Reflections on the 2021 NSW PSC State of the NSW Public Sector Report


Each year the NSW Public Service Commission produces a report on the state of the NSW public sector, drawn from the annual People Matter Employee Survey (PMES).

Sad to say, each year there is scant progress for staff with disability in recruitment and retention.

Overall Recruitment and Retention Levels for Staff with Disability

The NSW Premier’s Priority target for employment of staff with disability is 5.6% by 2025.

Here’s a quote from the 2020 report:

People with disability also remain under-represented in the workforce, at only 2.4% representation in 2020 (a slight reduction from 2.5% in 2019). Based on the latest projections, we are still likely to fall short of our goal of 5.6% employment of people with disability by 2025. However, it is worth noting that when given the opportunity to report their disability status anonymously, such as through the People Matter survey, the sector produces a higher rate of disability representation (4.3% in 2020). 

Much remains to be done to attract, reward and retain people with disability, and to make them feel they can safely identify as a person with disability. The latest People Matter survey data reveals that people with disability report lower levels of engagement compared to the sector (63.8% versus 67.5%). 

And here’s a quote from the 2021 report:

There was a slight increase to 2.5% in the number of people recording in our human resources (HR) systems who say they have a disability, turning around a downward trend over the past few years. There was also an increase to 4.6% in the number of people disclosing a disability through the People Matter survey. The sector is working to develop initiatives that will encourage individuals to share their disability at work. These increases are encouraging, but a large amount of work is needed to reach the Premier’s Priority target of 5.6% of the workforce identifying as having a disability by 2025. 

While there is apparent improvement in the reported number of staff with disability, we need not to be overly enthusiastic about this, because this is an averaged number. The 2021 PMES reported high levels of staff with disability in small agencies (Legal Aid reported 10% for instance) and low numbers of staff with disability in larger agencies (2% in Fire and Rescue and 3% in Treasury for example).

What must be avoided is grasping at the average score as sufficient to fulfil the target – rather than 5.6% for each agency. I do admit, however, that even an average of 5.6% would be a vast improvement. But let’s not forget that this may be because smaller agencies are doing all the heavy lifting and the larger agencies are riding on their success. A shared target will eventually address issues raised below – if there is commitment to attaining it.

Whatever level of representation of staff with disability is asserted at any given time, it will be a blend of 3 primary factors:

  1. The creation of workplace cultures in which staff with disability are able to confidently seek adjustments and accommodations as needed – and hence say they have a disability without fear of discrimination.
  2. Recruitment processes that are not biased against applicants with disability.
  3. The rate of exit of staff with disability from the sector.

Progress is being made on the first 2 fronts, but not in any manner that indicates a determined and focused approach. By that I mean progress is haphazard and lacks any sense of urgency. As the 2021 reports says, there is “a large amount of work” to be done.

Let’s go back to a quote from the 2020 report:

Much remains to be done to attract, reward and retain people with disability, and to make them feel they can safely identify as a person with disability. The latest People Matter survey data reveals that people with disability report lower levels of engagement compared to the sector (63.8% versus 67.5%).

So “much remains to be done” to make a staff member feel they can “safely identify as a person with disability.” We still need to use language like that? 

The fact that we do should be alarming. What is the ‘much that remains to be done’, and why is it still in want of being done?

Bullying is a Major Concern

This is from the 2020 report:

Worryingly, 24.2% of people with disability reported being bullied at work in the previous 12 months, almost double the rate of bullying experienced by NSW public sector employees overall (13.9%). The situation was even worse for people with disability working in regional areas, with 28.0% reporting being bullied at work. Although this represents a minor improvement from 2019, the higher rates of bullying for those with disability continue to be an area of concern. The harmful consequences of bullying at both the individual and organisational level are well established and undermine our efforts to create a positive workplace culture.

The situation has deteriorated in the 2021 report, which is not so forthright. The report uses a graphic, which takes away precision, but the number is marginally worse across the board. The best we can say is that there no improvement at all. I don’t want to split percentage point hairs. But I do want to ask what was the response to the 2020 report’s “much remains to be done” such that there has been no meaningful improvement in the figures between 2019 and 2021.

When we are talking nearly a quarter of staff with disability reporting that they have been bullied we must see this figure as alarming, especially in the fact that there has been no improvement.

