Is this a lost opportunity for staff with disability?


I was sent an email announcing that the NSW Public Sector Commission is setting up a talent pool for Grade 9/10 roles. As these roles are where team leaders and managers often come from. I was keen to learn more.

The email from the Deputy Public Service Commissioner said in part, “Following a rigorous assessment process, the pool of successful candidates will be available from 1 July 2022 for 18 months. Recruiters and hiring managers in the sector can access the talent pool and browse for suitable candidates for ongoing and temporary roles, full time or part-time, in both greater Sydney and regional NSW.”

It looked like a good idea – until I looked at the focus capabilities, and then I was disappointed. I want to discuss why.

The Capability Framework

I love clear, well thought out methodologies, and the NSW Capability Framework is a very useful tool. At least, it would be if it was used as intended.

In sum, it has 5 groups of capabilities, each with 4 members, and with one of four levels of competence to be assigned to each capability. A capability is described as the knowledge, skill and ability required to perform a role.

For each individual capability there is a list behavioural indicators for each level. These briefly describe the behaviour that indicates performance at the desired level of competence.

Position Descriptions for a role specify focus capabilities and their levels. These are the required knowledge, skills, and abilities for the role. They replace the essential criteria of the traditional recruitment method. There may be some additional occupation-specific requirements in some instances.

Capability frameworks are in widespread use globally, but there is a common observation that they are frequently not used effectively, or beyond a mere ‘lip service’ level. In NSW the framework is employed in the development of a Position Description, and then frequently completely ignored in the rest of the recruitment process.

Why does this matter for staff with disability?

There are several issues to be considered:

Source of confusion and stress

If the capability framework is employed in a haphazard manner in a recruitment process, a candidate cannot reliably guess whether the panel will be using the framework, and to what degree. Hence crafting responses to the focus questions and preparation for the interview may generate needless stress and anxiety.

For example, a focus question response is usually a standard A4 page, and that is around 540 words at 12pt Arial. There are 2 such questions, giving around 1080 words to articulate how you meet the focus capabilities. Now and then a job ad may allow a 2-page cover letter as well.

If the panel is using the capability framework to evaluate applications, this means that an applicant has 2 pages plus their CV to indicate ability to meet 30 or so behavioural indicators. If it is not, and merely playing lip service to the framework by having the capabilities in the position description – because that is what is required, there will be far less pressure on an applicant. But how would you know? Not everybody asks.

For candidates with a psychological disability, and/or, a predisposition to be highly particular, this could generate a high level of uncertainty and stress. And if the application is culled – why was that? If it was because the focus capabilities were not addressed sufficiently, is that a useful guide for the next application?

A uniform expectation that the focus capabilities will be assessed in a methodical manner is surely preferable.

How is an applicant assessed?

Absent reliance on the capability framework, what has a panel to go on, other than to fall back on old ways of doing things? This usually means the application gets you the interview, and the interview gets you the job. Instead of the interview being just one step in the selection process it becomes the determining element. 

This creates two problems. The first is that the focus capabilities can be applied erratically and selectively to support a decision made on other criteria. The second is that bias is likely to have influenced the decision-making.

Research on bias indicates that it is very hard to avoid. Decision-making hygiene proponents argue for a structured approach to assessing candidates. The capability framework should provide a foundation for enabling bias-free recruitment decisions. An assessment table using the focus capabilities would allow for a capability-by-capability assessment across all candidates – a methodology recommended to reduce bias.

One size does not fit all – especially when its undemanding

The PSC grade 9/10 position description lists 7 focus capabilities, all at Adept level. To me that sets an underwhelming standard to “attract new, high quality talent”. I noted when I began this blog that I have grave concerns over the low level of demand made on senior staff. Adept level may sound good, but it is bang in the middle of the 5 levels – Foundational, Intermediate, Adept, Advance, Highly Advanced.

