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Increasing flexibility

What the APS needs

  • Business needs determine employment arrangements, and there is an appropriate balance between ongoing and temporary employment arrangements.
  • Continuous renewal in senior ranks is facilitated
    by transitioning SES to specified period employment arrangements.
  • A capability interchange approach, supported by management, facilitates mobility and talent management across the APS so that:
    • critical skills are matched to critical business needs
    • employees are motivated and challenged by opportunities and new experiences.
  • Secondments across the APS, to and from other jurisdictions, and with the private sector, are facilitated through a central service.
  • Employer-initiated separations are respectful and blame free, where possible.

An APS that is highly responsive to the community and government needs a dynamic workforce. Business priorities should determine employment arrangements, so that there is the right balance between those employed for specified periods and ongoing employees depending on the nature of the work and anticipated
future needs. Capability should be easily accessed and refreshed, and the best people mobilised to address emerging priorities. This means freeing up restrictions around temporary employment and workforce renewal as well as enabling employees to move more freely within the service, and in and out of
other jurisdictions and the private sector.

In addition to legislative amendments, the APS needs a cultural shift so that separation becomes an accepted part of continuous workforce renewal, and is respectful and blameless, where appropriate. Separations are conducted in a reasonable timeframe and employees exit as ambassadors for their agency,
not as an aggrieved party.

What we found

The employment of people for specified periods is too restrictive

The Act provides that the usual basis of employment in the APS is as an ongoing employee (section 10A(1)(b)).

Rules governing the engagement of non-ongoing employees other than SES employees are provided in the Public Service Regulations 1999 (the Regulations) (Regulation 3.5). An Agency Head can engage a person to undertake duties that are irregular or intermittent, for a specified task, or for a specified
term. These are most commonly used where the duties to be performed are not predicted to extend beyond a given period. The maximum period of a specified term is generally three years, with the possibility of a one year extension if approved by the Australian Public Service Commissioner.

Fixed term employment in the private sector

The APS and the private sector use very different language to describe employment arrangements. The private sector generally refers to permanent, fixed term and temporary employees. By contrast, the APS refers to employees as ongoing, non-ongoing or labour hire. In the private sector, permanent employment
can generally be terminated within a 3-6 month period.

In addition to the restrictions on the maximum length of the specified period of employment, the Directions (Chapter 2) include minimum requirements for advertising temporary positions.

To fill a vacancy for a specified period of more than 12 months, or to extend a term of employment to more than a total period of 12 months, the position must be advertised, and the selection of a successful candidate must be on the basis of a competitive selection process.

If there continues to be a business need for the position at the end of the maximum period, the vacancy must be advertised and applicants assessed through a competitive process. This is the case even when the employee who has occupied the position is available to continue and has performed well.

Agencies find the provisions for filling vacancies for specified periods are not only overly restrictive, but confusing and difficult to navigate.

Decisions on the type of employment arrangements used to fill a vacancy should reflect the predicted future priorities of the business. Core business is not necessarily stable or predictable. As policy and delivery challenges become increasingly complex and interlocked, it is difficult to anticipate
how long projects and programs will need to be resourced, and it is no longer appropriate to restrict the employment arrangements to a maximum period of four years.

There is value in having an experienced, longer term workforce with corporate knowledge to underpin the work of the APS. However, there is a need to have the capacity to quickly mobilise skills required at any point in time. The APS also predominately promotes from within without realising the full
benefits of bringing in new skills and fresh perspectives.

The APS requires the flexibility to match its workforce to business priorities. It must use its employment arrangements more strategically to accommodate longer term needs and, when necessary, to resource specific projects or bolster capability in key areas.

At 30 June 2015, almost 16,000 APS employees were employed on a non-ongoing basis, representing just over 10% of the total APS workforce1. Over the past decade the proportion of non-ongoing employees in the APS has increased, however, these employees are concentrated at lower levels and in casual work2.

  • 90.9% are at APS 1-6 levels with 8.5% at EL and 0.6% at SES
  • 54% are casuals and 42% are specified term.

Aligning business objectives with the strategic use of employment arrangements, and striking a balance between longer term and specified period employment is particularly important at higher levels.

Research indicates that a degree of refresh at the senior executive level can help organisations adapt to changing environments3. The introduction of competitive tension also encourages a focus on continuous improvement.

The APS does not appear to be assessing and using its SES capability strategically, with only 3.6% of all SES on specified term contracts, at 30 June 2015.

