State of the service

Performance management in the APS

2014-15 State of the Service – Employee performance

Government and community expectations of the Australian Public Service (APS) have changed. In an environment of increased fiscal pressure and rapid change, APS employees are expected to be more agile, innovative, risk savvy and responsive. Effectively managing and continuously improving employee performance is critical if the APS is to meet these demands. Agencies must be equipped to ensure they do performance management well, both in terms of system design and manager capability.

Performance management systems must be fit-for-purpose. They must work to clearly align business priorities and corporate culture with the duties and behaviours expected of individual employees. Regular and constructive manager-employee feedback loops are critical. Performance management systems should impose minimal compliance burden, collect useful HR metrics and be flexible and adaptable over time.

Supervisors and the policies they administer determine whether performance management is effective or not. Results from the 2015 APS employee census suggest that while supervisors may be confident in their ability to manage performance, they are less confident about the policies that govern their actions.

Good performance management systems start with capable managers. This includes managers with the skills required to structure work, allocate responsibilities, develop people and monitor performance. A formal framework that includes performance agreements and periodic reviews makes it easier to address underperformance. It reduces the likelihood that more challenging performance issues will be ignored and it promotes a focus on high performance.

In 2013, the Commission was involved in undertaking a detailed study into performance management1. The study highlighted the importance of a number of factors in ensuring effective performance management. Two of these key factors are the provision of timely and relevant feedback and the clear articulation and management of expectations.

  • “Good performance management systems start with capable managers.”


Results from the 2015 APS employee census show that the majority of staff received formal performance feedback in the 12 months prior to the census. More importantly, most staff received informal performance feedback from their immediate supervisor. Essential to developing high performing APS officers are regular conversations between supervisors and their staff, ensuring that timely and constructive feedback is provided outside the formal constructs of a performance management system.

In a well-functioning system, formal performance reviews contain very few surprises because good managers give regular, easily understood feedback as soon as possible, especially when improvement is required.

Figure 1.

Performance feedback received in last 12 months

Paper icon representing the learn more page Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 1.

Per cent of employees

Performance feedback received in last 12 months

Figure 1. is a bar chart.

The value of informal feedback was noted in the APS employee census, with 53% of staff indicating that they expected the most recent informal feedback they received would have a positive impact on their performance. This result is marginally higher than the 48% of staff who agreed that the most recent formal feedback they had received would help improve their performance. Formal feedback sessions can often be seen by staff as compliance exercises, so it is not surprising that informal performance feedback is regarded as more beneficial when it is likely to be considered more genuine and relevant.

Figure 2.

Expected positive impact of feedback on performance

Paper icon representing the learn more page Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 2.

Per cent of employees

Expected positive impact of feedback on performance

A: Most recent formal performance feedback will help improve performance
B: Most recent informal performance feedback will help improve performance

Figure 2. is a bar chart.

The APS employee census results show that most staff agree that they are being provided with clear and consistent performance expectations by their immediate supervisors. The importance of setting expectations was noted by Blackman et al. (2012):

Employee motivation is likely to be enhanced where employees can clearly see how their work contributes to broader organisational and governmental goals: it demonstrates how they are making a difference… [A] clearer understanding of performance expectations…is likely to lead to improved performance.

Figure 3.

Clear and consistent performance expectations

Paper icon representing the learn more page Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 3.

Per cent of employees

Clear and consistent performance expectations

A: My supervisor provides me with clear and consistent performance expectations
B: I articulate clear and consistent performance expectations to my staff

Figure 3. is a bar chart.

As in the case of performance feedback, the utilisation of informal as well as formal means of establishing performance expectations is a key success factor in achieving high performance. It is also important to ensure that supervisors are aware of how effectively they are communicating performance expectations. As shown above, the 2015 employee census results indicate a small disconnect between the proportion of supervisors who believe they are setting clear performance expectations and the proportion of staff who feel that they have been provided with clear and consistent performance expectations.

[1] Blackman, D. Buick, F., O’Donnell, M., O’Flynn, J. and West, D. (2012) ‘Strengthening the Performance Framework: Towards a High Performing Australian Public Service’. Social Science Research Network.

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Read the State of the Service Report 2014–15 on the APSC website.