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Negotiating public service selection criteria

By Sean Regan - posted Thursday, 28 February 2008

In his valedictory speech as retiring Head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold declared himself “buoyed” by the ability of the public service “to continue to recruit the best and brightest” across the land.

This is just as well since the gilded ones have “the chance - indeed, the obligation - to present policy advice that is strongly argued and unvarnished, to set forward alternatives, to establish and interpret the facts as objectively as possible and to ensure that the consequences of actions are foreseen”.

Dr Shergold’s own recruitment to the public service, initially as head of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, followed the best part of two decades in academia, as opposed to the standard central agency track, and it is difficult to avoid the impression he has retained something of the engaging delirium of those innocent groves. Dr Pangloss would have been proud.


Such, at any rate, is the impression one gets after a spell of “scribing” for public service appointment committees in the national capital. The alternative possibility - that this selection process really does produce the brightest and the best - does not bear a second’s thought.

For those who may not know, a “scribe” is the person who takes copious notes at an interview, records the musings of the panel, and writes it all up in a way that encapsulates the essential impartiality and thoroughness of the exercise. He or she is usually a writer of some sort, happy enough to get out of the house for a few hours to turn discursive sows’ ears into polyester purses. Most importantly, the scribe is invisible and mute.

Extreme forbearance is also advisable, since the urge to intervene can be intense. It starts even before the interviews, with the list of selection criteria. (Or rather, criterias. You quickly learn the linguistic agendum.) Most of these are boilerplate:

“Must be a team player.” “Facilitates co-operation and partnerships.” “Good written and verbal communication.” (Though wouldn’t making your point by judicious ear-twitching be rather more impressive?)

Some look like specifications for a standover merchant: “Ensures closure and delivers on intended results.”

Others remind you why the ACT is the nation’s X-rated capital: “Understands who the stakeholders and clients are. Proactively offers assistance for a mutually beneficial relationship. Anticipates and is responsive to internal and external client and stakeholder needs and incorporates their expectations into performance standards.”


It should be stressed that this initial cull is scrupulously fair, especially in those departments which outsource the task to private recruitment agencies employing glorified clerks to administer off-the-shelf keyword recognition software.

Apart from the more or less official guides to answering public service selection criteria there are several useful “cheat sheets” which can be used as templates for any and all positions. The author of one is self-described as a “mental nutritionist”. Alternatively, you can pay another kind of agency to write the whole thing for you. It’s even more lucrative a gig than scribing.

Those who have made it to the interview will obviously have negotiated these formidable obstacles and can expect the panel to drill down through their necessarily stereotypical applications to determine if they are the right courtier for the job. Some are nervous. Others will never cotton on to what is expected. A few know the ropes. They are already public servants.

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About the Author

Sean Regan has worked as an academic, policy advisor and journalist. He is the principal of Editorial Eyes.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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