Discussion: The Australian Public Service Hiring Process

OzPhoenix 21 September 2009 73

Canberra is known as a town of public servants and many of those are known to frequent this site. Therefore, I’m wondering if the readers here can provide some insight.

I’m not a public servant and nor have I ever worked in the public service. I have worked with public servants on projects and the like, and coming from the private sector I often find their inefficiencies very frustrating. But when they’re the ones paying the money, the level of concern can only be so high.

However there seems to be a very common practice within the public service which is highly inefficient and is not just a case of the APS wasting their money (well, the tax payers’ money). I also find it’s wasting the time and impacting mental well being of others. I’m talking about the APS hiring process.

It seems that for all jobs there has to be selection criteria addressed by all applicants which are then evaluated by APS staff to choose a list of candidates to interview. The interviews then proceed and seem to require a minimum panel of three people – one of which fulfils the role of a scribe. Once the interviews have completed I gather the scribe has to write up all the notes and then the rest of the panel use that information combined with the selection criteria responses to assess who is required.

Seemingly, it’s very common for this process to take a month or more (even in the case of only several candidates). During this time the candidates can choose to just wait, or look for a job elsewhere (albeit, probably not in the APS if they consider this waiting time too long). Actually, I’d even argue that the only people who could afford to wait this long for a job are those already employed and most likely already in the APS.

But that’s not the real problem, that’s just showing how bad an employment process it is (when compared to the practices of the private sector). The real problem is, that I get the impression this is quite often done only for show. Quite often the role being ‘recruited’ for is already filled, but they simply need to go through the formalities so as to be able to keep the person in that role. As a result, they never intend to hire any of the other candidates whom they have just had spend time addressing selection criteria (which can be many hours worth of effort – think days of hours worth) and attending interviews. But not only their time is wasted, but so is the time of three public servants for an unknown number of 8 hour (or is that 7.5 hour) days.

To the outsider this seems highly inefficient and a waste of tax payers money and peoples time and mental stress. How is such a farce allowed to continue?

However, I’ve stated I’ve never worked in the public service, and so maybe I’ve just miss-understood what I’ve been hearing APS employees commenting on. Feel free to correct me RiotACT.


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73 Responses to Discussion: The Australian Public Service Hiring Process
sepi sepi 12:35 pm 03 Oct 09

It really pays to call. I once applied for a job as a ‘team leader’ . Upon ringing, I found out it was a one person job – no team, but that all jobs of a certain level in this organisation were called ‘team leader’.

so I wrote an application focussing on how I could do all facets of the job myself, instead of focusing on how well I manage a team. If I hadn’t asked that one question (how big is the team?) I would have written a totally different application, that would have hardly related to the job required.

pelican pelican 8:34 am 03 Oct 09

Some good advice to call the contact officer to ask if there is anyone acting in the role and for how long? Also ask about the role, what experience and skills are being sought. There are very real opportunities for those with private sector experience coming into the APS now that the baby boomers will start retiring in droves.

The APS selection process is unreasonably long in many cases. I remember applying for one job a few years ago and did not hear a peep for nine months when I got a letter saying the jobs were no longer being recruited due to changes in the department.

Given the number of Ads in the paper these days for consultants who will write your selection criteria one wonders how relevant this approach is anymore given that the panel will choose primarily based on interview and referee reports, unless there is a candidate already in mind from within the department.

Beware Generic Selection criteria which does not provide a real picture of what is sought. I remember one job where the answer to why a number of people within the department were not selected for interview was because they did not have police experience. There was no mention of police experience in the selection criteria. Generic selection criteria is lazy criteria and presupposes that all jobs at any level require exactly the same level of aptitude, skills etc whether they be technical, policy or adminstrative.

According to Terry Moran’s comments in yesterdays CT many public servants will now be drawn from the private sector so there is hope for those wanting to get into the APS. Try and get in at the middle management level to senior level as when media reports state public servants will have to work smarter and harder it really means the lower ranks where most of the government’s budget cuts will be enforced.

trix trix 10:32 pm 01 Oct 09

Yep, you get shenanigans aplenty in the private sector as well. And yes, I agree that the PS process can be irritating, but when you have instances like a GM for an entire branch being the only person who can approve new hires (when he seems to be on leave/out of the country every few days) because of the desire to “cut costs”, it’s no wonder that it can take a couple of months to get one person hired (in my defence, our initial appointee withdrew after he ran off to his current employer to get a better offer).

