Seven ways to improve APS recruitment processes

Model employers have model recruitment practices.

All the talk of the APS being a model employer that attracts the best and brightest is fine in theory, but until recruitment practices are transparently merit-based, talent will go elsewhere.

The APS Workforce Strategy states the APS needs ‘best-practice approaches to recruitment’. Any guidance provided to agencies on how to attract high-performing, skilled employees through ‘clear and easy recruitment processes’ needs to focus on fixing practices that block many people from effectively submitting an application in the first place. Public service recruitment continues to be laden with confusing processes, opaque practices, unintelligible language, and questionable decision-making.

Despite ‘innovative changes’ over the years, recruitment practices continue to fall short. Back in the days of selection criteria, both existing and aspiring public servants struggled to formulate responses that got their foot in the door to an interview. Then came the Integrated Leadership System, or ILS. That was followed by ‘the pitch’. These practices are now overlaid with technology that automates short-listing and online interviews, and HR consultants may be intermediaries, designing and implementing recruitment processes.

What evidence is there that the pitch is faster, simpler and delivers an effective recruitment result? Suited to creative writing talent who can concoct a convincing sales proposal, (which is not your typical public servant), the pitch approach fails to provide a convincing alternative to selection criteria.

Here are seven suggestions to improve recruitment practices, some of which, you will be amazed to learn, have been suggested before.

Make clear what selection decisions are based on.

While we may be told applications will be assessed against the requirements of the job, just which requirements is not always clear. Role descriptions can list ideal candidate requirements, and may reference the ILS or an agency-specific capability framework, the Work Level Standards, and the APS Role Evaluation Framework. Applicants and selection panels need to be clear which of these elements underpins decision-making.

Make applications primarily about skills, experience and knowledge.

Many a pitch requires applicants to explain why they are the best candidate for the position. This is a ludicrous request. Applicants don’t know who they are competing with, and it’s the selection panel’s job to determine the best candidate.

Dump Cracking the Code.

This document has never provided useful advice to applicants. Information about pitches duplicates what is available in role descriptions. Information about selection criteria responses is generic and doesn’t show how responses vary by level of seniority and context.

Make information accessible.

External applicants can miss out on vital information if they are unfamiliar with public service practices. APS jobs advertised on company websites may not provide as much information as those on departmental vacancy listings. Details of the application process may not be provided in public role descriptions and may only be accessible by creating an online account.

Role descriptions may disadvantage external applicants by not including vital information such as whether the role is new or the result of internal changes, such as a restructure. The APSC recommends contacting the contact officer. Yet contact officers may not be contactable, and be unwilling to share additional information.

Improve skills language.

Lists of selection criteria were often, and some still are, long and long-winded. Ideal candidate requirements for pitches are not always well-written. For example, could you explain the subtle differences in your behaviour in responding to ‘an ability to work in a fluid environment, remaining flexible, agile and adaptable’?

One of the challenges of writing a pitch is the page or word limit. Applicants are advised to think of situations where they used several required capabilities. But is this possible with detailed requirements like: ‘Highly effective interpersonal skills, with proven ability to relate effectively to a diverse range of stakeholders and clients, negotiate successful outcomes in an innovative and resourceful manner, whilst maintaining a high standard of professional competence and an ethical approach’?

Provide useful feedback.

While the APSC advises that selection feedback is an integral part of any merit-based recruitment activity, accessing feedback is not consistently available, nor is it particularly useful.

Make technology use transparent.

Applicants need to know how technology is used during recruitment processes and be reassured that their use is free from biases, protects privacy, and is used effectively by selection panels. For example, are people for whom English is not their first language disadvantaged?

If we’re to have a public service that ‘embodies integrity in everything it does’ then recruitment practices that are consistent (while allowing flexibility), understandable, transparent, and evaluated, so they offer confidence that merit-based decisions are made, are essential.

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.