Targeted mobility can help strike a balance between depth and breadth of experience

When used strategically, mobility can build a workforce that strikes the right balance between employees with a breadth of experience spanning different agencies and sectors, and employees with deep subject matter expertise in their field. The targeted use of mobility provides a range of benefits by:

  • maintaining the engagement levels of top talent by quickly moving them to work on the most challenging emerging problems
  • exposing employees to a range of approaches to policy development, service delivery, leadership styles and management practices, which they then take back to their home agency
  • building employee networks, which forge closer partnerships across agencies and sectors. This also helps employees understand how policy issues cut across agencies and impact business and the community
  • providing an opportunity for employee development. This includes building the portfolio of experiences needed to become a well-rounded employee and building resilience by moving out of their comfort zones.

Interchange and secondments

UK Civil Service interchange and secondments

The UK Civil Service Reform Plan identified the need to encourage the flow of people between the Civil Service and other sectors, in order to develop better understanding of how other sectors work, broaden skills and develop talent. The Secondments and Interchange Programme is building momentum so
that movements in and out of the Civil Service are part of a successful career, where it is normal for civil servants to have periods working in other sectors.

Partnerships with other organisations resulted in 60 placements during 2014; 43 outward and 17 inward. This target has increased to 100 placements in 2015.

APS-Jawun Secondment Program

Since 2011, APS middle managers have been able to complete a secondment with an Indigenous organisation as part of the APS-Jawun Secondment Program. The program is a partnership between the APS and Jawun, a not-for-profit organisation that brokers secondments for corporate and public sector employees
to Indigenous communities.

The secondments provide a valuable opportunity for APS middle managers to gain insights into Indigenous communities, culture and the impact of government policy on Indigenous Australia. They are a tangible way for the APS to contribute to the reconciliation process in Australia.

Since the pilot program, which offered 11 secondments in 2011, the APS-Jawun partnership has progressively grown. In its first full year in 2012, the program brokered 36 APS secondments. By 2015, the program was offering up to 75 secondments per year. The APS's involvement in the program is centrally
coordinated by the APSC.

APS cross sector secondments

The APSC is currently piloting a secondment program to provide senior public servants with an opportunity to complete secondments to private sector companies, other government jurisdictions and the not-for-profit sector. The program is part of an overarching strategy to promote more effective engagement
with other sectors, and expand the skills and perspectives of public servants.

The aim of the secondments is to ensure that senior public servants have deeper insights into the pressures shaping other sectors, including by directly experiencing the impact of government policy and regulation on them. The secondments will also expose senior public servants to a range of different
leadership and management practices. The program is expected improve the capacity of senior public servants to design programs and services based on a deeper understanding of the operating environment and constraints faced by business and organisations directly supporting the Australian community.

The secondments will complement programs already in place in individual agencies such as the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

Mobility unlocks organisational agility by enabling capability to be quickly moved to emerging priorities.

At an APS-wide level, in the absence of comprehensive strategic workforce planning and systematic talent management, it is difficult to have confidence that the best people are doing the most critical work. Where specific capability is needed to meet an emerging business need, the absence of an effective APS-wide mobility mechanism means that agencies generally rely on their own workforces, personal networks and expressions of interest processes.

Movement between agencies and in and out of the APS is limited

The APS would benefit from a more targeted approach to mobility, both within the APS and externally.

Mobility in the APS is highly variable. Some agencies have a strong culture encouraging employees to move between agencies to build experience, while others have primarily long-serving employees who have worked in a single agency.

Mobility between agencies (2000–01 to 2014–15)4

Evidence suggests that, taken as a whole, mobility within the APS is relatively limited5.

  • Over the past 15 years mobility rates have fluctuated between 1.1% and 3.1% of the APS workforce6.
  • In 2014-15 1.6% or 2,294 ongoing APS employees moved between agencies.
  • In the last five years, only 2.4% of ongoing APS employees had been on a temporary transfer7.
  • Limited mobility risks employees with a narrow range of perspectives and experiences:
  • in the APS, only 40% of Executive Level (EL)middle managers have worked in more than one agency
  • this improves at the SES level, where 63% of employees have worked in more than one agency.

Cross-agency experience8

Median length of service

The APS has a long-serving and experienced workforce. For example, at the SES level the median length of service is 20.3 years.

While substantial APS experience has the benefit of building a workforce that is highly skilled in public service craft, this should be balanced with external experiences that promote a broader perspective and enable public servants to better understand the impact of government policy on business, the community and other sectors.

A number of programs that have been put in place to build experiences beyond the APS, including the APS-Jawun Secondment Program and a new APSC pilot program offering secondments for senior public servants to private sector companies. However, in general, options for gaining a period of experience outside the APS, including in other jurisdictions and the private sector, are limited. Generally, APS employees who wish to gain outside experience with a guaranteed position on return can only do so if a period of leave without pay is approved.

