2 Acquiring and building capability

Recruitment is an important and high-volume activity in the sector

The number of job openings in the public sector has steadily increased year on year since 2014 (see Figure 2.1). This means leaders and managers must make many crucial recruitment decisions each year in an effort to find capable, high-performing employees.

With this in mind, the PSC commissioned a comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness of reforms introduced by the GSE Act four years ago relating to recruitment practices, job mobility and workforce management. Completed in June 2018, the Review of NSW Public Service Recruitment Reforms (the Recruitment Review) emphasised the importance of sound, evidence-based recruitment decisions.


Source: Recruitment data collection (2014–2018)

Note: This data is only for agencies that use the I Work for NSW e-recruitment system (notable exceptions are agencies in the Health and Industry clusters).2

In 2018, almost half a million people (449,106) applied for roles in the public sector, and 22,773 of them were hired. These figures indicate the significant amount of public resources required to fill roles, and the scale and nature of interactions between the public sector and potential employees. With such frequent job vacancies and so many interactions with candidates, the sector has a great opportunity to improve the consistency and efficiency of recruitment processes; the effectiveness of candidate and employee selection; and candidates’ satisfaction with the recruitment process.

Recruitment practices are improving but are not yet optimal

The independent Recruitment Review was undertaken by Lynelle Briggs AO, the former Australian Public Service Commissioner. This multi-perspective, future-focused review investigated agency maturity and the barriers agencies face to successfully embed the GSE Act reforms in recruitment, mobility and other areas of workforce management (for example, in workforce planning, diversity and inclusion, and data analysis). The Recruitment Review included a survey of Public Service secretaries and agency heads, interviews with secretaries and stakeholders in ‘deep dive’ clusters (Planning and Environment, Finance, Services and Innovation, and Justice) and comparisons of recruitment practices in other high-performing public sectors.

The review found that agencies generally regard the GSE Act reforms as effective. The reforms have delivered high-quality recruits and when applied effectively can shorten hiring time. The review also recommended delivering the full potential of the GSE Act reforms by:

  • fostering a workforce for the future: hiring more graduates; refining the Capability Framework to ensure it is fit for the needs of the future; and investing in training programs to fulfil emerging capability requirements
  • improving technology and data: reviewing e-recruitment systems and ensuring they are consistent across the sector; sharing useful information about candidates; and finding ways to collect better data for workforce planning
  • driving more robust recruitment decision-making: simplifying rules and consolidating practical guidance material; streamlining assessment standards; and developing recruitment expertise among human resources (HR) and hiring managers
  • enabling mobility: curating mobility rounds for top talent; simplifying mobility provisions in legislation; centralising talent pool management for ease of use and accessibility; and helping employees understand that they do not own specific positions
  • providing positive experiences for candidates: minimising the effort involved in applying for a role and improving communication with candidates throughout the process; improving onboarding and induction; encouraging more external interest in working in the sector; and improving the quality of feedback to unsuccessful candidates from hiring managers.

A survey of 45 Public Service agencies conducted as part of the Recruitment Review highlighted the lack of data in the sector about candidates’ experiences of the recruitment process. The survey of secretaries and agency heads revealed only five agencies assessed the satisfaction of successful candidates, and only two assessed the satisfaction of unsuccessful candidates. Additionally, data shows that in 2018 around two-thirds of applications were from external applicants, but only around one-third of hires were from outside the sector (see Figure 2.2). Clearly, further work needs to be done to understand candidates’ views of the recruitment process and whether current recruitment practices deter new talent from entering the sector.


Source: Recruitment data collection (2014–2018)

While there is a lack of data about candidates’ experiences, the People Matter survey provides insights into how current public sector employees perceive recruitment practices. Their responses indicate they are less confident in the way recruitment decisions are made than in the outcomes of the decisions. Across the sector, only 37.3% of employees had confidence in the way recruitment decisions were made in 2018, although 53.7% of respondents thought their organisation selected capable people.

One metric used in several areas of the sector is time to hire, which captures the efficiency of recruitment decision-making processes. Time to hire is defined as the time (in days) between the date of the last submitted application and the date the successful candidate is offered the role (weekends are included). Average time to hire for recruitment activities involving single openings continued its decline from 2017 to 2018, to a low of 41.5 days (see Figure 2.3). However, there is room for improvement, with a quarter of single-opening recruitment activities still taking more than 57 days. Bulk recruitment and talent pools3 can make the recruitment process even more efficient. However, more work is needed to maximise the benefits.


Source: Recruitment data collection (2014–2018)

The NSW Government Graduate Program attracts and retains talent

The NSW Government Graduate Program aims to attract and retain talented graduates, contribute to public sector capability and develop a cohort of future sector leaders. Candidates are assessed using valid and reliable capability-based assessment methods and matched to agencies based on their qualifications and preferences, and agency specifications. The graduates are rotated through three different roles across the sector over 18 months, which promotes mobility, helps the graduates develop professional networks and builds their foundational skills and knowledge.

