Does working in the public service mean a job for life or joining a club for life?

The Victorian government recently announced the Jobs and Skills Exchange. This is a new initiative giving Victorian public servants first access to job opportunities in the VPS before they are advertised externally.

It is a decision which smacks of protectionism, benefitting those already employed and restricting the injection of new expertise and talent. It also flies in the face of moves in other jurisdictions who are opening up to lateral hires from other sectors. Only two weeks ago, the Prime Minister told the Australian public service it needed to open up to people outside the APS.

He said tapping into their expertise and insights brings a fresh perspective to the challenges of government. Additionally, the Prime Minister acknowledged the benefits when public servants have stints in the non-government sector or the private sector as part of their career journey. It deepens understanding of how other sectors operate and he said the APS should reinforce and reward these choices.

The Prime Minister’s comments echo findings in a new report on public sector innovation from ANZSOG, Monash Sustainable Development Institute and NYU Governance Lab. The report identified one of the most effective ways to accelerate innovation is moving people around. More public agencies are shifting from closed and insular hiring practices to networked ways of working across sectors.

In its 2016-2020 Workforce Plan, the UK Civil Service has committed to opening up recruitment. All roles will be advertised externally by default with a deadline of May 2020, giving anyone the opportunity to apply and compete for roles in an open market. The plan will also make it easier for people to move in and out of the civil service. This will allow people to bring their skills into government or acquire experience and new expertise in other sectors they can take into new roles either in the civil service or the wider economy.

Internationally, public sector organisations are exploring talent exchange programs designed to bring fresh ideas into government. A Deloitte Insights report points to programs in US federal government agencies which enable greater agility in recruiting talent by rotating professionals in and out of the public, private and non-profit sectors. Canada’s Paper Plane Exchange gives public servants the opportunity to undertake an exchange with organisations in other sectors. It is aligned with Canada’s efforts to create an agile, more inclusive and better equipped public service. 

For a public service that prides itself on reform, Victoria’s decision to restrict external recruitment is perplexing. The complexity of today’s public policy challenges demand openness - to ideas, people and a diversity of perspectives and experience. In fact, the latest VPS innovation strategy acknowledges the greatest innovation often occurs from joining the best minds from academia, industry or community organisations, and embracing diversity as a key strength. These minds should be made to feel welcome in the public service.

The world of work is changing. Technology, flexibility and the way we think about careers are redefining the workplace. The public service is not immune from these changes which create an imperative for transforming how the public service operates. This extends to having the best qualified, experienced and skilled people, irrespective of whether they are public servants or not.

Implementation details on the Jobs and Skills Exchange are sketchy. Careful thought needs to be given to a range of issues. This includes tackling the disincentive for existing public servants who want to broaden their experience - taking a role in other sector and bringing their newfound perspective back to the public service. This can only enrich the VPS’ capacity and capability. But why leave the Victorian public service once the Jobs and Skills Exchange is up and running if you can’t get back in.

Rather than thinking about a job for life in the public service, we should be thinking about a club for life. A club that is open to anyone who has the skills, ability and motivation to serve the public good.