The importance of a mobile workforce in Australia’s public sector
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The importance of a mobile workforce in Australia’s public sector

Future of Work

The importance of a mobile workforce in Australia’s public sector

March 21, 2017 Brian Kelly
The foundation stone of every healthy public sector is a skilled, highly competent workforce with the ability to move freely within, between and beyond departments.

This is the holy grail of Australian Governments today, as they pursue a variety of policies in search of flexible, top quality staff.

But what is the secret of a public service workforce which is not only high performing but happy too?

And how can Australia’s public sector embrace the level of innovation and growth seen in the private sector?

The nature of a mobile workforce

The beauty of mobile employees is that they can be moved around within the organisation to plug skill gaps, head teams, develop projects, mentor new staff and gain valuable expertise in different areas of service.

They give management the flexibility needed to allocate resources for maximum effectiveness - moving quickly to head off a crisis, promote workers with leadership potential and bring in new staff for training.

Such workers are skilled in using the organisation’s digital systems, and comfortable working across a range of new technologies.

They possess the transferable skills which will serve them well in any role or capacity across the sector, and they are keen to go on expanding the experience and expertise necessary to further their career.

Prized, portable attributes for mobile employees include creative thinking, problem solving, interpersonal skills, digital aptitude and strong communication – over and above standard qualifications and traditional industry experience.

Sounds too good to be true? Australia’s public sector transformation is already under way.

Why the push for public sector mobility?

The 2012 NSW Commission of Audit Final Report lifted the lid on entrenched bad practice and toxic work culture within State Government departments, pointing to rigid rules, inflexible work culture, outdated systems and ‘worrying capability gaps’ as areas of primary concern.

While nine NSW clusters had been designed to link silos and integrate community services more effectively, they were acting as barriers to mobility and efficiency - still operating with ‘multiple systems’ and failing to communicate with each other in a consistent way.

The depth and extent of wasteful, inefficient and hierarchical work practices – which ‘impedes talent and new ideas’ - forced the Government to act.

The NSW Government Sector Employment Act 2013, driven by the Public Service Commission, laid the groundwork for a ‘modern, responsive and adaptive’ public sector.

The report stated: “Workforce resources can be deployed to where they are most needed, and employees are supported to play an active role in developing their skills and capabilities, including through opportunities to gain broader experience.

“By moving to employment in bands or classifications, and assignment to roles rather than appointment to narrowly defined positions, the GSE Act will facilitate a workforce that is mobile and engaged.”

While problems have been seen most explicitly in NSW, the wider Australian public sector has needed support to help it optimise human capital in a post-digital world.

The Northern Territory experience

In 2014, the Northern Territory Public Sector (NTPS) published Broadening Our Horizons: Avenues for Career Mobility, a report highlighting the drive for a more mobile and responsive workforce.

The report states: “The greater the fluidity between workplaces, the higher the regard for the organisation. Greater mobility has the potential to act as a vehicle for professional development and an opportunity to exchange ideas and better practice approaches.”

The Northern Territory Government identifies clear benefits of workplace mobility for both employees and the public sector.

Mobility offers staff members the opportunity to:
  • Gain valuable experience of other roles.
  • Develop potential leadership skills.
  • Tackle role swaps and new challenges.
  • Gain wider understanding of the public service.
  • Grow professional networks.
  • Discover alternative career options within the sector.
  • Work within universities, aid organisations, internationally or interstate.

The advantages of mobility for the organisation include:
  • Reduction in staff turnover costs. Council for Equal Opportunity in Employment claims turnover costs range from 50% to 130% of an incumbent’s salary, as cited in the NTPS report.
  • Increased staff loyalty due to more flexible and rewarding job options and conditions.
  • Retention of highly skilled and valuable employees.
  • Preparation of staff for leadership positions.
  • Greater sharing and exchange of information and ideas across the sector.
  • Better communication and relationships between Government agencies.

The NTPS identifies an ageing population, Millennial demands for flexible working and people seeking a healthier work-life balance as the main drivers of workplace reform.

Official figures show mobility is trending

While it’s early days in the push for ongoing flexibility and innovation, Australian public sector statistics are moving in the right direction.

A look at the APS Statistical Bulletin for 2015-16 shows a distinct trend towards more highly skilled workers and mobility across Australian Public Service Commission agencies.

Over the past 15 years, figures show a strong, consistent shift towards a more skilled-up workforce undertaking roles which are growing more demanding and complex.

Along with a decline in the proportion of employees in low level jobs ranked APS 1-2 (down 5.8%) and APS 3-4 (down 5.1%), workers in APS classifications 5-6 increased by 4.7% and Executive Level ranks rose by 5.8%.

Regarding mobility:
  • Overall mobility of staff between APS agencies rose from 1.6% in 2014-15 to 2.4% in 2015-16.
  • Transfer rate increased from 1.3% to 1.6% during that financial year, while promotion rate rose from 0.4% to 0.8%.
  • Mobility has consistently been higher for women than for men, possibly tying in with Bain & Company research showing that women gain more benefit than men from flexible work conditions in Australia. The mobility rate for women rose from 1.8% in 2014-15 to 2.6% in 2015-16.
  • The mobility rate for men did, however, increase from 1.3% in 2014-15 to 2.2% in 2015-16.
  • In general, mobility between APS agencies is higher in senior management and executive level jobs. Mobility in SES (Senior Executive Service) jobs reached 7.7 % in 2015-16.

While there’s still a way to go, Australia’s public sector is exploring and implementing a wealth of ways to achieve optimum workforce mobility.

About Brian Kelly


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