Response to ANAO report on APS recruitment

APS recruitment will only improve if measurement is taken seriously

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO)  Audit Report No. 31 is titled Management of Recruitment in the Australian Public Service. This report highlights strategic and operational recruitment issues facing APS agencies. Five recommendations focus on workforce capability planning, attraction strategies, staff training, recruitment process improvement and performance measurement.

Performance measurement

Implementing these recommendations hinges on effective performance measurement. If no one is paying attention to performance there is little reason to change behaviour. All managers’ performance assessments therefore need to include mandatory measures, such as:

  • Completion of appropriate training in recruitment and selection processes.
  • Measures of retention-friendly behaviours relating to induction, referee reports, managing acting arrangements.
  • Evidence that delegates have scrutinised selection reports against quality measures.
  • Evidence that selection processes have been completed according to efficiency and effectiveness measures.

Executive managers need to regularly give serious attention to recruitment, selection and retention measures. These measures include:

  • How long it takes to recruit and select staff.
  • Which areas in their agency have the highest and lowest turnover.
  • Reasons for staff being attracted to, staying and leaving the agency.
  • Costs of recruitment and selection.
  • Number of internal staff promoted and deemed unsuitable.

A culture that focuses on and measures aspects of recruitments and selection processes will help reduce time frames and give increased priority to this work, so that managers are less likely to postpone or decline involvement.

Training Needs Analysis

Agencies need to have a clear recruitment and selection culture that supports branding and fosters a retention-friendly, fair environment. This goes beyond a stated policy and set of procedures to take account of people’s biases and faulty assumptions that undermine a desired culture.

A training needs analysis therefore needs to consider a number of sub-groups. New staff, both from other agencies and from outside the APS, may bring detrimental views, as can internal staff who haven’t had recent selection panel experience.

The analysis should also consider delegates. Given the evidence presented by the ANAO report, one has to conclude that if delegates were scrutinising selection reports against quality standards then many selection reports should have been rejected as sub-standard.

These quality standards would include: a well-defined job, clear selection criteria, use of appropriate selection methods, well-crafted interview questions, an effective rating scale, and evidence-based assessment.

Recruitment process improvement

Attention to micro elements in the recruitment and selection process will help reduce time frames, make it easier for people to apply and make decisions more transparent and justifiable. Here are five of these micro elements:

1. Simplify selection criteria.

Sets of criteria and capability statements, often based on The Integrated Leadership System, have become so complicated and confusing that even public servants are not bothering to submit applications.

2. Know what is being assessed and how.

Selection panels make their job more difficult if insufficient work is done at the outset to define the job specifications, the attraction and selection methods, and the relationships between these. Panel members need to share an understanding of what selection criteria terms mean, what work the job involves, what the outcomes are, and what selection methods are appropriate to use.

3. Make evidence-based selection decisions.

No selection method gives one hundred per cent certainty about a person’s future work performance. Selection panels must put more effort into defining what the evidence is that they are looking for and what assessment standard, expressed in behavioural terms, will be used to determine if an applicant is offering the evidence that is needed.

4. Dispel unhelpful beliefs and assumptions.

Panel members continue to hold questionable beliefs that are not based on evidence, are unfair to applicants, and prejudice the assessment. Examples of such beliefs are: treating people fairly means treating them the same; applicants who don’t write to selection criteria shouldn’t get short listed; interviews are a memory test and no help should be given to applicants even if the questions asked are incomprehensible; applicants who don’t call the contact officer demonstrate lack of initiative.

5. Eliminate unprofessional behaviour.

Some people confuse selection processes with performance management and professional development. This results in unfair and unprofessional behaviours such as: managers writing negative referee reports to prevent a person moving to another job; setting applicants up to fail by running bulk rounds that combine different jobs, but use work tests that are relevant to only some of those jobs; giving internal applicants who write poor applications an interview so they gain ‘interview experience’.

Until these matters are systematically addressed, agencies will continue to experience difficulties recruiting staff, managers will continue to regard selecting staff as a burden, and APS staff will continue to perceive selection processes as unfair.

First published in The Canberra Times The Public Sector Informant, June 2008

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.