The APS would benefit by establishing mobility relationships that enable employees from the private sector, not-for-profit sector and other jurisdictions to complete secondments or exchanges with the APS. This will build two-way insights, collaboration and ongoing networks.

Mobility at the Department of Education and Training

In December 2014, the Department of Education and Training launched a mobility program. The program is open to all employees who self-nominate to take part. Participants indicate whether they are seeking a move inside the department—either within their career cluster or outside their cluster—or outside the department.

As at 1 December 2015:

  • 356 employees had registered for the program
  • 121 successfully moved to other roles in the department
  • 29 had moved temporarily or permanently to other departments.

Separation is often seen as punitive. Legislation is prescriptive, processes are lengthy and complex, and managers are risk averse

Section 29 of the Act specifies the grounds for terminating the employment of ongoing APS employees. The grounds for termination include being excess to the requirements of the agency, having lost an essential qualification, unsatisfactory performance, and breach of the APS Code of Conduct.

These grounds are overly prescriptive and are inconsistent with the practices that apply in the broader community. For example, there may be a need to provide for circumstances where an Agency Head no longer has confidence in an employee's capacity to perform a role or uphold the interests of the APS.

Where grounds can be established, there is a perception that all employer-initiated separations are a punishment meted out for poor performance or
bad behaviour.

For most separations, processes are unnecessarily lengthy and prescriptive. This is particularly the case for terminations on the grounds of poor performance. Managers are risk averse, at least in part due to a limited understanding of the law and fear of having a decision challenged. Neither agencies
nor employees are well served by processes that delay separation. Agencies experience a loss of productivity, while employees suffer uncertainty.

When people separate, we talk about them exiting as ambassadors.
– Senior Leader
New Zealand Public Service
October 2015

Redundancies are not used strategically

Unlike many private companies, the APS continues to use voluntary redundancies (VR). Anecdotally, there is evidence that these are not being used strategically to deliver the right capability for business.

Redundancy provisions should only apply where an employee is genuinely excess or where their capability is no longer required. This reflects the approach that is being increasingly adopted in the private sector, where the use of voluntary redundancies is declining. For example, it was reported in September 2015 that Telstra has recently adopted new rules that mean employees will not be offered a redundancy if they have the skills to be redeployed into an alternative role.

The decision on whether a person is redundant should be based on an assessment of their capability against business priorities. This does not mean an overly complex or lengthy process. However, it requires a clear description of the role to be performed and a consistent methodology that matches capability to business needs.

Such an assessment may result in the identification of capability gaps. Every opportunity should be taken to redeploy excess employees. However, changing business often lead to a need for new skills.

The imperative to make strategic decisions about capability equally applies in circumstances where overall staffing numbers need to be reduced when a 'spill and fill' approach is taken. A 'hands up' approach to reduce numbers—or an invitation to apply for a limited number of positions—can see agencies lose vital capability. There is anecdotal evidence that when employees have the opportunity to volunteer to be made redundant, the people most capable and confident of getting a job elsewhere often self-nominate.

In such cases, morale is often damaged and organisational productivity is impacted by employees remaining in the workplace while they wait to be offered the opportunity for a VR. The unintended outcome is that less effective performers can be rewarded by remaining.

Probation should be used to test 'fit'

A period of probation provides the opportunity for the employer to assess whether or not a recruitment process has led to the right outcome.

If probation is not used effectively, it can lead to the ongoing engagement of an unsuitable employee and the need to manage underperformance after employment has been confirmed, resulting in avoidable complexities.

Employer-initiated separation during probation is not typical in the APS. Over the last five years, less than 1% of new entrants were separated from the APS during their probationary period9. One large agency reported that only two people were separated during probation in 2014-15.

Ineffective use of probation was raised at focus groups with agency HR practitioners. This was attributed in part to overly complicated processes applied inconsistently across the APS, as well as to a need to further educate and empower managers to exercise existing people management responsibilities.
Ineffective use of probation is also the result of a culture that sees employer-initiated separation as punitive, rather than a legitimate management action that can be respectful and blame free.10

Separations from the APS (2014–15) 46

Proposed actions

Consider the legislative provisions on specified period employment arrangements

Decisions about the type of employment should be based on the needs of the business, rather than arbitrary rules. A flexible APS workforce would have a balance of ongoing and non-ongoing employees at different levels to meet business priorities.