There is overwhelming evidence that very well-developed personal attributes are critical in effective leadership. This is part of a growing trend as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion become increasingly important across the globe. If the NSW public sector wants to be a World Class public service it must do much better in what it expects from its senior staff. For instance, a Position Description for recent grade 9/10 vacancy in the People Culture and Talent team in the Department of Premier and Cabinet listed 7 focus capabilities – 2 Intermediate, 3 Adept and 2 Advanced. The two Intermediates were Value Inclusion and Diversity and Deliver Results. 

I have been looking a Position Descriptions for the past 6 months, and this was the first time I have come across any focus capabilities at such a low level as intermediate. Even uniform Adept is not okay at a senior level in my view. This is certainly the case when it comes to personal attributes.

The greatest risk to staff with disability comes from managers and leaders who lack empathy, self-insight, and a commitment to ensuring psychological safety. The PSC Age of Inclusion manifesto asserted Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy, and then it develops a generic 9/10 Position with such soft requirements for the Personal Attributes? The Position Description nominated only one Personal Attribute – Display courage and resilience.

Personal Attributes in the Capability Framework

The Capability Framework lists 4 Personal Attributes:

  • Display courage and resilience – Be open and honest, prepared to express your views, and willing to accept and commit to change
  • Act with integrity – Be ethical and professional, and uphold and promote the public sector values
  • Manage self – Show drive and motivation, an ability to self-reflect and a commitment to learning
  • Value inclusion and diversity – Demonstrate inclusive behaviour and show respect for diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives

Which of those capabilities would you edit out of a selection for a team leader or manager role? It is rare to see more than 2 listed, which invites the question, “Which are optional two?” It is also rare to see the level above Adept for 9/10 and 11/12 roles.

Below are the Advanced level behavioural indicators for each of the 4 Personal Attributes. Which would you consider an unreasonable expectation of a grade 9/10 senior role – or higher?

Display courage and resilience

  • Remain composed and calm and act constructively in highly pressured and unpredictable environments 
  • Give frank, honest advice in response to strong contrary views 
  • Accept criticism of own ideas and respond in a thoughtful and considered way 
  • Welcome new challenges and persist in raising and working through novel and difficult issues 
  • Develop effective strategies and show decisiveness in dealing with emotionally charged situations and difficult or controversial issues

Act with integrity

  • Model the highest standards of ethical and professional behaviour and reinforce their use 
  • Represent the organisation in an honest, ethical and professional way and set an example for others to follow 
  • Promote a culture of integrity and professionalism within the organisation and in dealings external to government 
  • Monitor ethical practices, standards and systems and reinforce their use 
  • Act promptly on reported breaches of legislation, policies and guidelines

Manage self

  • Act as a professional role model for colleagues, set high personal goals and take pride in their achievement 
  • Actively seek, reflect and act on feedback on own performance 
  • Translate negative feedback into an opportunity to improve 
  • Take the initiative and act in a decisive way 
  • Demonstrate a strong interest in new knowledge and emerging practices relevant to the organisation

Value inclusion and diversity

  • Encourage and include diverse perspectives in the development of policies and strategies
  • Take advantage of diverse views and perspectives to develop new approaches to delivering outcomes
  • Build and monitor a workplace culture that enables diversity and fair and inclusive practices 
  • Implement practices and systems to ensure that individuals can participate to their fullest ability 
  • Recognise the value of individual differences to support broader organisational strategies 
  • Address non-inclusive behaviours, practices and attitudes within the organisation 
  • Champion the business benefits generated by workforce diversity and inclusive practices


Somebody makes choices about the Personal Attribute capabilities for a role – how many, which one/s, and at what levels. These choices are expressed in Position Descriptions for senior positions. What are they thinking? What is their rationale? What are their values?

I think I can confidently say that very few are thinking, “Let’s ensure we select people who can be leaders who inspire with self-awareness and empathy. Let’s make sure we have leaders who can foster and maintain safe and inclusive work cultures and work practices.”

The Capability Framework is a great tool. It’s not hard to use. It doesn’t take long to get comfortable using it. But great tools are not much use if you do not have a vision and purpose for using them.

The PSC has shown such a lack. But that’s across the sector too. A failure to use the tool as intended leaves applicants with disability exposed to the perpetuation of bias; and it can make the application process far more challenging than it should to be.

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