In our organisation, we do distinguish between internal appointees and external recruitment, but we have to -justify- an internal-only process. There are also plenty of instances I know of where people were acting in a role – often people who were lobbying for a promotion no-one wanted to grant them – and who were then not appointed for the permanent role. Right up to the exec level.

As for the difficulty getting a job, I walked straight off the plane from NZ into a job with a govt-aligned (but not strictly PS) agency. The equivalent of a APS 6, and I’m now in the equivalent of an EL1 after a few years, and still no degree. (Of course, IT is a bit different to general admin work)

Clown Killer Clown Killer 2:53 pm 29 Sep 09

Observer, I don’t think that any of what you describe is limited to the APS – you’re going o get all of that and more in any similarly sized private sector outfit. The only diference is that the mistakes can be removed instantly if needs be. In the APS it takes years to show someone the door.

sepi sepi 2:05 pm 29 Sep 09

Well in my relatively long APS career (over 5 departments) I’ve only ever seen one incidence anything like what you are talking about.

The panels I have been on were all scrupulously managed. And all jobs I’ve ever had (except one) have been where I had never met a soul on the panel or in the department, so I must have won them on merit.

It sounds like you have struck a dud area/department. Maybe time for a move?

TheObserver TheObserver 12:34 pm 29 Sep 09

In my relatively short APS career I have seen and experienced some of the shonkiest and bent practices – someone being transferred in at level because they were a mate of the bosses partner, a chair of a panel shifting hell and high water to give someone totally unsuitable for a job a permanent position and only declaring way too late this person was a close friend and a godparent to one of the Chair’s kids. Patronage and quasi-nepotism reign supreme, particularly when you get to the EL1/2 levels – you have to be on good terms in nearly all cases with the Chair, and in many instances if the chair has asked you to apply it is because they want you in that position. With the rise of generic selection criteria it is a bit easier to frame applications but it is not unknown to be interviewed or even successful at the end for one job but not even make it to interview in another with precisely the same criteria.

Then we have culture fit. Some departments and such have pretty good ‘no dickheads’ policies. Others seem to have a ‘dickheads only’ policy – you’ll find out which at interview – particularly if the questions are directed toward whether you have a creative and independant mind or whether without too much prodding you will write what our political masturbators want to read. This was particularly en vogue in the tattier days of the Howard Regime, but is creeping back in latterly.

The Cth APS is quite risk averse – so forget being an individual, at least in the central agencies like PMC, Finance, Treasury etc – there you are expected to be wallpaper and toe the party line (don’t believe the bollocks on the websites).

Bullying is still a very big problem – despite the wiffle-waffle trotted out all too often by the apologists – but most of it is the insidious white-anting type – rather than the shouting abuser. A lot of the bullies are now female – and a lot of them specialise in bullying upward and can always hold a sexual harassment complaint over your head if you push back.

Recruitment – ideally it can and should only take 6 weeks – but often times, notwithstanding a clear recommendation from a panel a delegate can decide (and they do, frequently) they don’t like the top ranked candidate and some tweaking is required – or they just don’t sign off the process and it gets abandoned and they ship in some poor sod to act and then start the process all over again – perhaps with some tighter riding instructions from some remote, aloof and arrogant and conceited pratt all in love with him or herself because they have a parking spot, a govt car and a fucking blackberry.

The poster who is a scribe and never seen anything untoward, I respectfully suggest that you could not find your bum with both hands if you have not been able to spot the chicanery.

Every once in a while a panel gets it right. I like to think that I have (notwithstanding the interference I got from ‘upstairs’ which I ignored, btw, and put a black mark in my copy book) – and I like to think that the occaisions I have been successful it has been on merit.

But there is an awful lot that is not on merit, and the time and emotional energy of an awful lot of keen and well qualified people goes to absolute waste.

The bitch about this is that the APS does run courses on HOW to do it properly. Unfortunately, as with anti-bullying etc, only the ones that don’t need to go actually do – and the ones who need either retraining or shooting stay away.

