Discrimination must be eliminated from the public service
Canberra Times, 15 May 2023
Every day, Centrelink staff help people who are down on their luck, CSIRO staff research cutting-edge science, and cyber security experts assess potential threats. Anyone who's worked closely with Australian public servants know how dedicated, hardworking and thoughtful they are.
Yet despite the many strengths of the public service, it can still do better, and one area that it can improve is diversity.
In a recent analysis, economists Robert Breunig, David Hansell and Nu Nu Win studied promotion prospects across the Australian public service. Their data source is extraordinarily detailed, comprising essentially every public servant over a twenty-year period, from 2001 to 2020. With more than 100,000 public servants in each year, the dataset runs into millions of observations.
Although the data are de-identified, the researchers know whether each public servant is from an English-speaking background or a non-English speaking background. Let's call these categories Anglo and non-Anglo for simplicity.
Comparing people with the same level of experience, the researchers ask the question: who gets promoted? At every promotion point, they find that Anglo people had an edge. From APS4 to APS5 and APS5 to APS6, the gap was about one-tenth. From APS6 to EL1, Anglo applicants were one-quarter more likely to win promotion. From EL1 to EL2, Anglo applicants were around 50 percent more likely to get promoted. And from EL2 to SES, Anglo applicants were about 60 percent more likely to get promoted.
Minister for the Public Service Katy Gallagher has asked the Australian Public Service Commission to develop a culturally and linguistically diverse strategy. Picture by Keegan Carroll
What is shocking about the findings is that the problem does not seem to diminish as people climb the ranks. In fact, it gets worse. As non-Anglo applicants ascend the ranks of the public service, the hurdles get higher.
What explains the difference? Delving into the data, Robert Breunig and his fellow economists conclude that language proficiency and cultural assimilation are unlikely to explain the findings. Non-Anglo public servants are disadvantaged for promotion even if they were born in Australia or migrated before starting primary school. The researchers are circumspect, but they conclude that it is hard to look at these results without seriously considering that there may be discrimination in public service promotions.
It is important to stress that these findings average out the experience of public servants from 2001 to 2020. Over that period, attitudes to ethnic minorities in Australia have become more progressive, so it might be the case that discrimination has diminished. Still, the findings should trouble anyone who believes that merit, not skin colour, should determine who gets the job.
As Minister for the Public Service Katy Gallagher has noted, the Coalition's nine years in office saw a lack of interest in investing, nurturing, planning of the public service as an institution in itself. Our APS Reform agenda builds on the work of the Thodey Review, which was largely mothballed by the previous government. The principles of our APS Reform agenda include 'An APS that embodies integrity in everything it does', and 'An APS that is a model employer'.
Minister Gallagher has asked the Australian Public Service Commission to develop a culturally and linguistically diverse strategy for the public service which specifically includes addressing the issue of promotions.
Boosting diversity isn't just about making sure that all employees have a fair go - it's also about ensuring that the public service is at its most effective. At the time of Federation, most public servants were men. Until 1966, married women could not be employed as permanent public servants. These wrongheaded policies sent talent out the door, and left the country with a less capable public service. A public service that looks like Australia will do a better job of serving Australians.
Researchers studying the economics of discrimination have come to recognise the role of unconscious bias. One marker of this is the Implicit Association Test, in which people are asked to match positive and negative words with Anglo and non-Anglo faces. Most people have a faster reaction time when the task is to match positive words with Anglo faces (and negative words with non-Anglo faces). When the task is reversed, it takes most people a few extra milliseconds to match positive words with non-Anglo faces (and negative words with Anglo faces).
Part of the answer to reducing unconscious bias is to be aware of the problem, and not to rush the task of assessing promotion applicants. Breaking down applicants' skills can be helpful too, as it encourages the selection panel to compare people against the job criteria.
Part of the answer to reducing unconscious bias is to be aware of the problem, and not to rush the task of assessing promotion applicants. Breaking down applicants' skills can be helpful too ... to compare people against the job criteria.
Yet there's still a lot that we don't know about ethnic discrimination, and that's where the public service as a model employer can be vital. Across the Australian government, we're committed to improving evaluation, and that includes evaluation of programs to eliminate discrimination. The public service isn't a haven for racism, but somehow the promotion prospects of non-Anglo people have been systematically stymied. To fix it, we need to bring warm hearts and cool heads to the problem.
Originally published in the Canberra Times on 15 May 2023.
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