Allied to this is the persistently low level of satisfaction in how complaints are addressed and resolved. In 2021 that’s still at only 46%, one up from 2020. In fact, let’s look more closely at the 2021 PMES results. There are, for the sector as a whole, 3 sub 50% scores. For staff with disability, there is a link between all 3. As well as Grievance Handling, there are Employment/Recruitment (48%) and Action on Survey Results (47%). To be blunt, there is inequity at recruitment, a failure of grievance processes and no meaningful action taken to address the discrimination revealed in the PMES.

I read the PMES results carefully, and I try to make allowances for the fact that a survey is not reality, and some instances of bullying can be misperceived, and a case of over-reaction. But even the most generous interpretations cannot mask the depth of the problem. Those qualifications must be applied across the spectrum of reports – and staff with disability still come out far worse off than others. FYI, around 20% of Aboriginal staff report bullying, and they are the next worse off group. 

When you have figures that high you can be assured that there will be truly egregious instances of bullying that cannot be anything less than serious abuse. Here I am talking about conduct that so bad the perpetrators should be subjected to severe sanctions – if complaints were taken seriously and processed competently – and the misconduct of the bullies acted upon.

The Persistent Problems

The fact that data seem to be consistent over multiple years should tell us something important. If around 25% of staff with disability consistently report being bullied, and around 46% of staff report grievances are not handled well, there’s a pretty good chance that a substantial number of staff with disability who report being bullied are unable to find resolution through a complaints handling process. 

Why is that? Who is not seeing this as a problem? If executive leaders across the sector are wondering why the confidence on action being taken on the PMES survey is so low here’s one reason why. There are quite a few things that have been improved as a result of the PMES. But you don’t get brownie points for picking the low hanging fruit while leaving the high level of discriminatory and abusive conduct unchecked. 

In a way this is a form of additional discrimination. Despite the high levels of bullying reported, and the deep discontent with the grievance process other areas of improvement are given priority. This is despite the harm acknowledged at all levels – to victims, and the organisation.

Retention Rates May Even Disguise the Problem

Retention rates for staff with disability continue to remain low for a number of reasons. Instances of disability increase with age and with retirement a disability stat can be lost. Staff aged 55+ make up 18% of the sector’s workforce. That’s around 3,600 people with disability if the rate is 5%. I don’t know the aged-based disability stats for the sector. With the so—called COVID induced ‘great resignation’ there could be an even higher level of staff with disability retiring in the coming year.

When around 25% of staff with disability report bullying you can be assured that this is also a reason for leaving – because of psychological exhaustion or illness. As noted earlier that high volume of bullying will include particularly egregious cases that leave victims emotionally drained, injured and at higher risk of stress-related physical disorders. Resignation may be a necessary option. But, worse than this is the reality that many can’t afford to quit. Some must endure bullying and abuse for financial reasons.

I don’t have figures to back up this observation – just the stories I have been told directly and reported to me. How many is okay? I don’t think anybody should be in that situation.

This is an area for more focused research – if there is an appetite for that level of curiosity.


I appreciate the fact that these annual state of the sector reports are provided, and are available to stimulate conversation. But they are poorly used as a tool, in my view. Data that should cause alarm doesn’t seem to do that. I use the term ‘alarm’ intentionally, because we should be alarmed that staff with disability are experiencing the highest level of bullying of any group in the sector.

I have no doubt of the general good intent across the sector. I do believe sector leaders want to make their workplaces better and safer for staff with disability. Regular readers will know that I am constantly pushing the theme of apparent inaction and a seeming appetite for abusive conduct.

The report, I believe, vindicates my position. Bullying can be stopped by an effective process of accountability and a commitment to implementing it. It’s not a mystery – and neither, sadly, is why it doesn’t happen.

Time for action.

Here’s a quote from an article in the online Coast Community News from local state MP, Liesl Tesch, posted on 24 January 2022. Tesch is a wheelchair user.

“Every year I make submissions to Parliament’s Disability Inclusion Plan. 

This year I was asked for my input, but I found myself writing the same suggestions that I have been making for four years- with little confidence that the fundamental changes we desperately need will be taken seriously and acted upon.”

It’s nice to know the NSW Parliament has a Disability Inclusion Plan. It’s a pity that it seems not to be a model for the state – in terms of commitment to clear and decisive action. Its certainly not modelling behaviour for the sector – and this may be part of the problem. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *