficult to make direct comparisons, high-level research on the direct 'costs of conflict' in the APS provides support for this assessment.
Feedback received from clients highlights the benefits of merits review. A sample is included in Box M1.
The review casework is demand-driven. This year saw a significant reduction in the number of applications for review. The reasons for this are unclear but it is not unprecedented. Over the last eight years, review applications have fluctuated between 150 and 240 per year.
Recruitment-related activity reduced this year, reflecting a general downturn in recruitment across the APS. This resulted in a reduced number of promotions and promotion reviews.
I have continued to work with my staff to streamline case management and improve the time taken to complete reviews while maintaining the quality of outcomes. In 2014–15, this led to a revision of my policy to decline to review matters that are lacking in substance or where the outcomes being sought by the review applicant are not achievable. The revised policy was published on the website.
An informative and easily navigated website is important for informing APS employees and human resource practitioners about the review process, managing expectations and improving relationships with our clients. Significant work was undertaken in 2014–15 to restructure the Merit Protection Commissioner's webpages to meet the needs of our client groups. We added tools such as information sheets and checklists and updated existing content. Initiatives such as these improve the timeliness of reviews as they encourage agencies and review applicants to provide the necessary information in a timely way. We continue to review and improve our information and processes.
A feedback questionnaire for review applicants was introduced in 2014–15. Over a three-month period the response rate was 40%. My staff are evaluating the information with a view to improving the questionnaire. Encouragingly, given the commitment of resources to improving our web content, preliminary analysis indicates that clients find the Merit Protection Commissioner's pages on the Commission website a useful resource. Notwithstanding work to improve the timeliness of reviews and the quality of reports, 29% were seeking clearer reasons for decisions.
The client feedback on review reports provided an impetus to introduce 'issues-based' report writing, a methodology increasingly adopted by administrative decision-makers and tribunals. This approach provides clearer, simpler and more streamlined reasons for decisions. My staff attended a training course in May 2015 for this purpose.
Other initiatives included the development of a communications strategy with an aim to incorporate audio-visual communication and social media tools to communicate more effectively with our clients. Weekly discussions with my delegates and the Group Manager Ethics identified agency-specific and systemic issues which were fed back to agencies. Where appropriate, these were also reported to the Commission Executive to inform APS employment policy development.
A key resource for agencies is my publication Not just about process, which discusses better practice in employee dispute resolution, including advice on how best to manage particular types of disputes, and the role of reviews of actions. Work commenced on revising this publication; the revised version will be available on my website in early 2015–16.
The outcomes for my statutory functions are discussed in detail below under 'Outcomes for the year'.
Ethics and integrity
A values-based culture is important to maintaining a high-performing and trustworthy APS. Key components are the APS Values and Employment Principles, the Code of Conduct and the performance management system. Code of Conduct decisions demonstrate an agency's commitment to integrity and accountability. Effective performance management systems assist managers and staff to define and achieve high-quality outcomes and the behaviours necessary to support them.
Key contributions by me and my office to the ethics and integrity framework during the year included:
- chairing the Ethics Advisory Group of agencies, which provided feedback on guidance material, including Handling misconduct: A human resources practitioner's guide to the reporting and handling of suspected and determined breaches of the APS Code of Conduct and APS Values and Code of Conduct in practice: A guide for official conduct for APS employees and agency heads. The group discussed the trends arising from the review casework and also agency initiatives for embedding the APS Values
- chairing two meetings of the Ethics Contact Officer Network, which shares information and resources on ethics in the APS. The October 2014 meeting was addressed by speakers from the Australian National Audit Office and Austrade. They spoke about identifying and managing conflicts of interest. The Australian Public Service Commissioner launched the revised Handling misconduct publication at the June 2015 meeting
- participating in the People and Values Committee of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, including providing expert advice on the development of new procedures for handling misconduct. This was required because of the amalgamation of the department with the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.
I am also a member of, and provide secretariat services to, the Integrity Agencies Group, which met twice in 2014–15. The group enables information-sharing and collaboration between statutory office holders and agencies with responsibility for integrity issues. The meetings support a whole-of-APS approach to maintaining a strong and ethical public service. I also meet regularly with representatives from the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity and the Commonwealth Ombudsman.
Working with stakeholders
The statutory independence of my office does not preclude me from working with stakeholders ranging from the Minister, to senior managers in agencies, other statutory office holders and individual employees.
I meet regularly with the Minister to discuss matters of interest in public administration and review. Where appropriate, I also provide advice on my functions to government and parliamentary inquiries. In March 2015, I made a submission to the Productivity Commission's inquiry into the workplace relations framework. The submission identified significant benefits from the review function, including:
- assisting agencies to identify 'hot spots' in their people management frameworks
- assisting agencies to recognise integrity and business risks in functional areas
- helping to ensure consistent standards of employment decision-making across the APS
- helping agencies to manage relationships in danger and assisting the workplace to return to productive equilibrium without the need for legal intervention.
In 2014–15, my office held regular discussions with agency representatives to explain review decisions and provide feedback. These included the largest agencies—the Australian Taxation Office and the departments of Defence and Human Services—and took the form of briefings of senior executives and people management practitioners. The feedback from reviews supports continuous improvement in agency practice and decision-making.
Presentations given by my office to stakeholders in 2014–15 included:
- addresses to employees on the role of the Merit Protection Commissioner, fostering respectful relationships, building the capacity for change, encouraging workforce agility in an environment of constraint, and leading with integrity
- a session on employee screening to the Security in Government Conference
- an address to the Commonwealth Regional Heads Northern Territory Annual Forum on building capacity to change
- a joint presentation with the Commonwealth Ombudsman on how good leadership delivers better governance at the Contemporary Challenges and Solutions in Governance Conference
- sessions on 'Leading with integrity—APS values and ethics' to the Senior Executive Service orientation programme.
I also work with smaller forums of employees, managers and human resource practitioners. These forums share the lessons learned from reviews, the role of leadership and the importance of ethical behaviour.
As in previous years, I participated in selection panels and was involved in selections for the Department of the Treasury and the Migration Review Tribunal and Refugee Review Tribunal. I continued to be a committee member for the ACT Public Service Awards for Excellence.
I have worked collaboratively with other statutory office holders, and in 2014–15 I continued my support for the work of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner in promoting the Male Champions of Change programme. In this capacity, I participated in the NSW Public Service Commission's women in senior positions research survey, the G20 international dialogue of women in leadership and the Monash University study of fathers, work and care.
In 2014–15 I had the opportunity to meet with officials from the Pacific Institute and Centre for Public Administration when they visited Canberra.
At the request of the Department of Foreign Affairs, I spoke on integrity and merit and the role of the Merit Protection Commissioner to Indonesian post-graduate students currently studying in Australia.
I also made a videoconference presentation to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development titled 'How good leadership delivers better governance'.
This work is valuable as it provides opportunities to share different experiences and ideas and reinforces Australia's role in the increasingly interconnected global community.