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Discussion: The Australian Public Service Hiring Process

By 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
MWF 11:30 pm 21 Sep 09

I can only speak for the ACT Public Service – if you can get yourself or one of your relatives in the “acting” position, then the advertisement in the gazette is simply a nod to what ought to happen – applications, culling, interview via a panel etc. (though it won’t). If you or one of your relatives is already acting in the position then you have the job. Permanently.

This is just over the last 3 or so years IMO. It used to be that positions for “acting up” were advertised and expressions of interest asked for internally, at least. These days, people are “magic wanded” into acting positions – no expressions of interest at all. I’ve seen people “magic wanded” into acting positions who were not even employed by the ACT Govt. not as casuals and not as contractors. Just because they were related to or “knew” someone. It’s a sick, sick workplace, in my opinion.

bd84 9:37 pm 21 Sep 09

Addison said :

The APS selection process is a waste of time. Even in large companies, it’s much better. Personally, I don’t really see the need to have such a transparent staff selection process. Sometimes it will work for you, sometimes against. If you’re a pain in the proverbial you won’t get the job anyway…

Everyone says “they don’t see the need for a transparent selection process” until something goes wrong, then they’re the first people to jump up. The length of time in the process will depend between agencies and I’m there are likely to be many variables in the process, e.g. number of applicants, quality of applicants, other work priorities. I’ve applied for many jobs both public and private and can say the recruitment process for most are fairly similar, normally 4-6 weeks at a minimum. Though my current job (government) took under 2 weeks.

Felix the Cat 9:14 pm 21 Sep 09

Agree totally, OzPhoenix. I recently saw a couple of government jobs advertised that I thought I might apply for and so I emailed the contact officers for more information and got their vacation message back saying they were on leave! They were supposed to be due back today but I have not had a response to my questions yet. If I was as tardy as this at replying to emails in my current job my company would probably lose customers and I would get a please explain from the boss.

Maybe with high-end executive type positions the process is somewhat justified but for low-end entry level jobs it is ridiculous.

Often (most times) the selection criteria is poorly written (copied) and asks the same question three or four times over in different ways but a different response is required each time.

A resume with an attached letter stating experience and qualifications relevant to the skills and qualifications needed for the position along with referee reports should be fine without having to answer inane gobbledygook double-dutch questions (selection criteria). If the applicant’s application is presentable (ie spelling, punctuation, grammar and layout/formatting is correct – if they can’t do the basics what hope have they got at doing the job properly?) and the person has the required experience, qualifications and skills then an interview can be granted.

It should only take a week maximum to make a decision after all the interviews have taken place.

n2kaja 8:56 pm 21 Sep 09

Right ON!

busgirl 8:44 pm 21 Sep 09

I have been a selection panel member a number of times as well as the poor sod on the receiving end of the interview questions…hands sweaty, mouth dry, and mind…blank!

Notifying the successful applicant has taken from 3 days to 5 months…my own personal example: I applied for the job in June, got the interview call in September, found out I got the job in November, and started in January. And yes, the only reason why I was able to wait this long is because I was already employed…in the public service.

So…yes, not all that efficient however, when you find out you beat 50-odd other applicants (even the internal ones) and you did it without ‘knowing someone’ you have to believe the system works…well it did this time anyway:-)

astrojax 8:33 pm 21 Sep 09

the process basically hires clones because there is no training to have panels do anything differently. this theoretically shouldn’t be a difficult thing to overcome, but it seems irrepressibly entrenched.

working for an academic body a while back i was instrumental in hiring a candidate who answered the selection criteria in two paragraphs. this response came about as the candidate had never had ‘training’ in answering selection criteria – the HR unit of the academic centre was aghast when told the candidate was to be interviewed, seemingly convinced said applicant had excised itself from the process with the understood paucity of the application – but for mine the applicant gave me enough information to warrant speaking with them. in this, and in other selection processes for this academic body, we finalised a process in hours, not weeks, and had staff commence in days, not months. it really wasn’t hard.

the public service, from my experience is far more entrenched in looking for clones and the process seems unnecessarily cumbersome as panel reports can sit with delegates for days/weeks and no-one pushes it along. it really shouldn’t take more than a week from interviews to sign-off, but rarely takes less than a month. only an already-employed person will suffer this delay, so it is a process unlikely in the extreme to attract quality candidates from outside the PS, so unlikely to attract the real cream of the talent to the gig. there are many other ways in which the process should be overhauled, streamlined and made genuinely a process to attract genuine talent to the PS.

so much for krudd’s recently voiced ambition to make it a world class outfit!

Ruby Wednesday 7:54 pm 21 Sep 09

It’s not just about being fair; it’s about being seen to be fair. The trade-off for the long lead time is that once you’re in, it is very hard to get rid of you.

