The need for merit protection in one’s career

Career protection in the Federal public service involved a promotions appeals system, with the staff union association (ACOA) having the right to participate in a review of the initial selection. Appeals were based on relative efficiency, in the main, the criteria for which were set out in legislation. Applying the law was obviously a matter of judgement. There was no training provided in the Federal capital for this role. A member deemed to be competent to sit in judgement was normally invited by the ACOA to join the part-time panel of sixteen, which was intended to provide support for a full-time PAC (Promotions Appeal Committee) representative. He was himself untrained, as were departmental selectors and the chairman. PAC work was counted as official duty.

After establishing my credentials in this area, I offered and conducted successfully a trial training scheme. Then the PSB (Public Service Board), the staff regulatory agency, agreed that training for the various PAC people was desirable. For the next three years I conducted, on a part-time basis, two courses per year, bearing the title Course Director, Joint PSB/ACOA Course on Promotions Appeal Procedures. Each course was shaped to suit those attending, calling on as much professional help as was needed. The courses, backed as they were by the Commissioners of the PSB, received full support from all the agencies.

Our objective was to so condition those who participated in the union’s programme, while they were in the middle ranks, that when they entered management positions, they would be better selectors than some of their predecessors. We were aware that most appeals were, in effect, protests against poor management practices.

The union then invited me to join a PAC sub-committee of five, including the branch president and secretary; the other three were elected by the union’s councillors. The sub-committee’s role was to advise on all career protection matters. I served for ten years on this committee, chairing it for seven, while new presidents and secretaries came and went. In my time, some very significant changes to career protection were achieved.

The processes of initial selection and review under appeal, including all documentation, became open. Every applicant had a right to be told what was said about him or her, and about all the other applicants. Through the initiative of a couple of determined individuals, the courts finally confirmed that natural justice applies in the public sector. That was progress. Equity and efficiency, not the feeling in some senior officer’s water, were to drive the promotion process.

… … My assessment of the outcomes of our work in the late Seventies was that a very improved system was now in place, but its effectiveness was being undermined by some of those charged with upholding justice. Then my committee began to work on staff assessment procedures. A number of agencies already had these. One in particular, Foreign Affairs, had an excellent scheme. This was useful when the PAC carried out a pre-embarkation assessment of an officer’s claim to promotion while serving overseas. This assessment would be taken into account, together with the usual performance assessments, when a vacancy occurred and a selection was made back home.

When I joined Immigration and then moved to Melbourne, I had to give up this interesting work. I left with a Meritorious Service Award from the union (which creditably ignored the fact that I had always refused to join in strikes). Within a few years after the workers’ political party took office, after twenty-three years in the wilderness, the thrust of career protection that we had established was effectively broken down. Management had an unfettered right to promote as it wished. With political appointments to top positions, and other promotions based on personal preferences, appeals were really a waste of effort, claimed those I spoke to.

But I had enjoyed my time in this arena, and I had made a substantial contribution. The head of Treasury said to me once that he had noted my work for the union and quite liked the way I had gone about it. … I had also participated in some very important promotions … I looked into the policies and practices of so many agencies, including foreign affairs, defence, and Aboriginal affairs. I thus became a policy watcher too.

(The futility of seeking to introduce relative merit, based on objective staff assessments, and open and transparent processes, in selections for promotion, should be clear in the above extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out.’ Having heard so many confidential un-objective or seemingly biased oral statements by senior officials, against a background lacking objective criteria for assessments of competence, and which ignored the requirements of natural justice, my committee believed that we had, at last, established fairness in selection for promotion.

Not so. Fair and objective advice from a neutral professional public service seems to have given way to greasing the path for political policy decisions. Worse still, officials were promoted into management positions without any management training.

When politicians (as a class) are reportedly not respected by the community, society surely needs quality officials offering advice in the national interest. See my last book (2012) ‘Musings at Death’s Door: an ancient bicultural Asian-Australian ponders about Australian society.’ (Available at Amazon Kindle as an ebook at $US 2.99.) The endorsement which decided me to have it published begins ‘There is wisdom here.’)