“The devil is in the detail” is an oft-mentioned comment about big picture documents, such as road maps, strategies, plans. Sometimes though, the detail is not even considered.
Take recruitment practices. The most recent review, in 2019, of the Australian Public Service (APS), Our Public Service, Our Future, includes a chapter on investing in people to strengthen capability. APS recruitment processes must be improved, it says. They are described as “slow and unsophisticated”, the “default assumption, within and outside the service, that certain roles must be performed in Canberra is outdated and unhelpful”, security vetting is slow and induction inadequate.
The review recognises that much of this is not new, which begs the question of why reviews keep saying much the same thing without examining action to address previous recommendations.
Recommendations on “getting recruitment right” include “overhauling recruitment and induction to reflect best practice”, and “the APS Commissioner providing guidelines on best-practice recruitment”. Apart from broad references to private sector practice, “best-practice recruitment” is left undefined.
During this century aspects of APS recruitment practice have been examined multiple times by the Australian National Audit Office, advisory groups/committees, the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee, (earlier) State of the Service reports, and APSC publications. These documents have recommended actions for the APS Commission, made suggestions to streamline and improve recruitment processes, and encouraged managers to recognise that recruitment is an important priority. Yet we still see recommendations to get recruitment “right”.
How to win a public service job has long been a mystery. Even insiders struggle with what to do and how to do it. Having examined government recruitment practices for some thirty years, the devil is definitely in the detail. Take job applications.
Three stages in the evolution of recruitment practice
Government job applications have evolved through three main approaches.
- Selection criteria: For decades applicants were asked to “address the selection criteria” listed in the role description. While not extinct, this approach is now in the minority, although still popular with local government and universities. Until the mid-90s, when selection criteria started to be demystified, external applicants often missed out because they didn’t understand what they meant.
- The Integrated Leadership System (ILS): Published in 2004, the ILS provided “a system that supports whole of APS leadership capabilities”. Adopting the system was not mandatory, but most departments and agencies moved to replace job-specific selection criteria with the generic capabilities. Other jurisdictions developed frameworks modelled on this system. A few agencies continue to apply their own version of the ILS and several still refer to it.
- Pitches and statements of claims: In about 2016 the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet switched their application requirements to a “pitch”. Jobs became “Opportunities”; capabilities were replaced with “Our ideal candidate” under which is listed a healthy set of skills, experience, qualities and knowledge (often longer than previous lists of selection criteria); and the application became “a one-page pitch telling us how your skills, knowledge, experience and qualifications make you the best candidate for this opportunity”. During the last six years most departments and agencies (and jurisdictions) have moved their application process to that of a pitch.
Multiple problems with current recruitment practice
Buried in the detail of recruitment practices are many questionable practices. These details raise questions about how these practices, including pitches, support merit-based decision making. Practices include:
- Jobs advertised on private job websites may not include all the information that is included on the home site, resulting in applicants potentially missing vital details.
- Applicants are asked to consider in their application, the duties of the role, essential and desirable requirements, key capabilities, and in some cases, the ILS and Work Level Standards, all within a tight page or word limit. It is not clear which information is used to make a merit-based decision.
- Application responses may need to demonstrate role requirements or have “real potential” to develop them. I have yet to come across any guidance on how a selection panel should assess real potential, nor how this should be balanced against demonstrated skills.
- Related to potential is the matter of transferable skills and how these are assessed. How do panels assess private sector experience against years in government? How do panels respond to an applicant with regulatory or service experience making a case for a policy role in a central agency?
- The amount of guidance provided to applicants on how to write a pitch ranges from nil to minimal. Applicants’ writing skills may be judged on their application even though the required marketing style is atypical of most public service writing.
- Many role descriptions do not indicate what the application requirements are. These may be found by checking the online recruitment system. Applicants may have to open an account before they find out what the requirements are.
- Some pitch requirements include the direction to show how one’s skills and experience make a person “the best candidate for this opportunity”. This is an absurd instruction given it’s the panel’s job to assess candidates and an individual does not know who they are competing with.
- Contact officers continue to present challenges. Apart from being unavailable, they may be unwilling to share useful information, claiming it would be “unfair” to those applicants who don’t bother asking questions. Role descriptions may make reference to recent internal changes, (although this information may not be mentioned at all and thus be only known to internal applicants). Again, contact officers may be unwilling to explain these changes, claiming it would be “unfair”, even though internal applicants would have detailed knowledge of these changes.
- Role descriptions continue to make reference to the APS Commission’s document Cracking the Code. This document has only ever provided generic information on selection criteria, little on the ILS, and now repeats what role descriptions already tell applicants about pitches. While there is a broad description of classification levels, there is no reference to the Work Level Standards, which are commonly referenced in role descriptions. There is no guidance on format, style or content. The APS Workforce Strategy 2025 indicates the Commission will develop guidance to apply modern recruitment practices that are clear and easy. If Cracking the Code is the best guidance on offer, then applicants will continue to struggle with recruitment processes. The APSC’s current Recruitment Guidelines make no mention of pitches.
These inadequacies in recruitment practice raise questions about how well the APS is providing a competitive, merit-based process. Where is the evidence that the pitch approach to recruitment works? Is it timely, effective, efficient, transparent? What assessment is being made of this approach?
Recruitment practices need evaluation
A gap in better practice recruitment tools is advice on assessing the validity of recruitment practices used. Do HR staff report on data collected from recruitment processes? What are the relative merits of bulk rounds versus individual vacancies, inclusion of references to the ILS, WLS, ideal candidate requirements? Does the length of the pitch matter? Do panel members agree on the weighting given to the various components of the role description?
The ANAO report on APS recruitment (2007-08) included a section on monitoring and evaluation of recruitment performance. This discussion is something of a rarity in recruitment reports. The report notes that: “Given the importance of recruitment to achieving agency outcomes and the magnitude of APS recruitment costs, it is critical there is sufficient monitoring and evaluation to support agencies’ efforts to continuously improve the effectiveness and efficiency of recruitment activities.” Performance measures mentioned include recruitment cost, time to recruit, cost per recruit, offer-acceptance rates, turnover and retention rates, and candidate satisfaction.
What is also needed is evidence that the pitch application provides useful information to selection panels. Specifically we need to know:
- How many potential applicants continue to not apply because of the process?
- What guidance is given to selection panels to ensure consistency in candidate assessment?
- When will role descriptions be assessed to make clearer what requirements are the basis for candidate assessment?
- What guidance does or should the APSC provide on using pitches?
- When will Cracking the Code be replaced with useful guidance?
- When will selection panels be given guidance on assessing potential and transferable skills?
- What training is provided to selection panels, including contact officers?
- What advice is provided on fairness in relation to how potential applicants are treated and informed?
- Who is vetting job notices for clarity, consistency, and ease of access to information?
- How to selection panels assess pitches, what is their assessment based on?
- Is a one page more useful than a two page pitch?
- How do the number of applicants and quality of application per pitch-based recruitment process compare with previous approaches?
- And, is it even possible to apply a merit-based decision-making process to pitches?
This is the level of evaluation and forensic analysis needed to build confidence that pitches do result in merit-based decisions. In her Review of NSW Public Service Recruitment Reforms, Lynelle Briggs AO used the sub-heading:
“Recruitment is the most important staffing decision you will ever make…”
In the report, she says: “It is the most important decision because people drive everything that happens in any workplace.” This is self-evident, yet the current state of play regarding the use of pitches seems to ignore this wisdom.
We will only have confidence in pitches when their use is publicly assessed and evaluated.