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Overview of 2015-16


Annwyn Godwin
Merit Protection Commissioner

My statutory role as Merit Protection Commissioner is set out in the Public Service Act 1999 (the PS Act) and the Public Service Regulations (the Regulations). I deliver review and fee-related services, principally to the Australian Public Service (APS). In performing my role, I am assisted by the staff of the Australian Public Service Commission (the Commission).

The operation of my Office has evolved in the eight years I have been the Merit Protection Commissioner. The title may have remained the same; however, the strategic focus and management skills have not. Policies and practices around the handling and delivery of our services have changed in response to Commission restructuring, new opportunities and continuous internal evaluation.

What has not changed is the quality of the outputs delivered. My overarching aim is for my Office to be a centre of expertise providing impartial, professional and quality services that support the integrity of the APS. In exercising my functions, I and my Office:

  • model and promote fair, consistent, transparent and quality employment-related decision-making
  • encourage positive, respectful and professional working relationships between parties
  • support effective public administration through effective people management policies and practices
  • provide ongoing learning and thought leadership based on my Office's unique perspective on the APS.

Independent review by the Merit Protection Commissioner ensures consistent standards of employment decision-making and people management practices across the APS. It supports accountability in the APS employment framework and promotes fair and impartial employment decision-making.

Importantly, merits review is a cost-effective way of resolving employment disputes without the need for recourse to courts or tribunals. Involving courts and tribunals can be costly, entrenching positions and increasing the risk that decisions will impose additional procedural requirements on APS employment decision-making and thereby limit APS employment framework flexibility.

'I am often asked "Why does the APS need a Merit Protection Commissioner?".

My answer is that in a perfect world, we wouldn't. But while the APS aspires to uphold and promote the Values as an elemental core of a world-class institution, and employees must adhere to the Code of Conduct, we are more than just needed, we are essential. The APS is composed of people and we are as diverse as our community. Our people have different backgrounds and experiences, can misinterpret actions and, as humans, make mistakes and act inappropriately.

My role gives an agency an opportunity to reinforce the Values with appropriate action and gives employees an opportunity for actions and decisions to be considered independently of the agency. I want employees and managers to learn from mistakes, to continually strive towards creating the productive and harmonious workplace envisaged by the APS Values. I, and my staff, see this as the ultimate goal of review work. In summary, all our actions are designed to do me out of a job!'

(Annwyn Godwin, 2016)

A substantial part of my role is to assist agencies in a practical way to meet the requirements of the Employment Principles, Values and the Code of Conduct. The reviews conducted by my Office help agencies manage relationships that are in danger, address employees' concerns and return the workplace to a productive state. My work also assists APS employees to understand management decisions and manage expectations about what can be reasonably expected of their employer.

During the year, I and my staff worked on improving our communication with clients, particularly through website initiatives. Work commenced on a complete redevelopment of my website in November 2015. At the time of this report, the site was nearing completion. My Office is also introducing a new case management system, the building of which commenced this financial year. The system will incorporate an interactive portal to allow clients to be updated electronically on the progress of their cases. I have also introduced a newsletter directed at APS managers and human resource practitioners to highlight issues of importance and lessons learned from my review and other services.

Performance highlights

The review casework and fee-related services are demand driven and are affected by policy changes in APS employment and activity in individual agencies. For example, a significant increase in recruitment activity in large agencies this year has seen an almost three-fold increase in promotion review activity. This is the second highest level since the commencement of the PS Act in December 1999.

Despite the increased caseload, my Office has met all its timeliness targets. Over 90% of general reviews and 96% of promotion reviews were completed within the target timeframes. This is a significant achievement. It reflects well on the professionalism and dedication of my staff and our commitment to ongoing improvement.

I have continued to work with my staff to improve the performance of review functions. In April 2016, as part of my Office's contribution to the Commission's reducing red tape initiatives, I removed the requirement for agencies to give all employees participating in a promotion review access to the selection documentation relating to the original promotion decision. This has reduced the administrative burden on agencies significantly. It is also consistent with earlier policy changes to make the promotion review process less adversarial. Promotion reviews remain an important mechanism for employees to express concern about the integrity of agency staff selection decisions and a means of providing feedback to agencies about design flaws, particularly in large-scale recruitment campaigns.

Agency response to the change to promotion review committee procedures has been positive. The Merit Protection Commissioner spoke about merit, independent selection advisory committees and promotions at an interagency recruitment forum in May. Participants were very pleased with the changes to promotion reviews.

'I should have also said this is a great change!'

(Feedback from HR practitioners, 2016)

In November 2015, I was pleased to accept my first inquiry into an alleged breach of the Code of Conduct. I have concluded three inquiries and have two matters on hand. Agencies have requested my involvement in sensitive workplace situations where they have experienced difficulty in identifying a suitable person internally to conduct the investigation and make the decision.

My Office has particular expertise in misconduct decision-making arising from our extensive exposure through the review caseload. I will be reviewing the function in the early part of 2016–17 in light of the lessons learned in 2015–16.

Promoting effectiveness and integrity in public sector employment

I contribute to the ethics and integrity framework as a member of the Integrity Agencies Group, which met twice in 2015–16. The group enables information-sharing and collaboration between statutory office holders and agencies with responsibility for integrity issues. It supports a whole-of-APS approach to maintaining a strong and ethical public service.

On 2 March 2016, I made a submission to the statutory review of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 (the PID Act). The submission outlined my concerns about the impact of the PID scheme on the effective management of employment disputes in the APS and my preference that employment grievances be excluded from the scheme. Following the submission, I participated in further discussions with the PID review team and the independent reviewer.

In December 2015, I provided observations to the Commission's team working on the Unlocking Potential review of APS workforce management practices, led by Ms Sandra McPhee, AM.

Throughout 2015–16, I have also had the opportunity to meet with seven international delegations. This assists in reinforcing Australia's role in public sector reform and improvement, particularly in the Asia–Pacific. A highlight for me was an invitation from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to give a key note presentation, 'Public Ethics: Lessons from Australia', in Mexico City in January 2016. Mexico had been the subject of an OECD integrity review and was interested in Australian initiatives in this area. Conference participants were interested in both the strategic approach—an APS culture informed by Values—and specific initiatives to promote ethics and integrity to employees. OECD representatives regularly invoked examples of the APS's experience to reinforce good practice.

During 2015–16, Norfolk Island transitioned from self-government to management by a regional council. In January 2016, I was appointed Public Service Commissioner for Norfolk Island until the transition was completed on 30 June 2016. My appointment assisted the Commonwealth and the Administrator to manage the effect of the transition on around 200 employees of the Administration of Norfolk Island. My Office provided employment review and appeal functions, and in that capacity received and completed five applications.