Oh dear! More of the same?


The Guardian published an article this morning [24 Feb 23] on the NSW ALP’s commitment to increase the number of people with disability employed in the NSW Public Sector – if it wins the upcoming election in March.

It has committed to the same modest target the current government set and failed to hit. That’s 5.6% compared to the UK’s 10%.

There are a few things to like about the vision, but there’s a lot to cause concern that the intent may be thwarted by the same lack of focus on the primary cause of failure that the present government didn’t wake up to.

The Guardian’s article isn’t anything more than the promotional stuff you’d expect during a campaign, but for me the warning signs are there. On a personal level I do not doubt the ALP’s intent.

Recruitment isn’t the whole problem

The article says that the ALP will team up with Daryl Alcott and his Get Skilled Access business. Doing so could have significant advantages at the recruitment phase. There are advantages to having a specialist disability recruitment service that may, if things are established well, overcome the biases, and poor interview set ups that can otherwise bedevil applicants with disability.

But this must be thought through properly, and not be seen as a ‘magic’ solution. Public sector recruitment is a complex matter, and so long as Alcott’s business is able to stick to its area of expertise, any partnership could deliver good results. There’s a risk it may be innocently biting off more than it can chew, or digest.

There are wider critical concerns that must be addressed before a specialised recruitment process can have an enduring impact:

  • Intentional, strategic, and accountable efforts to increase the percentage of people with disability – the major problem.
  • Job design – the presence of roles that accommodate the range of abilities exhibited by people with disability – a large and complex issue.
  • The elimination of abusive and discriminatory conduct – a significant and critical challenge.

I explore them below.

Intentional, strategic, and accountable efforts to increase the percentage of people with disability.

There is a very simple reason why efforts to meet the targets set in the current government’s Premier’s Priorities haven’t delivered. There really wasn’t a managed effort at all. 

The recently released NSW Public Service Commission’s Annual Report 2021-22 notes on page 6 that, “Employing and supporting people with disability remains a challenge for our sector and we continue to support agencies to meet the Premier’s Priority target of 5.6% of employees with disability.” The figure jumped from 2.4% to 2.5%. Yes, anything remains a challenge if you do nothing. You do have to ask whether the function of the PSC is to make excuses for the sector’s inaction. 

The Age of Inclusion campaign developed by the PSC was ill-conceived and mis-guided. It was so flawed it wasn’t used as a significant resource by any agency I am aware of. It took me more than 18 months to have highly offensive and stereotypical misrepresentations of people with disability removed from the webpage.

At the announcement of the Premier’s Priority the focus was immediately on recruitment in a well-intentioned but random manner. The larger task of setting targets and making hitting them part of an accountable plan was ignored, as was the relatively simpler task of counting the number of current staff with disability.

There’s a mismatch between internal diversity reports and the data generated by the annual People Matter Employee Survey [PMES]. The PMES count of staff with disability is higher [in 2022 it was 6% across the sector] than the diversity data of most individual agencies [2.5% for the sector in 2021/22]. There is no denying that things are improving, but that improvement conceals a multitude of ills.

Of the 94 NSW government agencies, in 2022, 19 had over 6%, 8 had 6% and 33 under 6%. 34 had staff numbers too low to report without violating privacy provisions.

Only 4 departments had over 6% – Communities and Justice at 8%, Planning & Environment, Regional NSW, and Customer Service at 7%. Of the remaining 15 agencies 11 had staffing levels of under 1,000 and they had rates between 7% and 12%. Of the 8 agencies scoring 9% or better, 2 had staffing between 1,000 and 1,500, and only one [TAFE NSW – 9%] had substantial workforce of 15,000+. It does seem smaller agencies are better able to build trust.

The spread of results raises the question as to whether each agency should be able to show internal diversity figures of at least 5.6% as opposed to a consolidated sector-wide figure. There are some complexities here. The nature of some agencies’ main roles might be an argument against a high level of staff with disability. Whether those arguments would be validated under scrutiny is another matter.

The reasons for the mismatch between internal and PMES data vary from mistrust or misunderstanding of the employer’s motives for wanting the data, fear that disclosure of a disability may not remain confidential and may result in discrimination, and a lack of clarity on what constitutes a disability. The mismatch reflects a very real cultural problem that is underpinned by genuine hazards.

The definition of a disability used in workforce analysis must match that used in population studies. A person may have a disability by a definition that has no material impact on their ability to obtain, perform in, or retain employment. There is, as yet no clarity on whether a disability is a condition which requires adjustment or accommodation at work – always or sometimes. Its hard to hit a target that is just an abstracted number, and you have no clear idea what it means in concrete terms. There’s also a difference between going for a target that is just a number as part of a compliance requirement and a target that is about real people.

The reason all this remains unclear is that there was no overall strategic approach developed, and no measurable and accountable goals set. Staff with disability were consulted only on the recruitment focus. To the extent that there was any wider sector scale thinking staff with disability were not involved. It wasn’t that there was no thinking being undertaken by staff with disability – there was, but there was no engagement. The failed Age of Inclusion campaign was a telling illustration of what happens when there is inadequate engagement with people with disability.