Finally a recruitment company is no guarantee of success. I have had one send me to the wrong location for an interview and send the wrong CV and then get my feedback mixed up with someone elses. Twice.

I could banter like this for hours……

Hells_Bells74 Hells_Bells74 8:07 am 24 Sep 09

I agree Genie, but good to know at least that at the Aust. Inst. of Health and Welfare they were polite enough to get back to me 6 weeks later to tell me I was unsuccessful in my application for an AP3 position I had gone for. Thank you to them. Thumbs down to those who don’t wave you off..

WanniAss WanniAss 7:27 am 24 Sep 09

Another point for outsiders is what can appear to be an incomprehensible referee checking process. Try asking a small shopowner about an applicant’s aptitude for contract managment or their awareness of particular policies. Thankfully the process in my org is simpler now and more flexible, at least for this bit. Providing written referee reports to other departments is bad enough, to a non-public servant it must be a nightmare.

Genie Genie 9:47 pm 23 Sep 09

One thing I find really poor is the fact that applicants spend a lot of time putting together a job application and do not often receive a “thank you” or “no thanks” for their effort. It doesn’t take much for a generic “Dear Applicant” letter. Many public servants have forgotten what it is like on the “outside”….or just have bad manners.

OMG I completely agree x1000. I believe it may take 5-10mins to type up a generic email reply depending on how long you want it.. “I’m sorry blah blah blah.. unsuccessful, thankyou blah blah” save it as a template. Then BCC every unsuccessful applicant in the email. Ok yes some positions have 100’s of people applying. But we put in the time and effort to contact you and write up our application, please put some time in to send us our “rejection/unsuccessful” email.

Addison Addison 7:30 pm 23 Sep 09

peterh said :

I have found that there are many opportunities from time to time for positions in the private sector that do not get advertised. The employer relies on the one thing canberra has that differentiates us from the rest of australia, a fantastic networking environment.

I’ve never had a professional position that I have ‘applied for’.

dommie dommie 7:23 pm 23 Sep 09

All valid points … I think! (I got lost somewhere along the line … who would’ve thought a post about the PS is Canberra would drum up so much interest?).

FYI – the PM (who I have no particular affiliations to) recently stood up and announced he wanted our countries Public Service to be the best in the world. To do this he said there were four main objectives towards improving the system.
1. More innovative and creative policy writing in this complex system we have created with citizen-centred service delivery.
2. Better communication, coordination and mobility across government portfolios
3. Improved attraction to top performers from outside the current public system to input into the processes of government.
4. Investment in its people, particularly learning and development.

I think the last two points are particularly relevant to this discussion. None of this is rocket science but yes … it is essential the PS changes its recruitment processes to make it more accessible (or just plain normal) for outsiders and also to properly use the skills the current sleuth of APS’have, rather than sticking them in monotonous unrewarding jobs with little to no encouragement or motivation to think of ‘the big picture’ and no encouragement to expand their skills to fill the gaping holes in some areas.

franzipami franzipami 7:19 pm 23 Sep 09

I loathe the public service recruitment process. I know from first-hand experience (working in the PS) that there is nothing transparent about the PS – it’s all about who you know. So, network, network, network!!

One thing I find really poor is the fact that applicants spend a lot of time putting together a job application and do not often receive a “thank you” or “no thanks” for their effort. It doesn’t take much for a generic “Dear Applicant” letter. Many public servants have forgotten what it is like on the “outside”….or just have bad manners.

peterh peterh 3:32 pm 23 Sep 09

I have found that there are many opportunities from time to time for positions in the private sector that do not get advertised. The employer relies on the one thing canberra has that differentiates us from the rest of australia, a fantastic networking environment.

At any stage, i am aware of between 2-10 positions at the companies i deal with. some are looking for sales, tech or project management people.

Currently, contractors that have been let go from the Fed Govt are highly sought to assist companies in being able to align themselves with that department in some small measure.

I think that the reason that the APS is so attractive to many job seekers is the perception of stability. A dept won’t go broke, and if you are permanent, the likelihood of retrenchment is far less than the private sector, which is far more volatile.

