21 May 2024

Good enough to do it but not good enough to own it

| Chris Johnson
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In the APS these days, it’s more likely you won’t get that higher role you’ve been acting in for some time. Photo: File.

Right now, many employees across the Australian Public Service are filling roles in an acting capacity.

These positions are generally a step up from a worker’s usual classification. The practice serves the dual purpose of temporarily filling a vacancy while also giving the chosen candidate experience in higher levels of management and leadership.

It makes perfect sense when a boss’s leave needs to be covered, and if it’s for more than a couple of weeks, there is extra money for the person stepping up and into the acting role.

The system works well, and just like in the private sector, an employee filling a short-acting position can easily slide back into their normal job once that period has ended.

But unlike the usual practice in the private sector, there seems to be an extraordinary number of cases in the APS in which someone who has been competently filling an actual vacancy for an extended period (not just covering leave) is subsequently overlooked when it comes time to fill the position permanently.

It’s a case of being perceived as good enough to do it but not good enough to own it.

While it occurs at all APS levels, it is more acute when it involves the Senior Executive Service.

It’s a leap from EL2 to SES at the best of times, but it seems unfair when the honour is denied an applicant who has filled the seat on mahogany row only to be relegated to seat warmer when the role is formally advertised.

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Government jobs are rightly decided through an open and transparent process, and funding for positions can often take considerable time to materialise.

But when everything lines up, making the time right for the job to be filled, someone could have been acting in the role for a year or more by then.

You’d think that if an employee had done a good job for a year and was happy to continue with it, they’d be in pole position come selection time.

However, that’s not the case in numerous instances currently playing out in the APS.

We’re talking about positions that have been genuinely vacated through a promotion, reassignment or resignation—not extended leave such as maternity or paternity leave, in which the person on such leave has every right to return to their job.

Real vacant positions that people inside the organisation have been managing well for decent periods of time, who want the jobs permanently, who have applied for them, and who don’t get them.

And it is somewhat unique to the public sector.

Private companies often install an acting CEO while a nationwide or even global recruitment search is mounted to permanently fill the top job.

In most of those cases, however, the acting job isn’t for very long, and it is made very clear to the person assigned the role that they shouldn’t get too comfortable in the chair.

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It seems that in the APS these days, a long-term acting executive is encouraged to make the job theirs—even though it is highly likely that it never will be.

More often than not, such vacancies are filled permanently by candidates from other agencies or even further afield.

Maybe familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps petty grievances come into play at times.

If someone is filling a management role well, they are likely to put a nose or two out of joint at times, even up the line.

That could come back to bite them and their application if grudges are kept by upper management.

Maybe ‘mates rates’ come into play in the exclusive SES club.

This is not a criticism. It’s just a curious observation.

Another observation is the number of acting APS bosses who quit the agency – and in some cases the entire service – once they’ve been overlooked for the role they filled so well.

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I see this all too often with people who’re acting in the job for a year or two or even three who don’t even get selected for interview when the job is advertised. Some have been given awards for how well they’ve done the job whilst there, but don’t get the job when it comes up.

Doesn’t make sense if you’re looking to hire the person best equipped for the job. Given the time in the job, they’re usually extremely well-equipped and don’t require time for orientation or training. I can only see that those selecting for the job are ill-equipped for their roles and not well-trained in selection.

Colin Outstuff1:21 pm 21 May 24

The failing assumption here is that they the acting person did a good job. All we know is that they were given the acting opportunity. In my experience it would be a better than average outcome if one fairly be appraised as ‘did their job’ let alone ‘did their job well’.

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