An effective response to the challenge of meeting any target must be driven by stakeholders with skin in the game. That means going beyond mere tokenism that includes too few people with disability, not giving stakeholders power of influence [they are junior staff who can be overridden or ignored] and selecting ‘decorative’ representatives who live with disability but who lack the knowledge, insight and skill to delivery high quality work.

The dream of building a ‘world-class’ public service is a good one, but on evidence one or more of the following must be true – it’s a low bar; it’s a nice idea to say, but nobody really thinks it’s a good idea to do; the task is neither understood nor sensibly estimated.

The notion that any worthwhile objective can be attained without insight, skill, knowledge, resources, or accountability should make the reader wince. But that’s been the situation since the Premier’s Priority target for employing people with disability was announced.

Job design – the presence of roles that accommodate the range of abilities exhibited by people with disability.

Public sectors have been reducing the scope of roles that once provided opportunities for people with cognitive and motor impairments, and other types of disability. In part this is due to the evolution of technologies and methods. For example, the move to electronic document management has eliminated paper files, and the need to store and retrieve them. Doing so was once a role that could be performed by a person not suited for other administrative roles.

The other important concern here is that public sectors have high demands and limited resources, so workforce design is a critical concern. A preference for higher efficiency is understandable. However, humans are not machines and a focus on efficiency over participation reduces the idea of employment to a ‘cog in the machine’ sense rather than one of equity.

The idea that a public sector should reflect the community it serves tends to resolve around the notion of type – diversity of gender, race, sexuality, culture, and disability. However, disability differs from the other ‘types’ in that it relates to capacity in a way the other ‘types’ do not. The risk is, therefore, that disability is included so long as it is not, in a sense, a ‘real’ disability related to capacity to perform. For example, a wheelchair user has different inclusion needs from a person on the autism spectrum. Access is not principally a physical concern, but we do not encounter much discussion on how a person with a cognitive or behavioural disability can have equal access to a workplace.

The efficiency argument also breaks down when we consider that it is applied in a haphazard and selective manner to ‘normal’ people. The most telling evidence for this is NSW’s PMES. A sample from the 2022 PMES data consolidated for the sector as a whole will illustrate this. The PMES reports against 5 Key Topic Areas [KTAs] with 24 specific topics rating the level of satisfaction. Only 3 specific topics [in 2 KTAs] scored 70% or higher. Only 50% of the specific topics scored over a 60% satisfaction rating. 

What constitutes a “pass mark” for a professional workforce paid from the public purse is not anywhere articulated, but it isn’t hard to believe that it should be a high bar – at least 75%?. I have appended the full table at the end of the essay. 

The point I want to make here is the NSW Public Sector isn’t exactly a paragon of efficiency. It is a human organisation, expressing all its diversity and imperfections. The argument that there is no room for less ‘efficient’ people is a rational conceit – a form of discrimination, perhaps an unconscious bias defended by self-serving but poor rationales. It is a position that is amenable to rethinking, revising, and being made more inclusive.

In 2017, Ebru Sumaktas, a blind woman and a former NSW public servant, prepared a report on her Churchill Trust Fellowship research project – Successful and Sustainable Disability Employment Programs in the Open Labour Market. The report includes exploration of roles that could be created in the NSW Public Sector workforce. You can find it online. The report has been ignored by the sector, despite there being more than ample opportunity to read it and benefit from engaging with Ebru in discussion.

The elimination of abusive and discriminatory conduct – a significant and critical challenge.

Staff with disability are disproportionately subjected to bullying and discrimination. I have written about this extensively in other blog essays, and I am not going to repeat myself here, beyond briefly reiterating some key points. This is the case in the NSW public sector, which has diverse workplaces, work conditions, and work cultures. There is no simple critique that can be applied, but some things are universal, because they are part of being human.

We discriminate against ‘others’ either reflexively or because we have become conditioned to do so. Sometimes this can be ‘baked’ into a work culture because of the nature of the work [like engaging with the rawer side of people in crisis, especially where hazards are involved]. Other times it’s a simple case of people being inept in, or unfit for, leadership roles.

Another critical problem is that leadership often must be impersonal, and this can lead to a lack of empathy. Dealing with bullying, exclusionary, or abusive conduct isn’t easy. It is demanding and taxing, and it can’t be reliably delegated. It also takes skills that are outside the standard leadership suite – something too few people in leadership roles are aware of or acknowledge.

The sector also relies on a quasi-legalistic and bureaucratic approach to complaint resolution that is generally performed in an inept way that is biased toward to an agency’s perceived interests and injurious to the complainant. The PMES data on grievance handling [53%] is indicative of a fundamental problem – especially when we understand that the question asked is a hypothetical – If I raised a grievance in my organisation, it would be handled in a fair and objective manner. The unfavourable response of 18% might tell us more if we knew what portion of people who actually lodged grievance this represents. 