Scribble Scribble 3:28 pm 23 Sep 09

There are two crucial questions.

Is someone acting in the job?
And how long have they been acting?

I don’t work for the APS but I’d suggest a third question:

Have they applied for the job?

ahappychappy ahappychappy 1:57 pm 23 Sep 09

thelozenger said :

I don’t work in the public service, I’m a student. But it doesn’t surprise me that people are saying they can’t get a job in the APS. Some people I know- just out of year 12 and not the, let’s say, smartest people around- have walked into APS4 roles because they have parents who work high up in the department who one, write their application, and two, influence the selection panel.

See, I’m not 100% sure in this instance, but I would assume that is the ACT PS. It seems to be rather common over there. I doubt that would happen often (at least for a permanent position and not just an on-going contract) within the APS. If it did, things would be picked up rather quickly.

As for the degree comment, it’s a common mis-informed statement. There are loads within the APS without degrees at high levels. The other thing is, you don’t even have to do a tertiary package at college to get into uni? A six month bridging course will suffice, and it seems everyone can study (even online?) so a degree isn’t all it’s cracked up to be sometimes.

Ian Ian 1:02 pm 23 Sep 09

Piratemonkey said :

If the process was any less regulated we would have people on this site complaining jobs paid for with public money are being awarded to those who don’t deserve them.

Of course, the other side of a less regulated hiring process is a less demanding firing process – to enable you to fix your recruiting mistakes more easily. Both would be good for the APS in my view.

But more importantly, proper managerial accountability would serve to fix most problems with recruitment. After all, if I’m accountable and its my job on the line for my teams results I’m going to make damn sure I hire the best people, and not the ones I like, my friends or relatives etc.

I’ve long thought that in the PS procedure often serves as a substitute for accountability. (happens also in the private sector, just not to the same degree).

Ian Ian 12:52 pm 23 Sep 09

toriness said :

finally if you are incapable of writing your own job application then god help you and the poor people you will be working with. will you pay someone to do your work for you as well???

Couldn’t agree more. I would always at least subconsciously mark down candidates where it was obvious they hadn’t written their own application.

Ceej1973 Ceej1973 11:39 am 23 Sep 09

NoAddedMSG said :

Thumper said :

I agree with Ceej

But then how do you weed out the ones who paid someone else to write their application for them? (Something I have been told happens reasonably often, although I’m not trying in anyway to imply that it happens all the time. $400 is the figure I was quoted for the service.)

In the case of someone who is A/ already acting in the postion (i.e. the position is becoming a promotion), or B/ the applicant works in the section and has an excellent understanding of the processes and workings, or C/ the applicant has worked in the postion, i.e HDA, when the applicant applies for that position and the mananagement knows the applicant can easily fulful the role, (and may well have written the applicants refereee report mind you), it seems ludicrous that an outside panel can put more weight on the interview, when it has come down to a close result (“wow I’m sure I could have got 2 sentances outa that”). Management should play more of a role, and have some say in the final descision, where it is obvious who is the most able to perform the role, not because who can talk the talk (and as you stated if an external applicant) buy the application as well.

toriness toriness 11:26 am 23 Sep 09

finally if you are incapable of writing your own job application then god help you and the poor people you will be working with. will you pay someone to do your work for you as well???

toriness toriness 11:24 am 23 Sep 09

so much annoying misinformation in some of these comments. the APS is at times no different at times to other large organisations – because yes sometimes an influencing factor is not what you know but who you know. however that said, well functioning areas are based on recruitment selection based on performance and merit – whether that recruitment happens through full formal APS recruitment or not.

degrees help you move up through the ranks but are not necessary to get over 5-6 level (immediately to mind being my partner and a very good friend who are el1s – and very capable ones at that – with no tertiary quals).

finally application is not necessarily 33.33% worth of of final ranking at all – the last panel i chaired we specifically made the app only worth 20% because we all know it’s not necessarily the applicant who writes the damn thing! but to also state the obvious, it is your application that gets you further along in the process so it’s important to do a very good job with it.

recently i had a job interview and my referees were checked as part of shortlisting for interview – now that is something i had not experienced before in APS recruitment.

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