Regulation 3.5 and Chapter 2 of the Directions should be reviewed with a view to:

  • removing or extending the current three year limit on specified period employment arrangements
  • reviewing the process for engaging a person at the end of a specified period, for a further specified period. As part of a broader review of merit, consider what process is reasonable and appropriate in circumstances where there is opportunity for an employee to have a specified employment arrangement
    extended or renewed.

It is noted that any legislative review will require further analysis, legal advice and consultation.

Increased use of specified period employment arrangements for SES

SES employees should be engaged on a basis that reflects business needs. Use of specified term employment arrangements for SES

will facilitate workforce refresh and improve alignment with business priorities.

There needs to be a cultural shift where it is acknowledged that people are employed in response to organisational needs, and that decisions on whether to extend a contract are based on those needs, not performance. This is part of the broader shift where separation is respectful, blame free and an accepted part of legitimate workforce renewal.

This may also reduce the prevalence of employer-initiated separations for SES employees currently available under section 37 of the Act.

Implement an APS capability interchange

A central APS capability interchange will facilitate the movement of employees with critical skill sets who will benefit from gaining experience in other areas. This will provide a good pathway for building employees with a wide-angle lens.

It is essential that the capabilty interchange be supported by managers, and viewed in the context of whole-of-government outcomes and positive opportunities for employees and employers alike.

Develop a central secondment brokerage service

Establish a secondment brokerage service to expand on current offerings. The secondment service should offer targeted secondments within the APS and externally, including to the private and not-for-profit sectors, and to state and territory jurisdictions.

Consider the legislative provisions for separations. Allow greater flexibility for no-blame separations

There should be greater flexibility for respectful, blame free separations.

  • Grounds for termination under section 29 of the Act should be reviewed to determine whether they are necessary or whether section 20 of the Act and provisions in the Fair Work Act 2009 offer an adequate framework for termination of employment.
  • If it is determined that the grounds for termination under section 29 of the Act should remain, then consideration should be given to whether there is a case for additional grounds for termination in legislation.
  • Legislation should also provide agencies with the flexibility to offer appropriate monetary incentives for separation, where this is in the interest of the business or the APS.
  • Specified period employment arrangements should include options for blame free separation.

It is noted that:

  • any legislative review will require further analysis, legal advice and consultation
  • more appropriate options for blame free separations may reduce the use of voluntary redundancies.

Support a culture where separation is not punitive and is an accepted part of workforce renewal

The APS needs a cultural shift so that roles are not viewed as static. As the operating environment changes, the skills required for a particular job also change. No single job is for life, and in circumstances where an employee no longer meets the needs of a particular role, separation should be viewed as part of the normal employment cycle.

Managers also need to re-assess their approach to separation and remove unnecessary processes that have evolved over time but are not required by legislation. They need the support of senior management and HR to make good decisions in the best interest of the agency.

Reinforce use of the probation period to confirm fit

Support the effective use of the probation period to confirm that the engagement suits the agency and the APS.

A probation period:

  • is a check on the recruitment decision
  • provides the opportunity for the agency to assess whether or not an appointment meets expectations and benefits the APS
  • reduces the need to deal with an unsuitable appointment, or poor fit, after employment has been confirmed
  • reduces the need to manage poor performance after employment has been confirmed.

1 Australian Public Service Commission, APS Statistical Bulletin 2014-15, p.26.

2 Ibid, pp.26-27.

3 Pfeffer & Salancik and Wiersema & Bantel, cited in Shen, W. and Cho, T.S., 'Exploring Involuntary Turnover through a Managerial Discretion Framework', Academy of Management Review, vol 30 (4), Oct 2005.

4 Australian Public Service Commission, State of the Service Report 2014-15, http://stateoftheservice.apsc.gov.au/2015/10/inter-agency-mobility/.

5 Note: In the APS, mobility refers to transfers and promotions that involve moving to another agency. The number of employee secondments between agencies is not recorded in the APS Employment Database and is therefore excluded from APS mobility
data in this report. Mobility is calculated as a percentage of the average APS population.

6 Australian Public Service Commission, APS Statistical Bulletin 2014-15, p.69.

7 Analysis from APSC APS Employment Database (APSED), noting secondments cannot be captured in APSED.

8 Australian Public Service Commission, APS Statistical Bulletin 2014-15, p.69.

9 Analysis from APSC APS Employment Database. Probation is one of several conditions that may be imposed on new entrants to the APS. Separations data is for the aggregate number of employees who were separated due to failure to meet a condition
of engagement. Other conditions include citizenship, health checks and security clearances.

10 Australian Public Service Commission, Statistical Bulletin 2014-15, Table 45; Analysis from APSC APS Employment Database.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018