Navigating to Senior Leadership in The Australian Public Service: Identifying Employment Barriers and Enablers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

Detail from Gulach 2006 by Terry Ngamandara Wilson
Author/editor: S Faulkner and J Lahn
Year published: 2019
Issue no.: 02


Executive Summary
This commissioned report examines enablers and barriers which act to support or impede career progression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees to senior levels in the Australian Public Service (APS).

It draws on 50 in-depth interviews with current or former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander APS employees, predominantly at the Executive Level (EL) and Senior Executive Service (SES) level, reflecting on their careers in the APS.

Key findings suggest that informal relationships with mentors and managers form the key enabler of career advancement, and generally play a more important role than other institutionalised measures (which were nonetheless seen as useful), such as formal mentoring, study and development programs, affirmative measures and family-friendly provisions. A number of barriers to advancement were identified including operational constraints, limited regional opportunities, poor management practices, and a lack of institutional valuing of Indigenous1 skills and leadership styles.

The research highlights a combination of elements as creating a unique career experience for Indigenous employees, notably institutional biases fostering stereotypes and pigeonholing and the widely shared perspective among Indigenous public servants of being required to ‘walk in two worlds’: that of culture/community and of the Public Service.

Institutional biases clearly constitute an additional barrier to career progression, while the ‘two worlds’ experience can represent either a career resource or difficulty depending on the degree of institutional recognition, support and valuing of cultural diversity.

The report’s main conclusion is that the APS needs to develop and more effectively disseminate at all levels, a clearly articulated business case (or ‘Value Proposition’) in relation to employing Aboriginal and Torres Islander people in terms of the strengths, capacities and attributes they bring that will directly benefit the mission and goals of the APS.

These are not in any particular order. Everyone has a role to play in improving career progression. These recommendations are offered as a guide to getting started.

For the APS:
1. Increase accountability at the highest levels for improving progression through recruitment and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into executive and senior executive roles.
2. Set employment targets at all levels and monitor progress.
3. Establish mechanisms to facilitate increased mentoring, coaching and sponsoring of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff by senior executives.
4. Develop a greater number of senior roles (SES and EL) and career opportunities outside Canberra, including policy roles, not just service delivery.
5. Create clear pathways and plainly communicate expectations for career progression, and enhance formal feedback processes for unsuccessful applications to positions and opportunities. 6. Develop and promote a strong ‘Value Proposition’, clearly articulating the diverse range of strengths that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees bring to the APS.
7. Utilise existing tools such as the Australian Public Service Employment Database and the APS Employee Census to monitor career progression across the service.
For Indigenous people
8. Locate a range of mentors, coaches and sponsors (formal and informal, short and long term) to help you navigate the APS.
9. Develop a career plan.
10. Identify supportive peers.
11. Take advantage of any opportunities that come your way. Put your hand up for extra work and special projects. Show initiative.
12. To increase your competitiveness in the APS, seek out and be open to feedback in relation to ongoing performance and opportunities.

For non-Indigenous people
13. Mentor an Indigenous person.
14. Offer clear feedback and career navigation advice.
15. Seek opportunities to build cultural awareness and cultural capability.
16. Ask Indigenous people how you can support them.
17. Join your agency’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) Committee and actively participate in RAP activities.


Updated:  10 January 2020/Responsible Officer:  Centre Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications