Thoughts about the two APS recruitment systems

akinky 12 April 2012 13

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 ( 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.

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13 Responses to Thoughts about the two APS recruitment systems
p1 p1 2:03 pm 13 Apr 12

dtc said :

The need to provide referees at the time of application is a serious problem for people in the private sector, who do not want to tell their boss that they are applying for another job. And referees who are not currently attached to your employer (or, for example, are your peers at work) are not really much use. This is one requirement that should be abolished, at least for non APS applicants.

I have only come across this in the ACT Pubic Service, never in the Commonwealth. And yes, it is stupid.

dtc dtc 12:41 pm 13 Apr 12

The need to provide referees at the time of application is a serious problem for people in the private sector, who do not want to tell their boss that they are applying for another job. And referees who are not currently attached to your employer (or, for example, are your peers at work) are not really much use. This is one requirement that should be abolished, at least for non APS applicants.

EvanJames EvanJames 10:03 am 13 Apr 12

The APS recruitment process is supposed to ensure that selection is merit-based, and to eliminate nepotism. In fact, it does neither.

It certainly doesn’t ensure that the best person for the job, gets the job. What it does ensure is that the person most adept at addressing selection criteria and deciphering APS interview structures gets the job. And, people who are willing to go through a process that can take 9 months will apply, the others won’t bother or will fall away (into better jobs) while the process is grinding along. The APS gets what’s left.

It’s a very flawed system that actually militates against the best people being employed or promoted. The APSC ran a little campaign urging departments to look at their processes and come up with something more effective some years back. A few of the newer departments flirted with CVs and smart covering letters, but I think they’re all retreated behind the loooooong, tortuous process again. The more twisty and lenthy, the more meritorious, seems to be their thinking.

milkman milkman 8:32 am 13 Apr 12

These days I wouldn’t even bother applying for pube jobs. There are heaps of jobs in the private sector that pay better and the process is usually much simpler.

drfelonious drfelonious 6:55 am 13 Apr 12

Well said LSWCHP – the idea that it is necessary for the APS to go through its antiquated recruitment processes in order to protect merit is based on the meme that all private sector recruitment is based on the nepotism principle and APS recruitment is therefore superior. However my experience is that nepotism in the private sector tends to be restricted to family businesses. Any other private enterprise that intends on being successful will want to hire the best person for the job and funnily enough they manage to do that most of the time – and they do it in about 1% of the time it takes the APS.

Spykler Spykler 9:26 pm 12 Apr 12

‘Its not what you know , it’s who you know’..still as relevant today as it ever was..The diabolical levels of incompetence in PS ‘Management’ pay tribute to this old saying ten times over.

thatsnotme thatsnotme 8:57 pm 12 Apr 12

LSWCHP said :

Funny thing is, that I’m pretty certain that most people running selection exercises in the APS use that criteria as well. The major difference is they’re not officially allowed to say that’s why they chose one person over another, so much massaging of selection panel reports is done to end up with an official report that matches the gut-feel report.

LSWCHP LSWCHP 8:49 pm 12 Apr 12

Praise Zoroaster that I work in private enterprise.

One of my major roles is selecting new engineers for employment. Our employment criteria are that we have to like the candidates as people, and they have to be demonstrably technically brilliant. That’s all there is to it, and it’s worked pretty well for me for the last 20 years or so.

thatsnotme thatsnotme 7:59 pm 12 Apr 12

It seems to me like you might be confusing the EOI process, with contract roles.

If you’re not a permanent APS employee but you’re working in the APS, then you’ll be on a contract of some sort.

It could be a ‘non-ongoing’ contract – where you’re effectively contracted directly by the department, and you will be employed on the same conditions as a permanent APS employee, at one of the APS pay points.

Otherwise, it will be a regular contract, where you are employed via your contracting agency on a per-hour basis. You receive none of the entitlements that a regular APS employee receives – no holiday pay, no paid sick leave, no pay for public holidays, no regular pay increases, etc etc. Whatever your hourly rate is, your agency will take a cut of it (around 20% seems to be pretty standard) to cover finding you the job, and managing your payroll.

