ABC CANBERRA WITH ADAM SHIRLEY
MONDAY, 15 MAY 2023
SUBJECTS: Diversity in the public service
ADAM SHIRLEY (HOST): Dr Andrew Leigh is the Assistant Minister federally for Competition, Charities and Treasury. Dr Leigh, sounds like you’re going to lose someone – at least one person – who’s texted in this morning because they’ve had it with the culture. How much does that concern you?
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMPETITION, CHARITIES AND TREASURY ANDREW LEIGH: It certainly concerns me, Adam. We need to make sure that the public service is a model employer that attracts and retains great people. It’s one of the principles of the APS reform agenda that we’ve got in place. We want an APS that embodies integrity in everything that it does. And just as when the Commonwealth walks into a court room it aims to be a model litigant, so, too, when it’s dealing with employees it needs to be a model employer.
SHIRLEY: So as you’ve looked across the various department workforces, the way they’re ticking over, doing well or not so well, why is it that you see diversity of experience, of culture, of working background as being something that needs addressing now?
LEIGH: Well, we know that diversity is associated with better performance. More diverse cities tend to grow faster, more diverse boards produce better outcomes for companies, more diverse workplaces just have a plethora of ideas that make decision making better. Yet this research that I’ve discussed in the Canberra Times today headed by Robert Breunig at the ANU, which analyses promotions in the Australian Public Service since 2001 to 2020, suggests some worrying patterns. They’ve looked at promotion prospects of Anglo and non-Anglo applicants and found that systemically it seems that non-Anglo applicants are less likely to get promoted. Probably most troubling, Adam, is that the promotions gaps between Anglo and non-Anglo applicants gets bigger and bigger as you go up the spectrum. As they put it, the hurdles gets higher.
SHIRLEY: If you’re listening now, depending on your background – Anglo or non-Anglo – what has your experience been of being listened to, of being supported in the public service, of getting a promotion if you feel you deserve it? I know you probably need to weigh in anonymously – 1300 681 666. SMS is 0467 922 666.
Dr Andrew Leigh is with us. This might seem like a really obvious question, naïve even, but I think it goes to the heart of what you’re trying to do here, Minister. What do you interpret or define as diversity if you’re trying to improve it in the public service?
LEIGH: Well, in this case the researchers are just defining it as whether people say they are from a non-English-speaking background or not. But obviously, Adam, that is only one dimension of diversity. Academic studies need to define their variables, and some dimensions of diversity are hard to measure. What we do know, though, is that when the public service banned married women from staying employed as permanent public servants that it had a lower calibre of public servants. And we that ban was lifted in 1966 it didn’t just help women; it also helped all Australians. And the same is true with any other form of discrimination.
You know, I don’t think that there’s a sort of haven of racism here in the public service. What I suspect is going on is what we call unconscious bias – people are just a little bit slower to promote those with unfamiliar names. And one way in which you can deal with unconscious bias is straightforward – just have conversations like this, think about unconscious bias when you’re making a hiring decision, whether you’re sifting CVs or on an interview panel, and try and work against those biases that we know are fairly entrenched in society.
SHIRLEY: So countering that, and sometimes we’ll get texts about this and you do hear it colloquially in social circles, some rail at what they see as a PC attitude or promoting diversity for its own sake. For those who have that view, how would you reply?
LEIGH: This is good for all Australians. We know diversity improves outcomes. We’ve seen that in the business sector and in the social sector. The reason Katy Gallagher has asked the Australian Public Service Commission to develop a culturally and linguistically diverse strategy is to make sure that everyone gets a fair go, but also to make sure we have the strongest public service we can possibly have.
SHIRLEY: Are you concerned for whatever reason – and I’m not sure why it might be – that there could be a backlash against maybe some that view it as promoting diversity for its own sake and not necessarily on the best person for the job?
LEIGH: Not at all, Adam. I mean, I think people understand the value of having great people in these positions. I think most Australians would be troubled to know that if you’re applying from a non-Anglo background you’re less likely to be promoted in the public service. That value of equality of opportunity is something that all Australians hold dear, and discussing findings like this is an important way of setting them right.
The other thing to say, too, is we’re looking at promotion outcomes in the public service over the last 20 years, and it might be that the situation has already gotten better. It might be that this sort of rear-vision view paints a disappointingly dark picture. And I hope that’s the case and that, in fact, today’s outcomes would be better if we were just looking at one year of data.
SHIRLEY: Seventeen minutes to 9, Adam Shirley with you on Breakfast. This unsigned public servant says, “I could get paid double but I choose or chose not to. I did leave an agency under 12 months ago seeing terrible bullying and unprofessional behaviour. Luckily I have a strong network and could move relatively easily. At the executive level many work 10-plus hours a day because we are passionate about what we do. Many are burning out.” If we’re talking about culture and a strong diverse workplace, again, what does that anecdotal report tell you, Dr Leigh?
