Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Private Sorry Day

(This one's for woodsy)

I think it's about time that I offered an open apology to a few people who work in the Australian Public Sevice. If you've been in the APS since around 1995 and you're thoroughly jack of it and wondering why you ever joined in the first place, I'm sorry. Because, at least in part, I'm probably to blame. If I hadn't made one very silly decision in my last year in the APS, you might not be in this predicament. They never would have recruited you in the first place. You might no be any happier, but at least I wouldn't be responsible for your present unhappiness.

I joined the APS in the early 1980s, a year after I graduated from University. My degree had passed its use-by date so, like several of my friends, I sat the clerical selection test at Melbourne University's Wilson Hall. I got an interview and a job early the following year. I thought then that it was a good way to save up some money for the overseas trip I'd been planning for years. I certainly didn't expect to find myself, ten years later, still in the APS contemplating whether it was finally time to face the fact that my career had gone as far as it could go - somewhere close to nowhere - and start wearing a cardigan to work.

I was saved from the cardigan by yet another round of cuts in the Department I worked for. I worked on one of the programs where the department was looking to cut staff, so I put my hand up for a voluntary redundancy. I received a letter explaining what the department was looking for in staff to cut, and a form to fill in, telling them why I thought they should cut me. The criteria for being bought out of your job were basically two-fold: you had to be surplus to the department's staffing profile at your level and you had to convince the cost-cutters that you were no longer capable of making a contribution to the department's goals in the future.

I was pretty angry when I saw the form; the decision to cut staff had been made by the Department Secretary and the Minister, the decisions of which areas to cut had been made by a number of high-level department committees in Canberra and now that I was actually coming forward to cop it sweet and leave (Admittedly with more ready money than I'd ever seen together in one place before), they wanted me to reassure them that I really was useless enough to be allowed to go?

It was a bit rich, especially as the department had a chronic problem deciding what its goals actually were. When the "mission statement" fad first hit the federal bureaucracy in the late eighties, the department's very first stab at defining its purpose blithely said:

Our mission is to make progress towards our goals by achieving our targets and objectives.

In the intervening years they hadn't got much further in working out what, exactly, it was that the department was supposed to do, besides "achieving efficiency dividends" by cutting programs that did have a pretty well defined and immediate purpose (I worked in the branch that did a lot of the department's research and publishing work). This was a time when the best path to career advancement in the Senior Executive Service of the APS was to find a program to cut. There was always the risk that someone else might cut your job at some stage but, if they did, as an experienced cost cutter you could always move on to another department and work the same trick there. The upper echelons of the APS were full of people who had demonstrated that they were effective managers by arranging to have fewer people to manage.

I was also in a bit of a bind ethically; one of the reasons I wanted to get out was to start a new career elsewhere (in IT) and the redundancy package would help keep the wolf from the door while I was job-hunting. I couldn't very well tell them that on the form; they might get the idea that I was the sort of person who could contribute to the department's goals in the future and I would be passed over for redundancy in favour of someone who was genuinely useless, rather than burnt out and pissed off. I didn't want to lie about it, nor did I want to tell them I was useless just to reassure them they were getting rid of the right bloke. In the end I was very terse. I wrote two short sentences; I forget the first, but the second was clear and direct:

I have absolutely no intention of contributing to the department's goals in the future.

It must have done the trick too; a couple of weeks after sending off the form, I got a letter back telling me I was in, or rather, out.

A week later, I got another letter, and another form. This was from the then Public Service Board It was a survey. The letter explained that, in order to improve public service recruitment, the PSB had decided to survey people who had worked long-term in the APS to build up a psychological picture, or profile, of the successful long-term public servant. I read it through a couple of times in amazement. They seemed to think that by getting a psychological profile of me (and others who had put up with working in the bureaucracy as long as I had) they expected to be able to develop a selection test that would select candidates who were just like us and who would, therefore, put up with the APS for at least ten years, if not longer.

After some thought, I decided not to return the survey. I figured if they started recruiting people based on my personal characteristics, they would end up with a lot of seriously burnt out and pissed off people in ten years time. Or possibly earlier; I'm fairly sure that ten years in the bureaucracy didn't do my personality a hell of a lot of good.

That was my silly decision and the one I have to apologise for. I overlooked the possibility that I might be in the control group; that the reason I got the survey was because I had been identified as the sort of person that the Australian Public Service should go out of its way to avoid recruiting. Both for the sake of the service and the sake of the candidate.

So, if you've been in the APS for the last eight or nine years, and you're finding your current job pretty appalling and the prospect of spending the next fifteen to twenty years turning up to work in a cardigan and keeping a careful eye on your super even more so, I'm sorry. I really am.

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