The only time I’ve seen an EOI, it has been advertised internally, for a temporary vacancy within the department. So say the head of HR leaves, an EOI may be advertised for someone to fill that position for say six months. Presumably that person would be acting at a higher level than normal, so gets the benefit of gaining some experience in that role, while being paid more. Because the department hasn’t had to go through a formal interview process, they’re able to plug an important gap quickly. It may also be that whoever owns that position hasn’t left for good – they may be acting in a different role temporarily, on long service or maternity leave, leave without pay while they travel the world, etc etc.

If a position couldn’t be filled through the EOI process, then it’s possible that the department will seek a contractor to fill it in the interim, instead of going straight to a permanent recruitment process.

The contract process can only favour non-APS employees. AFAIK, you can’t be a permanent APS employee, and take up a contract role somewhere – you would need to resign from the APS first. It’s also a fairly common way to break into the APS – work as a contractor, and either watch your contract get extended a few times before the department decides it should be a permanent position (although this probably happens less these days, what with efficiency dividends…new permanent positions aren’t common) or apply for a different role in the APS from – if not an inside position, much closer to the inside than someone who’s not working for any department at the time.

I hope this makes sense, and my info is accurate – I’m sure someone will soon let me know if it is!

Savanna100 Savanna100 7:29 pm 12 Apr 12

Im so glad I got into the APS as a 6.4 and will avoid going any further because the “culture” is completely bewildering. The people are nice but if you want an exciting life where climbing the ranks of the clique-ridden and people bereft of fresh ideas doesn’t abound and you dont want to learn all those new and mysterious rules, try something else.

mezza76 mezza76 6:06 pm 12 Apr 12

Ahey…. Not sure I’ve got the time to debunk some of the misconceptions in this. It is certainly written from a perspective of someone who’s not had the best of times in APS recruitment. The fundamental difference between APS recruitment & the private sector is that APS (or any government for that matter) has to be on merit. It’s been around for over 100 years from memory & it’s designed to essentially limit corruption. Therefore government recruitment needs to be transperent & open to audit. Therefore it can be long & tiresome for the uninitiated (actually for everyone really – running rounds usually involves doing so over your everyday job which results in it being shifted to the backburner). But over time there has been genuine efforts by the APSC to open up recruitment practices (check out their website). I still back the system to be honest, rather than the more subjective ‘coffee’ interviews in the private sector where it’s open slather. I’ve seen plenty (and been apart of) plenty of good rounds where the best person for the job got the gig regardless of them being in the APS. But while there is a bias towards the APS, it’s also because internals have the skills & expectations of the job & culture. A recent round I was in I had an applicant essentially say that as a manager – if his subordinates didn’t toe the line he sacked them after a warning… Err, can’t wait to see the Code of Conduct investigations if he ever gets through the door…

p1 p1 5:39 pm 12 Apr 12

EOI = Expression Of Interest, and I have always seen it with the “O” capitalised.

Apart from that you rant seems pretty acuarate, albeit with the slant of someone on he outside (which I guess is the whole point).

I don’t think that the APS is really any different from any other “industry” of there. You need experience to get a job, you need to get a job to gain experience.

JC JC 5:25 pm 12 Apr 12

Fark me, clearly too much time on your hands.

But seeing as we are ranting about this kind of s***, my wife has recently started applying for ACT Government jobs. The bloody system there seems to be about 10 years behind the two federal departments I have worked for. Really antiquated selection criteria, including two she applied for where written referee reports were required at time of interview. The bullshit thing with this is it means a large portion of the process is up to how well the referee can interpret and answer the criteria, rather than weather the candidate can do the job. I am now more used to the panel calling and asking the questions of the referee directly. Message to ACT government (ACT Health in particular) not everyone currently works in the pubes, if you want people from outside then come into the modern world.

Best job have applied for recently was with Defence. The selection criteria had 5 or so questions, but only had to reply to the first in the app. The rest were, quite sensibly marked as to be determined at interview. I say sensibly as the rest were the typical corporate criteria that many departments now days apply to all their jobs. For example “Achieve results” or “Cultivates productive working relationships”, so yes work this out at interview.

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