The absence of an effective way of addressing concerns about discrimination means that there is no clear picture about actual levels of harm being caused. For many, trying to take action will only trigger a backlash that causes more harm. A former colleague had to resort to taking his agency to the Human Rights Commission to end persistent bullying. He won and received compensation for legal costs. But few have such fortitude. Those responsible were never held to account. The low level [53%] of approval in response to a hypothetical on grievance handling at least tells us the process has a very poor reputation. That would suggest it is discouraging. It also suggests that things are way worse than the PMES data can be made to say.

There are two concerns here – retention of staff with disability and the obligation to not cause harm.

Retention of staff with disability by making their work experience more accessible in terms of physical access, meeting other personal physical needs through providing ergonomic equipment, and addressing barriers to career progression is happening – to varying degrees across the sector. But the failure to address bullying and exclusion that leads to resignations, or intentional efforts to force resignation as a tactic to remove a staff member with disability still attracts little serious attention or action. The annual NSW State of the Sector report routinely expresses sentiment asserting ‘zero tolerance’ for bullying, followed up by an admonition that ‘we must do better’. Its difficult to understand what ‘zero tolerance’ means in the face of evidence of ‘ample tolerance’.

The obligation to do no harm is built into the sector’s code of conduct and WHS obligations, but instances of staff with disability experiencing physical and psychological harm persist. There is a belief that disability inclusion is separate and distinct from WHS obligations. It is difficult to understand this reluctance unless it is to minimise exposure to the need to respond to a real hazard by reclassifying it.

We have a certain appetite for causing harm. Its something we do in our privates lives towards those with we have intimate relationships – at least sometimes and unintentionally. We can and do look away when harm is being caused to others. We find ways of justifying our inaction. If we have the heightened risk of less empathy being expressed by leaders toward individual staff, it isn’t hard to see that it is possible for a colleague with disability to experience harm in our midst and for no action to be taken.

The problem here isn’t a moral one. It’s a problem of evolving organisational psychology. Being subject to abuse and discrimination in the workplace isn’t new. But as we seek to bring into the workplace more people with disability [and this goes for other diversity groups as well] we are bringing in more people potentially vulnerable to discrimination, exclusion, and harm.

There is a recognizable imperative for organisations to respond to this greater challenge by increasing efforts at addressing the challenges to assure safety and inclusion. And, critically, holding those who engage in intentional or persistent harm-causing conduct towards staff to account. We are inclusion-dependent creatures. Our instinct is to belong. Exclusion, isolation, or rejection causes real harm on a psychological level, and it can express physically as well.

The job of evolving our workplaces to meet a higher standard of inclusion is complex and demanding of critical resources [attention, time, effort – and hence funds]. This is not a case of scolding those who aren’t doing enough, rather arguing there must be an intentional planned, resourced, and accountable approach taken to maximising the chance of a person with disability remaining because they are safe and included, and leaving only because there is a better prospect.


There is a prospect, if there is a change of government, that a fresh approach may bring much needed changes. But the reality is that those who have failed to think through and act to address the failure to meet the current government’s Premier’s Priorities will still be in key roles in the sector. 

Anybody familiar with Yes Minister will instantly see the risks. Without a significant structural change that brings in stakeholders with lived experience and a genuine process of accountability its likely to be a perpetuation of the same sorry state, just rebranded, and with a fresh coat of paint.

The prominence given to Alcott’s involvement may make for interesting reading, but it smacks also of a deal cooked up by people who have no grasp of the challenge they imagine they are taking on. It could just be electioneering, but it has attracted a red flag here – a risk of a lost opportunity for vitally needed reform.

The reality is that some workplaces across the sector are toxic and have toxic or inept leadership. For a variety of reasons people with disability can be vulnerable to intentional and inadvertent harm that can endure, even despite efforts to put a stop to it. There is an ‘appetite for abuse’ despite the rhetoric to the contrary. Wanting to bring more potentially vulnerable people into such environments should be seen as reckless, but it isn’t. A focus on a number [5.6%] is an empathy-free gaze. A focus on the real inclusion and wellbeing of people with disability [or any other element of diversity] is an empathy-rich aspiration.

It is interesting what some folk think should be an attribute of a ‘world-class’ public service.

From the 2022 PMES Report -Sector-wide data

Purpose and DirectionRisk and innovation73%
Purpose and DirectionJob purpose and enrichment70%
OutcomesCustomer service70%
Purpose and DirectionEthics and values69%
Work EnvironmentHealth and safety69%
Work EnvironmentInclusion and diversity68%
OutcomesJob satisfaction68%
Purpose and DirectionRole clarity and support64%
LeadershipEmployee voice64%
OutcomesEmployee engagement64%
Work EnvironmentFlexible working63%
Work EnvironmentTeamwork and collaboration62%
Enabling PracticesRecognition60%
LeadershipDecision-making and accountability60%
OutcomesWell being 58%
Enabling PracticesLearning and development55%
Enabling PracticesFeedback and performance management55%
LeadershipCommunication and change management55%
Work EnvironmentGrievance handling53%
LeadershipSenior managers51%
Enabling PracticesRecruitment48%
Enabling PracticesPay48%
LeadershipAction on survey results44%
Work EnvironmentBurnout [disagree]34%

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