Table 2.1 NSW Government Graduate Program applicants and placements, 2016–2018

Year Applications received Successful placements
2016 1,218 25
2017 2,077 107
2018 2,809 168

The Graduate Program continues to expand, with placements increasing from 25 in the 2016 inaugural program to 168 in 2018, including 16 roles in the Central West and Hunter regions. Candidates from diverse disciplines and backgrounds have taken part in the program. With 19 of a potential 92 agencies registered to participate in the 2019 Graduate Program, there is still great scope to grow and extend participation to more agencies.

Table 2.2 NSW Government Graduate Program diversity outcomes, 2016–2018

Group Applications received (%) Successful placements (%)
Females 49.3 56.5
Males 48.5 42.5
People with disability 3.0 2.7
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 0.6 1.3

Note: Percentages for gender do not add up to 100% because some applicants chose not to disclose their gender.

The Graduate Program achieved success with its inaugural cohort, whose mobility has been tracked over time. Retention is high, with 20 out of 25 graduates remaining employed in the sector and progressing rapidly in their careers. Ninety percent of them have been promoted beyond their starting role at Clerk Grade 3/4, with the majority (13 individuals) progressing into a role two grades higher, at a salary equivalent to Clerk Grade 7/8, by June 2018. Most are employed as policy analysts, or program or project administrators.

Agencies that participate in the Graduate Program receive long-term benefits. Half the continuing graduates from the 2016 cohort returned to their home agency after completing the program, while 80% are employed in an agency in which they completed a rotation during the Graduate Program.

Good performance management links employee goals to organisational outcomes

To deliver high-quality services to the community, employees need to feel connected to the broad outcomes the public sector is striving for. Agencies that exemplify good practice make this link in a formal way, with employee performance management directly traced upwards to broader organisational strategy.

Employee perceptions of performance management, as measured by the People Matter survey, improved between 2017 and 2018. Two-thirds of agencies improved their scores on the Performance Management key performance indicator (KPI), a measure of the quality of performance management (see Figure 2.4).


Source: People Matter Employee Survey (2017, 2018)

Note: Each column represents an agency.

While it is encouraging to see an increase of nearly three percentage points in the number of employees who say they have a performance and development plan (see Table 2.3), there is still scope for better performance management across the sector. Managers should set clear performance goals and standards so that employees know what is expected of them. They should also ensure that their feedback is timely and targeted, so employees can best deliver on what is expected of them.

Table 2.3 Employee perceptions of performance management, 2018–2017

Question 2018 (% positive) Change from 2017 (pp)
I have a current performance and development plan 70.6 3.1
I have informal feedback conversations with my manager 76.1 1.1
I have scheduled feedback conversations with my manager 58.3 1.7
In the last 12 months I received useful feedback on my work to enable me to deliver required results 64.9 1.9
My performance is assessed against clear criteria 56.4 2.4

Source: People Matter Employee Survey (2017, 2018)

People managers have some way to go in providing constructive feedback and managing poor performance. According to 22.8% of employees who responded to the 2018 People Matter survey, their manager does not deal appropriately with employees who perform poorly. This is consistent with the finding from the Recruitment Review that public servants are frequently not aware of their current performance levels until they have missed out on above-level opportunities sought through formal recruitment. Better performance management systems and capabilities would allow employees to benchmark their performance before embarking on a time-consuming and resource-intensive recruitment process.

Recognising the emerging maturity of the sector in performance management, the PSC is revising the Public Sector Performance Development Framework to further drive performance management capability. Among other things, the revised framework will place an emphasis on managers conducting regular, constructive, two-way conversations with employees about performance.

Development builds capability for now and the future

‘People development’ is a key component of the Public Sector Performance Development Framework. The term refers to the collaborative process managers use to identify and develop employees’ capabilities, with periodic progress reviews. Used effectively, this process helps employees address their capability gaps and take responsibility for their own development. Supporting employees’ development helps builds strong relationships between managers and employees, and helps employees identify and realise their career goals. Development programs need to be considered strategically and be integrated with an organisation’s forward planning activities, including strategies for developing high-potential employees, managing talent, developing leadership or management skills, planning succession for critical roles, and workforce planning.

Despite the importance of career and capability development for both employees and agencies, in 2018 only 50.4% of employees were satisfied with the career development opportunities in their organisation (although this is up from 48.1% in 2017). Further, 26.8% of employees were dissatisfied with career development opportunities in their organisation, and 64.7% of the dissatisfied employees were looking for a new role elsewhere in the sector at the time of the survey. This could indicate that lack of development is a key motivator for employees seeking new opportunities. It also provides a reason for agencies to more actively embed sector mobility in their program of development activities. If this segment of employees is looking for development and/or career movement, there is then a case for agencies to consider coordinated mobility as development (that is, activities such as rotations and job swaps), to meet employees’ and agencies’ needs.

