One of the most difficult things for an outsider to grasp about the APS is the complex system that determines staff recruitment and advancement through the ordinary ranks of the public service. Anyone who has spent any time in the APS will soon become familiar with the two mechanisms used to manage that system – these are the ‘expression or interest’ (EoI) and the more formal (often bulk) ‘permanent’ recruitment rounds for ongoing positions that are listed on the APS Gazette. I wanted to share some thoughts about this system and welcome comments from fellow rioters especially if I have got anything wrong.
The EoI process is the most familiar to someone who has ever had an interview with a private company – they are very flexible and can take any form, although most usual is a call for brief letters of interest, followed by relatively unstructured interviews, and a result within a couple of weeks. Paperwork is minimal and the responsibility for the decision usually rests with the person who interviews who is also typically the supervisor of the position. Sometimes these positions can be filled with the help of a recruitment agency. The tenure of such positions is always limited – six months for instance – and may not offer all the benefits of an ordinary public servant (although unless I am wrong the certified agreement still stands). It is usual for the position to be extended although in circumstances of fiscal tightening these positions are the first to go.
The ‘permanent’ recruitment rounds advertised in the APS Gazette are completely different. These require usually a very lengthy written application submitted electronically addressing at length (eg 300 words) several selection criteria. There is often no specific job on offer, but rather applicants have to pitch at a certain level (e.g. APS6) within a branch or division that requires certain skills. There are strict rules (which differ from department to department) about the makeup of the interview panel and there is a lot of paperwork for people running the interview. Interviews are very structured with usually five or six questions that implicitly address certain capabilities given in the APS Integrated Leadership System (ILS) or a variant of it (http://www.apsc.gov.au/ils/index.html). A key here is that the question which is superficially asked (“give us an example of when you did blah”) is actually also seeking a certain response which addresses a capability in the ILS (thinking strategically, for example). This subtext is the most important aspect of these interviews and is most likely to confuse those who are new to the system. Although intended as a tool to reduce bias and make it easier for interviewees and interviewers to address all their strengths and weaknesses, it actually introduces a certain bias towards a unique APS bureaucracy, in my opinion.
Those who are successful in a recruitment round gain a permanent position in the APS at a certain level (subject to trial periods) but must go through another recruitment process when they wish to advance to a higher level (from APS2 up to EL2) – either on a temporary basis through an EoI or through another permanent round.
I don’t know when the current system was introduced but I can see that by having two processes, one flexible and the other not, it clearly seeks to strike a balance between allowing managers to fill vacancies quickly and trial staff on higher duties with EoIs, whilst ensuring permanent positions are rewarded against a clear merit structure at arms length from personal biases. However I think it still causes some problems and perverse incentives for the APS.
For a start, both processes still favour existing APS employees – although the permanent rounds are intended to be strictly merit based and actually seem to discourage role-specific experience, the overall bureaucratic complexity and unfamiliar ILS system, along with the very long time it takes for a result to emerge (anecdotally, usually over 4 months from opening date) effectively disqualify many non APS applicants. EoIs which may be a better entry point are often not advertised outside the APS, and are more easily awarded to known insiders.
The permanent rounds, which might occur about once or twice a year in a section, create a great deal of uncertainty for existing employees. Because it can be hard to translate performance in your existing role into a successful result in an interview, and permanent rounds often attract dozens of applicants for a couple of positions, there is a significant element of uncertainty involved. All those who hold a position as the result of an EoI have to apply ‘for their own job’ in these rounds as EoI positions occupy empty permanent positions in the structure, which are usually required to be filled by the outcomes of permanent rounds. To hedge against being unsuccessful, it is safer to apply for many permanent positions at the same time, meaning that employees who are holding a temporary position but are essentially happy with their job are often forced by the process to move to different divisions or agencies to avoid demotion – although perhaps this a good thing sometimes, in that it encourages the migration of ideas. Successful new employees often find themselves placed in a position where they are working alongside or supervising unsuccessful applicants, who have little incentive to make life easy for the newcomer.
Managers can have a hard time planning ahead when the outcome of recruitment rounds is so uncertain. Whilst high performing staff will often be ushered into EoI positions, these are often the first to be chopped when there are budget pressures – meaning that finding efficiencies often means demoting only those staff who have been promoted for performance, whilst preserving the status of those in long-held permanent positions.
The APS rewards persistence more than it does performance. The permanent rounds are run in such a formulaic way that it is possible with the right qualifications to be successful in obtaining a position if you apply enough times – it is like a throw of the dice. Once you have a permanent position in the APS you have it – more or less – forever. This preserves the upward drift of employees through the ranks with staff safely occupying management positions regardless of their current performance. Cliques can still form at the upper levels when the recruitment methods loosen up – or where promotion is not required to secure a position from a friend. Without a tool for demoting permanent employees who underperform this will always be the case.
I don’t think there is an easy solution. Many in the public sector at all levels are overworked, while others have an easy time. In the long run, capable staff will be successful at interviews and outsiders who knock at the door for long enough will eventually be allowed to join the APS ranks (unless they are non-citizens!). But the system is far from perfect, it is not easy to understand for outsiders, and the basic premise that it is only possible over time to move one way in the APS – up – seems artificial to me.