Government agencies failing to manage performance

by Chloe Taylor17 Dec 2014
Between 2013 and 2014, government agencies sacked fewer employees than they have over the past 15 years.

The results of a recent survey by the Australian Public Service also revealed that less than one in five public servants believed that their workplace successfully dealt with underperformers.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a mere 18% of APS employees approve of the way their workplace deals with underperformance, a number which is exacerbated by the fact that twice as many public servants in other countries surveyed had confidence in their employer’s methods.

In reviews of 14 government agencies last year, trouble dealing with underperforming staff was a common cause of concern.

The latest capability reviews, released last week, revealed that this concern remained dominant, with 80% of the agencies examined raising the issue, according to the Herald.

The Public Service Commissioner recently warned the government not to ignore underperforming staff, saying that managers must face the challenge of “identifying and nurturing their most talented employees” in order to manage performance.

In an address to senior public servants, Stephen Sedgwick acknowledged that public servants have doubted their bosses’ ability to manage poor staff – which has been confirmed by international comparisons.

“Sometimes the service is criticised because “not enough” employees have had their employment terminated for underperformance,” he said.

He added that managers must acknowledge issues with performance as soon as they arise, and conduct honest discussions with staff about problems before they worsen.

Sedgwick, who retires from his five-year role as commissioner this week, has criticised portrayals of the “lazy” public servant stereotype in the past, and has previously said that performance problems are exaggerated.

The commissioner said that staff whose performance is deficient “need to be addressed.”

According to the Public Service Act, agency heads can “at any time, by notice in writing, terminate the employment” of staff for “non-performance or unsatisfactory performance of duties”.

However, Sedgwick noted that employers must be wary of their duties in regards to procedural propriety.

“The need to afford an employee procedural fairness is deeply enshrined in administrative law and APS practice,” he said.

Sedgwick also said that in order to manage performance effectively, managers have to be committed, providing regular feedback and communication opportunities, “preferably continuously rather than just a ‘tick and flick’ once a year.”

“Human systems need close attention paid to culture – since culture eats strategy every time,” he said. “You can't shift a culture with a training program alone. You can't change your performance management templates and expect brilliant performance processes will follow.”

“Leaders at all levels – and their willingness to accept personal responsibility to champion change – will determine whether or not those opportunities are captured,” Sedgwick added.

Reports on the various government departments included criticisms such as “mismatches between employees and roles,” as well as senior management or corporate areas failing to “support management of poor performance.”

"A relationship-based agency such as the ABS finds [underperformance] difficult to confront,” the review found. “There is a cultural even-handedness that makes criticism difficult, and a reluctance to undertake judgmental conversations.”



  • by David 17/12/2014 12:31:53 PM

    Is the issue of managing under-performance in the APS that different to other large corporations? This is an issue typically caused by a lack of managerial courage at the top and culture. Ironically, it will drive good performers out (probably 82% in this case) & make organisational performance decay

  • by Michael 17/12/2014 4:55:10 PM

    I agree with David. Cultural change needs to start at the top and work it's way down.
    Maybe select managers who have the ability to address the issues.

  • by Con Sotidis 17/12/2014 5:16:47 PM

    You need to understand the culture of the APS before trying to look at solutions for under performance in the APS. Traditionally an APS job has been a job for life and thus under performance was never an issue - as in not discussed or mentioned. Whether you performed or not there were no consequences. The other issue is that due to the structure of the Public Service and the relevant acts that govern such matters, managing under performance takes a lot of energy, effort and resilience from a direct manager sometimes with little to no support from others in the organisation. Hopefully Sedgwick's observations will be picked up by new APSC Commissioner Lloyd and some purposeful and direct support on the ground will be provided to those who are prepared to take on the task of managing under performance in the APS.

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