LEIGH: We need to make sure we celebrate our great public servants. And one of the things that really troubled me under the former Coalition Government was attacks on public servants. I felt –
SHIRLEY: Is that to blame, though? I mean, are we talking about an internal departmental problem here of public servants and some of them acting in a bullying or unprofessional way separate to the Government of the day?
LEIGH: Yeah, you’re right, Adam. There’s a range of issues at play there and I certainly wouldn’t pretend that politicised attacks on the public service are to be blame for all ills. But I don’t think it helps. I think the approach that Katy Gallagher has Minister for the Public Service has brought is one of strong respect for public servants. Anthony Albanese has asked his ministers to go into departments, to speak to public servants, to take the time to do that temperature check, but also just to talk to people about how much they’re valued. You know, we are amazingly lucky in this country to have such hard-working, talented, thoughtful public servants doing research at CSIRO, keeping us safe from cyber threats, working in Centrelink in order to process applications There’s a whole host of great public servants, and the purpose of my highlighting this research today is to make sure public service is as much of a meritocracy as it can be.
SHIRLEY: Yeah, and further thoughts come in from some public servants by the looks on 0467 922 666. An interesting one here – and maybe, I guess, you reflect on your qualified academic background, too, Dr Leigh – this texter says, “What’s often not talked about is the effect that unnecessary credentialism has on diversity. When require applicants to have certain degrees that are not actually necessary to do the job but as a lazy mark intelligence, you immediately limit diversity in the applicant pool. This is something that a lot of diversity strategies don’t acknowledge let alone address.” Your response, Dr Leigh?
LEIGH: Yeah, it’s a good point, Adam. And I remember talking to my former ANU colleague Bob Gregory who said that when he first got involved in the public service it was mostly people who hadn’t finished high school. Now it’s very rare to find someone who doesn’t have a university degree in the public service. We do need to make sure that the credentials fit the job and that we’re not demanding credentials that aren’t essential for the role and that we’re looking at the qualities that people have rather than simply crude proxies.
SHIRLEY: Interesting as well from Elizabeth here, “The APS is a closed shop. If you don’t have a mate on the inside, forget trying to get into certain departments. I have two times masters degrees, one from the ANU and international and national work experience, but I was told I could never get an interview because the APS can’t understand my skills. What? I tried to raise this with the APSC and was told all about how fair they were. As a taxpayer, I see long coffee queues and mass inefficiencies.” I know there’ll be many people – obviously there are, Andrew Leigh, who work happily in the public service. But how much do these sorts of anecdotes concern you about what you’re trying to address here?
LEIGH: It goes fundamentally to what we want for the public service. And Katy Gallagher as the Public Service Minister has emphasised the need to make sure the public service is a meritocracy. That starts with the application process of getting into the public service. But it’s also important that through the public service in the promotions decisions that we’re looking all the time at merit and making sure that skin colour or gender is not a consideration at all.
SHIRLEY: This texter reckons, “Seriously, everyone who texts you is going to take the opportunity to whinge about how intelligent and insightful they are but they were ignored by their agencies. That is selection bias at work. I love the public service.” And then, yeah, regarding this, do you think it’s fair that there’s a lot of people quietly this morning that are happy in their job, Dr Leigh?
LEIGH: I think most public servants I’ve spoken to are proud of their job, enjoy working with their colleagues and recognise that they have a government that’s standing on their side. And that is, you know, one of the things that’s important in the public service. We don’t want public servants who are out there politically campaigning for us; we want public servants who are dedicated to their job. That ideal of frank and fearless advice is something that this Government very deeply values. We recognise that governments can often lose their way when they just see the public service as mere implementers of policy rather than as brilliant people, subject matter experts whose insights and wisdom can help to shape better public policies.
SHIRLEY: High-profile coverage of racism and discrimination in areas like elite sport, in certain, I guess, fields of work, but what about the issue in the public service. How great is the problem of discrimination and racism, and how do you plan to address that.
LEIGH: Sorry, I thought you were making an observation there.
SHIRLEY: No, I’m asking you how you plan to address it.
LEIGH: Yes, absolutely. Some of the things I went to before are important for that – the way in which we’re having the conversation today is a part of that. You’ve got a listenership of public servants who’ll be making promotion decisions, for whom thinking about the issue of race and gender is going to make them better in their job. Katy Gallagher is putting in place a culturally and linguistically diverse strategy which is going to look at the evidence base here, and also we’ve got a commitment to evaluation. So what we’re doing right across the public service is looking to improve evaluation. And I think we can do that with some of these strategies as well, rigorously testing whether or not different approaches to hiring can produce better results.
SHIRLEY: Really interesting to hear your views on this and, I guess, look at it directly and seeing whether this situation can be improved. Thank you for your time today.
LEIGH: Thanks so much for the conversation, Adam.
SHIRLEY: Dr Andrew Leigh, Assistant Minister in the Government for Treasury, for the Australian Bureau of stats amongst others, talking there about the data that we have on discrimination bias in the public service, how to improve that key culture so that more people feel a part of it and feel valued. And thank you for a lot of your thoughts.