Piratemonkey 7:17 pm 21 Sep 09

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.

As a public servant I do agree there is much to be done to improve efficiency but we must note that those who work in the public service can be / are under intense public scrutiny that private companies don’t have to deal with anywhere near as much. Public servants will always have someone after them trying to make them look bad. This is why we need to cover our asses with a thoroughly documented process that includes checks and balances, unfortuantely such a system is often slow.

To avoid going for an already filled job all you have to do is ring up and ask if there is someone acting in the position. If yes, walk away unless you think you are perfect for the job.

Happy job hunting. 🙂

Addison 6:50 pm 21 Sep 09

The APS selection process is a waste of time. Even in large companies, it’s much better. Personally, I don’t really see the need to have such a transparent staff selection process. Sometimes it will work for you, sometimes against. If you’re a pain in the proverbial you won’t get the job anyway…

54-11 6:34 pm 21 Sep 09

I’m a professional scribe for APS selection processes, and some of the points made are valid. No matter how much the process is simplified and streamlined, it is still costly, cumbersome and time-consuming.

However, it’s a bit like the Winston Churchill quote, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” No-one has yet come up with an alternative process that is still accountable and transparent.

I can say quite categorically that, as an independent person on selection panels, I have not seen any unfair process. My turnaround time as a scribe is very good and the time taken to finalise the process is generally not too bad.

My sone was involved in a Defence selection that took some 4 months to complete, which was quite wrong. There was no scribe and the panel simply didn’t get its act together.

I think that CK is right – other large organisations, whether public, private or NFP, also has clumsy processes that also take time.

Until someone comes up with something better, we’re stuck with it. Assessment Centres, less formal processes, etc don’t fit that bill.

What I do like about the APS selection process is that Orders of Merit are created, whereby applicants that are rated as “suitable” or better can be hired over the ensuing 12 months without going back to re-advertising. There are significant savings there.

GardeningGirl 6:28 pm 21 Sep 09

Clown Killer said :

But yeah, as with any big organisation there’s inefficiencies. Having seen inside the APS, the NSW PS and half a dozen of the top fifty publically listed companies in Australia I’m pretty convinced that the APS doesn’t do it any more or less inefficiently than the big-end of the private sector.

Too true. But pointing the finger at public servants is more fashionable. I’ve come across slack individuals and stupid procedures in both the public and private sectors.

krasny 6:17 pm 21 Sep 09

There are limited circumstances in which the Public Service Act actually allows for direct appointment, so even where that is the agency’s intention, they are legally required to go through the motions. It is irritating, it is inefficient, and from the standpoint of a PS who has to re-apply for their position every 12 months, it’s nerve-wracking not knowing whether they *are* just going through the motions, or whether you might be in line for replacement (stupid non-ongoing APS positions…grrr).

I-filed 6:16 pm 21 Sep 09

PURSUTE said :

However, I have always been under the impression that government organisations have to conform to far stricter and more complex process …

I assure you, it’s a case of “be SEEN TO conform”. An APS selection committee, if they want you, will hire you. If they don’t want you, they will knock you out at the shortlisting stage on a pretext, so they don’t have to really consider you. Beware of committees that don’t let you furnish a written referee report. Verbal reports are just one of the “tweakable” elements a committee will use. Having a scribe present will only reduce the committee conversation to nods and winks and nothing stated openly. Without a scribe, they’ll say anything to each other. A manager recently boasted to me that she hires whoever she wants and ignores the APS code of conduct. She is very successful – which means her approach is reflected higher up. Another manager recently coached a junior staffer and got her to resubmit her poor application – magically improved.

The best way to get into the APS is via contracts – make yourself an insider. Take a job a rung or two lower than you expect at first – if you’re liked, you’ll be in and can rise quickly.

Clown Killer 6:09 pm 21 Sep 09

If you have to ask why the APS has this process? You’ve obviously never been responsible for trying to sack someone from the APS.

But yeah, as with any big organisation there’s inefficiencies. Having seen inside the APS, the NSW PS and half a dozen of the top fifty publically listed companies in Australia I’m pretty convinced that the APS doesn’t do it any more or less inefficiently than the big-end of the private sector.

The thing I don’t understand is – the legislation specifically allows for direct appointment, so if someone was desperately wanted for a role, there’s no need to go through the pretence of a selection process.

PURSUTE 5:36 pm 21 Sep 09

I’m in a similar position OzPhoenix. I have never actually worked in the APS, however am frequently working around and with the APS. I feel simmilar frustration at the seemingly endless waste of time and money (MY money!).

However, I have always been under the impression that government organisations have to conform to far stricter and more complex process *because* it’s public money they are using. Unfortunately this leads to loads of that public time and money being wasted.

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