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Casual employees no answer to APS underperformance

If a focus group of the well-intended, including a few officials, were to be convened to identify the most urgent problems in the Australian Public Service, you could bet your socks that so-called “staff under-performance” would be prominent on its list.
Nanjing Night Net

It may well be a problem, but it’s of the third or fourth order and usually accompanied by whingeing inversely proportional to its seriousness. So it is unsurprising that a recent audit of eight agencies by the Australian National Audit Office found that between 0.1 and 3.1 per cent of staff were rated as “less than effective”. That may understate matters but it’s good enough to give the matter a rough dimension. Add to it the ANAO’s finding that a high proportion of those going through “structured performance assessment” have lifted their games and you’re left with a mouse that’s roared.

The ANAO report titled Managing Underperformance in the Australian Public Service was released in May this year. It’s anyone’s guess as to how this got onto the priority audit list when there are much more pressing personnel management problems.

The report is conscientious and is worth a pass grade. There are, however, shortcomings.

ONE: Critical terms are not properly explained. While the auditors say that “the key purpose of managing underperformance is to assist the employee to consistently meet the performance expectations of their job”, “underperformance” is not defined. Does it mean staff who are unsatisfactory or those who are underperforming against their potential? The drift of the report is about those whose performance is unsatisfactory and too much time is spent on how to deal with that problem rather than how to prevent it.

Underperformance is about more than those who are unsatisfactory. Indeed, the more serious problem is likely to be why those who are satisfactory are not good and why those who are good are not very good. The audit report would have been more useful if it had addressed underperformance in this broader sense. Sure that could open up a great range of things affecting staff motivation but these could be put aside in favour of an examination of the working of staff appraisal schemes and whether they are helping to improve performance. The ANAO says that it did not do this “because of ongoing work being undertaken by the Public Service Commission in???the area.” That’s a weird rule for the ANAO because it would enable any function to escape its scrutiny if an agency could say that “ongoing work was being undertaken” in it.

TWO: While the report alludes several times to the personnel management “culture” of the APS, it doesn’t dig too much into to why it is so and why formal performance management/staff appraisal schemes struggle to be effective. A part of the explanation is that positions are filled on a market basis – that is, vacancies are advertised, people apply and selections are made from the applicant pool. By contrast, in many private sector firms people’s careers are often planned using formal appraisal systems that are more robust because they are key to advancement. Career planning in the APS must take place in the context of open competitions for promotion across the entire service and often with outside advertising and where staff appraisal schemes play a lesser role and therefore have less to sustain them.

To put it another way, staff appraisal/performance management schemes are more likely to thrive when they have consequences; in the public service these are not as significant as is often the case where they’re closely linked to full-blooded career planning. In the past, attempts to bolster staff appraisal in the APS by linking it to performance pay ended up somewhere between unhelpful and disastrous. If it is not now being done, maybe it is time to have the formal results of staff appraisals made routinely available in competitions for promotions. That could help to concentrate the minds of those being appraised. It may also make the appraisers more conscientious as their assessments would be significantly exposed and they would be less able to avoid accountability.

THREE: The “key learnings” in the ANAO report do not get above what is already well known. For example, they talk about: the “need for transparent and clearly documented procedures”removing “barriers relating to support for managers” including from “human resource staff”better guidance on probationthe importance of “documenting performance gaps”establishing “the practice of more frequent and constructive feedback”, andproviding “relevant and regular training”.

So no startling new insights, rather the “learnings” say nothing more (and in some ways less) than a Management Advisory Board publication in 1992 titled The Management of Underperforming Officers in the Australian Public Service, a pithy document that seems to have escaped the attention of the auditors.

FOUR: The audit report rightly points out that unsatisfactory performance or underperformance can be the result of all sorts of things in addition to the capabilities of individuals and their willingness to work. It’s surprising therefore the first question to ask when performance is not up to the mark – “why is it so?” – doesn’t get a run in the ANAO’s “key learnings”. In many instances it’s likely that the answers have nothing to do with individual inadequacy, but are down to poor supervision, unclear specification of tasks, lack of training, inadequate equipment or facilities and so on. In these instances, procedures for dragging staff up to the mark are irrelevant as their underperformance can only be fixed by better management arrangements generally outside the capacity of individuals to remedy.