Mobility provides a refresh but needs to be transparent

Two out of five (or 40.7%) of the respondents to the 2018 People Matter survey were looking or thinking about looking for a new role within the NSW public sector but outside their current workplace, to broaden their experience. Almost a third of respondents (32.3%) felt there were no barriers to their career progression. Those who did feel there were barriers, cited personal or family considerations, a lack of visible opportunities and a lack of promotion opportunities as the main reasons. Despite employees’ desires to move to new roles or agencies, 2018 Workforce Profile data shows that only 1.7% of employees (or about 6,000) moved between agencies in the public sector, only a slight increase on 2017’s figure of 1.6%.

While there is limited data on within-agency movements, anecdotal evidence in the Recruitment Review suggests that these types of movements may be more common. The Recruitment Review also found that deep cultural issues need attention to enable greater mobility between and within agencies. This includes addressing:

  • a perception by public servants that they own their job, rather than being appointed to a level and role (only 12 out of 45 agencies surveyed for the Recruitment Review said their employees understood they do not own a position)
  • complicated rules governing the circumstances in which employees may be moved
  • an over-reliance on temporary employment arrangements, where agencies appoint external employees for short periods, rather than looking to existing internal staff that may be appropriate for the job.

However, the Recruitment Review did not consider in depth the impact that a significant rural and remote workforce will have on the NSW public sector achieving optimal rates of mobility. There are obvious geographic difficulties in driving mobility within this segment of the workforce. This lack of potential to move was evidenced in the 2018 People Matter survey, which found that employees in regional and remote NSW were less likely to look for a new role than those located in Sydney, mainly for personal, family and geographic reasons. Even so, many barriers to sector mobility can be overcome through forward-looking organisational and role design that draws on flexible working practices and modern technology.

Mobility benefits employees and organisations alike because it helps employees broaden their understanding of their organisation’s objectives and their organisational context; build networks and reduce silos; and develop new skills. When used strategically, mobility can help boost productivity by reducing the drop-off in engagement that occurs with increased tenure. Data from the 2018 People Matter survey reveal that between-agency moves can reduce the effect of sector tenure on engagement (see Figure 2.5), and within-agency moves (to new roles) can reduce the effect of agency tenure on engagement (see Figure 2.6). However, these moves need to be open and transparent. A joint analysis of People Matter survey and Recruitment Review survey data found that greater internal mobility is associated with less employee confidence in the way recruitment decisions are made. Leaders and managers will need to challenge these negative perceptions if mobility is to become the norm.


Source: People Matter Employee Survey (2018)


Source: People Matter Employee Survey (2018)

Encouraging career development and transparent mobility at Service NSW

Service NSW employs more than 2,000 people to enable it to provide statewide access to government services, from applying for a driver’s licence to registering a birth. The agency’s executive leadership recognised that to attract the best talent and build a world-class team and culture, it needed a workforce strategy focused on developing and future-proofing employee capabilities. Critical role gaps and recruitment needs, such as backfilling due to staff movements, led management to consider a longer-term, strategic recruitment and mobility solution. Service NSW’s Development Opportunity Portal, built in partnership with the Department of Finance, Services and Innovation (DFSI), provided that solution.

The portal provides opportunities for employees to develop their capabilities, gain experience and take ownership of their careers. At its core, the portal is an internal noticeboard of development opportunities that helps connect hiring managers with staff members from across Service NSW. Among the opportunities featured are temporary above-level arrangements, short-term project work, role swaps and secondments. The portal will be expanded in the future to include activities such as shadowing.

Hiring managers register development opportunities and vacancies on the portal, which are then advertised to all Service NSW and DFSI employees. Employees can progress their careers by expressing interest in moving to a different role or taking advantage of a short-term opportunity. To complement this process, employees regularly have meaningful performance and development discussions with their managers to talk about and plan for career progression. These discussions ensure that development and mobility are planned for and transparent.

The portal has enabled Service NSW to backfill critical role gaps for short periods, identify talented and motivated employees early, and engage employees by helping them build and develop their professional experience and skill set. While the portal is still in its early stages, employees and managers have responded positively to it, and all signs point to better workforce agility and mobility across the agency. More than 50 opportunities in roles from Grade 2/3 to director were posted in the first six months, with up to 30 applicants showing their interest in some jobs.

Enabling job mobility, improving recruitment practices, and supporting and developing employees will become increasingly important as the public sector workforce shifts to meet current and future demands. Chapter 6 explores some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.


1 A job advertisement may advertise one or more openings, which is why there are more openings than advertisements.
2 In 2016, the last year in which the PSC collected all of the Industry cluster’s recruitment data, the cluster accounted for 10.8% of all job advertisements, 8.5% of openings and 7.5% of submitted applications. Further, according the Workforce Profile, the Health cluster had close to 11,000 commencements (including internal and external hires). If these numbers continued into 2018 the number of applications would exceed 500,000.
3 A talent pool is a group of pre-assessed talent that can be easily accessed to fill applicable roles across the sector.
4 Zin, Shamsudin and Subramaniam (2013)