Applying APS Values: Relationships with the public

In February 2016 the APS Commission released a guide APS Values and Code of Conduct in Practice.

The guide is structured around the three professional relationships that are a central part of work in the public service:

  • relationships with the Government and the Parliament;
  • with the public; and
  • with public service colleagues.

This article looks at key terms to understand and how information from this guide is relevant to your application and interview responses about upholding the Values and exemplifying professionalism and integrity.

Keep in mind that while the guide is structured around three relationships, the material is interrelated.

Scope of service delivery

Service delivery is not limited to front line services.

APS employees at ‘all points along the service delivery chain – from those involved in high-level policy development to the people delivering front line services – must engage effectively with the community in the performance of their duties.’ [2.1.3]

Committed to Service Value

This Value means an APS that is professional, objective, impartial, innovative and efficient, respectful, in plain English, is in accordance with government policy, agency procedures and the law, that works collaboratively to achieve the best results for the Australian community and the Government.

Service delivery should be responsive, client-focused, with clients and the community being provided with information about rights and entitlements, the process for gaining access to them.

When communicating information about rights and entitlements that information should be ‘in plain English, avoiding use of jargon, acronyms, abbreviations and references to which the community may not have access…Information should be targeted to the audience, providing relevant information such as the right to review and how to complain.’ [2.2.5] This information is relevant to both client service and communicating with influence.

Part of being Ethical is to follow through on commitments and act with honesty and integrity. ‘Employees are expected to act in the right way, as well as the technically and legally correct way.’ [2.2.10] This clause is relevant to criteria about showing judgement. A decision may be technically and legally correct, but a different conclusion may also include acting in the right way. Doing so is a way of demonstrating leadership.

The Respectful Value means respecting all people, including their rights and their heritage, treating all people with dignity, honestly, with integrity. Of note, is that respect is more than anti-discrimination. Staff should recognise the importance of human rights, understand Australia’s human rights obligations, and comply with all relevant anti-discrimination laws. [2.2.13]

Also worth noting is the section on working with the public and what collaboration may include. Clause 2.2.16 states that collaboration may include:

  • ‘Ensuring members of the community have a reasonable opportunity to contribute to policy development and program design
  • Correctly identifying relevant stakeholders in the community and understand their interests and backgrounds
  • Listening to, and having appropriate regard to, the views of community representatives
  • Working with stakeholders to refine and develop approaches
  • Notifying the community of the outcomes of the policy development or program design process and the likely impact on community members.’

Sections on Accountable and Impartial set out the importance of being open to scrutiny and transparency in decision-making, records of decisions, providing frank, honest, timely, evidence-based advice.

Providing Information provides points to consider when providing information, whether face to face, by phone, electronically or in writing.

Managing complaints

Managing complaints 2.5 makes the point that ‘It is good practice to be alert to communications that might constitute a complaint, even when the word ‘complaint’ is not used.’ Here the Commonwealth Ombundsman’s Better practice guide to managing unreasonable complainant conduct 2009, is a useful guide. This links to the next section on Dealing with difficult people, a favourite subject for job interviews.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman has noted that ‘the number of people who present as difficult seems to be on the increase and the nature of the difficulties that agencies have to deal with seems to be getting more complex.’

Difficult clients can be a health and safety risk so policies and procedures should be in place to manage this risk.

Clause 2.6.3 gives general guidance: ‘In all circumstances if confronted with a difficult or abusive person, employees are advised to remain calm, positive and avoid taking unnecessary risks. If in doubt, they should seek the support of a supervisor or colleague. An employee should withdraw if they feel intimidated or threatened. The police should be contacted in extreme cases.’

The guide provides useful advice, including the seven stages of complaint handling, which gives a starting point on questions about handling difficult people who are making complaints.

The following seven stages in complaint handling should be described in internal procedures:

  •  ‘A complaint should be acknowledged promptly
  • The complaint should be assessed and assigned priority
  • If investigation is required, it should be planned
  • The investigation should resolve factual issues and consider options for complaint resolution
  • The response to the complainant should be clear and informative.
  • If the complainant is not satisfied with the response, internal review of the decision should be offered and information about external review options should be provided
  • Any systemic issues that arise as a result of the complaint should be considered and acted on.’

The guide says that agencies must recruit people who have the right skills and attributes into complaint handling positions. When applying for such positions, keep this list in mind.

‘The best complaint handlers are:

  • warm and empathetic—they are able to respond to a diversity of people
  • non-defensive—they can handle a complaint without being unduly protective of their organisation
  • analytical—they can quickly recognise the core of a problem, weigh the evidence and arguments, and reach a logical conclusion
  • unbiased—they avoid erroneous assumptions and consider the evidence objectively
  • astute—they can set priorities for complaints, and they know when to escalate a complaint or allocate it to another officer
  • creative—they explore alternative ways of resolving a complaint
  • decisive—they decide how best to resolve the problem and manage the complainant’s expectations during the process
  • firm—they politely explain and maintain a position, both with the complainant and with colleagues
  • resilient—they can respond professionally to complainants who are upset or angry, without taking criticism personally.’

‘Effective communication is the thread linking many of these skills. A good complaint handler must be a good communicator, orally and in writing. Complaint handlers deal with a diverse audience, in and outside their own agency. If they communicate effectively, others will come to trust that the complaint handler understands the problem at hand and is dealing with it professionally.’

‘The mix of skills required in complaint handling will differ according to an agency’s business and the problems it deals with. More complex or disputed complaints can require sustained investigation for which analytical and investigative skills or legal or specialist knowledge are needed. Complaints on specific topics—such as sexual harassment, scientific fraud or financial mismanagement—can require specialist skills that many complaint handlers do not have. If those skills are not available in an agency, temporary employment of a suitable person might be necessary. One key to effective recruitment is conveying a strong message that complaint handling is an important organisational activity and that this is reflected in career and promotional opportunities.’

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.