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Employee perceptions of senior leaders in the APS

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” -Peter F. Drucker

The Senior Executive Service (SES) plays a significant role in the Australian Public Service (APS). SES officers provide leadership at an agency and whole-of-APS level. They ensure delivery of outcomes and shape organisational culture.

Senior executives operate in complex and sometimes uncertain environments. How they deal with these situations and bring their people with them is important.

The APS employee census tracks employee perceptions over time, including their perceptions of those in senior roles. More positive perceptions of senior leadership can be linked to higher levels of employee engagement. This is important in building a high performing workforce.

The wording of census questions about senior leaders was changed in 2016. The changes mean it is not possible to make direct comparisons against past years. Changes in results may be due to the change in question wording or reflect changes in staff perceptions. In any event, generally the results for 2016 are consistent with those of previous years.

Almost 50 percent of census respondents agree that the SES in their agencies are of high quality. In contrast, less than 30 percent of respondents agree that SES in their agencies give their time to identify and develop talented people. It is important to note that in both instances, over a third of respondents provided a neutral response to the relevant questions, neither agreeing or disagreeing.

Employee perceptions of senior leaders behaviours, 2016

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 1.

Consistent with previous years, there is a wide gap in perceptions of SES effectiveness between employees at the APS, Executive and SES levels. All classifications were the most positive about SES being of high quality. The proportion of APS level employees agreeing with this question was 47 percent compared to 85 percent for SES respondents.

Exposure to senior leaders is a contributing factor to the perceptions other employees hold of them. The nature of the work that most APS level employees typically undertake means that they do not have frequent interaction with or exposure to SES. There is scope to improve the perceptions that APS employees hold of SES officers by increasing the visibility of SES officers.

The lowest proportion of agreement across all classifications was with the statement “In my agency, the SES give their time to identify and develop talented people”. This is also the variable with the greatest gap in agreement between the classification levels, with 72 percent of SES respondents agreeing compared to only 28 percent of APS level respondents and 32 percent of EL respondents.

Talent management is critical to building workforce capability for the future. These results suggest that senior leaders will need to play a more active and visible role as talent managers in their teams and organisations.

The APSC will continue to provide support for talent management activities, including through implementing the practices outlined in the talent management guide and a toolkit . The cross-APS talent management work being led by secretaries and deputy secretaries will also embed a more systematic approach to talent management in the APS.

Employee perceptions of senior leaders behaviour by classification, 2016

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 2.

When perceptions about SES are analysed by organisation size, the general pattern is that SES officers are more positively viewed in smaller agencies when compared to very large agencies. This is a consistent finding and is related to the distance between employees and their SES, particularly in large agencies with wide spans of control.

Employee perceptions of senior leaders behaviour by agency size, 2016

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 3.

When we look at perceptions of SES by agency function, we see this reinforced. Respondents in larger operational agencies are less likely to be positive about the behaviours of their SES. An interesting pattern is the more positive perceptions of respondents in regulatory and policy agencies, across all senior leader behaviours.

Employee perceptions of senior leaders behaviour by agency function, 2016

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 4.

Last reviewed: 
3 July 2018