In summary, the ANAO audit on “managing underperformance” gathers together some useful information on current practices in eight agencies. On the whole it is underwhelming. In terms of what to do it says nothing new and it fluffs its discussion of some aspects. Finally, while it’s rightly suggested that procedures for “managing underperformance should be stripped of repetitive material”, the ANAO would do well to heed its advice, for this report repeats itself over and over again. A crisper and clearer document would have got its messages through more effectively.

See the ANAO’s report on underperformance here.

The Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd, is a great worrier about staff who “underperform” and in a speech in June he’s at it again. It’s “important that poor performance is called out” he thunders, although without mentioning the ANAO report. Funny.

Mr Lloyd’s speech is mainly taken up, however, with urgent pleas for greater “workplace flexibility” which he sees as including work that is “non-ongoing, part-time [note: not permanent part-time], casual, working from home, hot desking, job shares, independent contracting and labour hire” as well as “gig and peer modes of work”, whatever that might mean.

There’s something to be said for “workplace flexibility” but the question is, flexibility for what? All too often greater flexibility degenerates into greater management powers and reduced conditions for staff.

There’s scope for using the categories of employment Mr Lloyd lists in the public service. That’s limited, however, and the vast majority of the service’s work should be undertaken by staff who are employed on what we must now call an “ongoing basis” to do work that’s also ongoing.

If Mr Lloyd is advocating, for example, more temporary, casual, independent contracting and labour hire work for its own sake, then he’s undermining the merit standards he’s supposed to be upholding and increasing the risk of underperformance. Merit assessments are of a lower order for temporary and casual employees who are likely to be less well trained and therefore less efficient and effective than “ongoing” staff, and where underperformance of the transient is “managed” in a gutless way by showing them the door at the end of their engagements. Staff of independent contractors and labour hire firms are not subject to public service merit tests and where they are undertaking work indistinguishable from that done by public servants the basis of their engagements may very well be illegal.

In his June speech, Mr Lloyd also says that a “basic requirement is effective and direct employer-employee relationships.” But why does he therefore in the same breath seemingly urge the greater use of employment arrangements that will make those relationships more attenuated? That’s not merely ironic – it’s wholly inconsistent.

The commissioner doesn’t seem to realise that the neo-liberal bus on which he’s apparently been a merry passenger for many years has run off the road, hit a brick wall and looks as if it’s about to be written off. The unrestrained neo-liberal labour market doesn’t always provide happy answers and it’s foolish to think of the public service as part of the “gig” economy, a sub-division of Uber or Airbnb whose virtues are a mixed blessing in any event.

Organisations stand a better chance of working well when they provide a sense of mutual commitment between employers and employees over the longer term. Most staff will appreciate the chance to take responsibility for a job rather than turning up to a chair whose seat has been kept hot by somebody else’s arse. Most importantly, and there is no stronger strand in employment literature, people want a degree of security in their jobs because that is critical in giving order to their lives and the lives of those dependent on them. Neo-liberal dogmas that treated people as cogs (aka “human resources” in production no different from items in ordinary commodity markets) whose unemployment could be eliminated by decreasing pay and conditions were foolish in their heyday; now they’re discredited.

The public service commissioner should lift his game. He’s right about the importance of “effective and direct employment relationships” and that’s why he should put aside his yearnings for temporary employment, labour hire, the gig economy and so on in the public service of all places which will give him what he doesn’t want.

Clarification: Last month’s column on the proposed Home Affairs behemoth said that the 1987 machinery of government changes were done “without apparent consultation at ministerial or official levels.” That is not quite true as at least some departmental secretaries were asked about prospects for the amalgamation of functions in their departments. While this consultation was not significantly apparent at the time, the suggestion that there was none was misleading.

Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant.

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This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.