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Workplace relations: the better practice journey of a large APS agency

Edition: 6

This article is written by Director of Workplace Relations Gary Williamson from Services Australia.

Workplace relations can sometimes have a bad reputation.

It’s the ‘hard’ end of human resource management. It’s often about managing complex matters, where the parties can have competing positions. Whether you’re assisting in the management of underperformance, Code of Conduct, Reviews of Action, disputes before the Fair Work Commission, implementing major change or negotiating an Enterprise Agreement, these are rarely easy. However, when you get it right, you can improve staff morale, engagement and productivity – and these will be reflected in your business outcomes.

Workplace relations at Services Australia

Services Australia is very large and complex. We have a workforce of around 40,000 mostly APS staff, complemented with additional labour hire, contractors and service providers working in 434 sites across Australia. We make payments of approximately $200 billion per year and have nearly 400 million customer interactions.

From 2014 to 2017, the then-Department of Human Services (now Services Australia) was involved in a long and adversarial period of enterprise bargaining negotiations before agreeing to the Enterprise Agreement 2017-2020 (EA). This period included three significant ‘no’ votes (84%, 79% and 73%), significant industrial action and 1,221 days between the expiry of one EA and a new EA coming into operation. Many staff had no pay increase for four years and four months. This process impacted staff morale and trust in their leaders.

To ensure an improved and timely process for the following bargaining round, the organisation committed to commence bargaining in November 2019 – providing 12 months to negotiate and effectively implement a new agreement that would take effect from 3 November 2020 (the day after the EA nominally expires). In preparation and to inform bargaining, my workplace relations team:

  • conducted a ‘health check’ of the current EA
  • researched and developed over 20 position papers on key matters such as remuneration, performance management, leave and working hours
  • undertook a ‘Design Hub’ with staff from across the then-Department (at all classifications) to provide feedback on the last bargaining process and the process staff would like to see in the next bargaining process
  • spoke with over 200 managers and surveyed a large number of leaders on what was important to them and any challenges in the current EA, and
  • developed a comprehensive communication and engagement strategy to bring staff and our leaders with us every step of the way.

Throughout all of this, our work was guided by the key principle of genuine communication and engagement. We wanted to see what people thought, and worked to create a shared understanding and way forward. While we cannot forget the requirements of formal consultation or the legal rights and entitlements of different parties, in all circumstances we want to aim higher than that and seek to build a trusting and positive relationship. That’s part of why we call our function ‘workplace relations’ and not ‘industrial relations’.

The last 12 months – what does good workplace relations look like?

My workplace relations team wanted to make the next bargaining process a positive experience for staff. We wanted to bring staff with us – and we did not want the process to disrupt the organisation’s transformation agenda or adversely impact our critical services, in the interests of the Australian community.

Along with 35 other APS agencies over 2019, the Executive decided in October 2019 to pursue the alternative path of a determination under section 24(1) of the Public Service Act 1999. This allowed for the Agency head to determine the pay and conditions, rather than through bargaining. This approach had not been available under previous government workplace bargaining policy, and was a new concept to staff. Given the mistrust from the last bargaining process, this proposal was understandably greeted with scepticism.

It was critical that we educated and assured staff on the merits of this new industrial alternative, which hadn’t been seen in 22 years of enterprise agreements. For example, when we advised staff that the earliest possible maximum pay increases could be offered with no loss in employment conditions, given the EA continued to operate, feedback was that ‘it was too good to be true’. Some staff strongly felt the determination could – and would – subsequently be reneged upon.

Another dynamic was the Government’s decision during the team’s information campaign in December 2019 to create and transfer staff from the then-Department of Human Services into the new Services Australia agency in 2020. This brought yet another determination option under the Act into the mix (under section 24(3)) to maintain the EA in the new agency.

To inform the voting outcome, in the 6-week lead-up to and over the 16-20 December 2019 voting period, we worked tirelessly. We attended 98 sites, delivered 725 information sessions nationally and met face-to-face or virtually with 10,123 staff. We also used town hall meetings, video on demand and provided communication tips for our team leaders, managers and Senior Executives. Of the 73% (21,717) of staff who voted, 93% (20,198) supported a determination. It is likely this positive outcome was due both to our work in the organisation building trust with staff through positive communications and engagement, and staff not wanting another drawn-out bargaining process.

As a consequence, staff and the organisation now have certainty over their employment conditions and can focus on key priorities without industrial disruption.

Our staff survey results also show significant improvement, with staff feeling more engaged and valued, having increased satisfaction with remuneration, and a belief that the change was well-managed. The significance of the change in staff sentiment cannot be overstated. This was highlighted in comments by staff on the previous EA process, including ‘I lost confidence in management’ and ‘There is still a lot of anger around’. This contrasts with comments about the new process, such as ‘I feel the organisation is changing and I feel more valued’ and ‘the Determination is an excellent option’.

As always, this successful outcome was the result of many contributors including a fantastic team of professionals in the workplace relations team, strong support from our internal communications team and HR colleagues, supportive HR senior leadership, an Executive and Secretary who valued staff, and a collaborative approach by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU). The role of the CPSU in openly exploring the benefits and drawbacks of a bargaining or a determination approach and listening to members’ views before taking a position was, I believe, critical to the outcome.

Continuing better practice

Services Australia priorities in 2020 have changed, including significant emergency responses to bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In relation to COVID-19, the incredible response by the agency (with staffing assistance from other APS agencies) to its challenges is on the public record, as is related appreciation from the Prime Minister and the many Australians who have not previously needed support from us.

We have also contributed from a workplace relations perspective. My team has met and briefed the CPSU on average twice each week throughout the pandemic. This has included over 52 meetings and over 450 emails to the union in just six months. This collaborative approach has ensured Services Australia’s focus has been on the urgency and adaptability of an unprecedented and ongoing response to COVID-19. It has placed the best interests of vulnerable Australians and the safety of our staff to the fore, without the distraction of unstable employment conditions being negotiated in parallel.

I believe our ability to learn from the past, conduct appropriate research, and our passion and commitment to implementing better practice approaches, have all contributed to delivering improved outcomes that have benefitted not only staff and the agency, but also millions of Australians. 

About the author

Gary Williamson is the Director of Workplace Relations in Services Australia, and a highly experienced HR and workplace relations professional. Gary’s goals in the workplace are to develop his staff, build organisational capability, implement positive cultural change and improve staff satisfaction and engagement. He also has qualifications in industrial relations, a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws.

Last reviewed: 
17 November 2020