23 March 2023

Calls for greater APS acceptance of neurodivergent staff

| Chris Johnson
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Neurodiversity should be more widely ingrained across the APS. Photo: Aiden Rothnie.

“We’re all on the spectrum,” someone once said, and it’s a mantra that is often repeated.

What that actually means is up for debate, but when it comes to employment in the public sector, neurodiversity should be so ingrained that it’s unremarkable.

“Accessibility by default,” was the key message senior staff from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s diversity and inclusion team recently delivered to public servants.

During a podcast facilitated by the Institute of Public Administration Australia, PM&C’s Robin Edmonds, Andrew Pfeiffer and Lee Steel said many challenges remain for neurodivergent staff in the Australian Public Service.

They said there is no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling these issues, but progress is being made and de-stigmatisation must be further embraced.

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“The biggest barrier at the moment to getting support for a lot of people is that they’re really scared about the stigma around coming out as neurodivergent or as disabled, if they identify that way, and how their manager’s going to respond,” Ms Edmonds said.

“When you’ve met one neurodivergent person, you’ve met one neurodivergent person, and that’s never truer than when you’re trying to organise a good environment for them in the workplace.

“For every individual, the layers of diversity and experiences form a complex shading or colour that gives you their intersectionality.

“So you might have additional challenges if you are neurodivergent and you are also a woman, or maybe you’re a younger manager and you’re trying to really sort of establish yourself in the workplace.”

The trio suggested a five-year timeframe where, by 2028, accessibility for autistic and other neurodivergent staff was the default position.

In today’s APS, the demand for IT staff is high. That is an area in which many neurodiverse people are exceptionally good, but it can also be seen as limiting for their careers as there is no clear pathway for advancement from IT to management.

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“I’d like to see a more capable APS that reflects the public we serve, including more representation of neurodivergent people at senior levels,” Ms Steel said.

“But also managers and senior leaders who model inclusive behaviours.

“This need is to be enabled by a stronger focus on outcomes and impact rather than discrete behaviours and styles.”

The panel said there were clear ways in which inclusiveness can be adopted, starting right from the time of recruitment.

In the five-years-from-now scenario, the APS would be a very different place.

“I think we can see in 2028 recruitment processes that actually test a candidate’s aptitude for the job,” Mr Pfeiffer said.

“Recruitment processes that don’t massively overvalue the ability of candidates to write job applications in a very specific way, or to answer interview questions in a very specific way.”

Just because someone’s not giving you eye contact doesn’t mean they’re not a good fit for a particular position.

“Many neurodivergent people struggle to give eye contact, myself included,” said Pfeiffer, who has autism.

“And I think one of the things that we could very easily do is make it the default to give candidates the interview questions a short time before the interview so that that way they’ve got something to prepare from … There’s a phrase that I really love, and it says, ‘nothing about us, without us’.

“One of the great things that managers can do is listen to neurodivergent employees and to learn from us.”

The podcast was IPAA’s first Work with Purpose instalment for 2023.

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Next you won’t even need to speak English to get a job in this country because you are “linguistically diverse”. Just run the emails through Google translate.

Sign of the times. It’s fashionable to be transgender and neurodiverse.

Just a reflection of the Canberra population generally. Cannot communicate in person and looking primarily for the path of least resistance with the highest remuneration. The APS never consider why the private sector isn’t poaching their staff. The employees are just exploiting the system the APS created with more and more entitlements and less ability to sack useless and unproductive members. They are only doing what they can get away with. 2 thumbs up for taxpayers’ money. Those thumbs are just not in the air.

Scott Anthony8:51 pm 24 Mar 23

The APS has been playing ‘tick a box’ to employ the most gender and racial diversity people and then hold them up like freakshow trophies… The usual ‘mate based selection’ is alive and well leaving most APS staff under trained, under-equipped and unable to do the job effectively and efficiently the first time, but funny how there’s always time to get it right on the second attempt when you spot their numerous errors.. ! The Western World IQ fell for the first time in recorded history, and its easy to see that its not done yet…!! Tokenism is a problem, put programs and training in place to ensure everyone has real opportunity for APS employment, don’t just play diversity games with taxpayers money. Aussies deserve better, so do employees..

“I think we can see in 2028 recruitment processes that actually test a candidate’s aptitude for the job,” Mr Pfeiffer said.

This is exactly what has been happening with commercial, professional and corporate organisations for decades, as with the military. The APS is way behind, preferring to go their own way, no matter how subjective that is. There are too many people in the APS who are not well equipped for their jobs, neither well suited nor well-trained for the tasks. They massively under-perform.

Trying to get this merit based ‘fit for the job’ approach taken up in the APS has been impossible as they’re not prepared for objective assessment. Instead they want the freedom to choose the people they like, who are like them, not different, no matter how well suited to the job.

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