Sunday, January 14, 2024

Decoding intelligence agencies’ recruitment processes

 Decoding intelligence agencies’ recruitment processes

The 2024 independent intelligence review’s terms of reference affirm that recruitment is a challenge for Australia’s national intelligence agencies. The review’s remit includes evaluating whether agencies’ workforce decisions reflect a sufficiently strategic response to current and future workforce issues, and offering options if recruitment targets can’t be met.

Varied views on the causes of the recruitment dilemma were shared with me after my recent Strategist article. We all agree that recruitment to Australian agencies is a concern, but opinions differ widely on the reasons.

So, what factors contribute to this complex problem that the intelligence review might consider? And are these challenges really insurmountable?

Workforce data from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Signals Directorate, the only foreign and security intelligence agencies that ‘present unclassified annual reports to the Australian Parliament’, tell interesting stories about whether recruitment targets are being met.

Figures deep in the appendixes of ASIO’s 2022–23 annual report show its total workforce has been in steady decline since 2018–19. Although numbers bounced back in the last 12 months, the past few years have not been good for Australia’s security organisation.

Between 2018 and 2022, the number of women employed by ASIO on an ongoing basis declined by 3% each year, while the number of men dropped by almost 10%. A 2021 audit found that ASIO hadn’t established an enterprise-level workforce implementation plan, or any monitoring and reporting processes.

By comparison, ASD’s workforce has had year-on-year growth totalling an impressive 41% over the past four years.

It’s disappointing that numbers in two important categories, Indigenous employees and staff with a disability, have stagnated at around 1% over that time as both groups shrink in proportion to the whole. But the overall increase is nonetheless a remarkable expansion.

Both agencies had to deal with Covid-19, which would have added an extra obstacle to already intricate recruitment processes. But in a security environment that is increasingly complex, challenging and changing, why is ASD getting it right when other intelligence agencies are struggling to retain and recruit talent?

I affirm the view shared in my last article that branding is a factor. In two years, ASD has spent over $2.75 million on advertising, including recruitment, branding and social media.

The agency’s 75th birthday celebrations were undeniably leveraged to attract new talent. Personable stories in the mainstream pressfinancial newspaperspodcasts and that Vogue Australiaphoto shoot by ASD Director-General Rachel Noble and Australian Cyber Security Centre chief Abigail Bradshaw brought the directorate’s work to life. ASD also unveiled its official history alongside an unofficial version of its origins, curated an unprecedented look into signals espionage through an interactive national exhibit and released extensive public documents on its expansion plan, REDSPICE.

ASD executed a masterclass in brand value theory—using branding and values to drive the agency’s workforce growth.

But strategic branding isn’t the only factor. ASD has made other important choices.

Canberra gets a bad rap, but it’s undoubtedly the hub of Australia’s intelligence action. If you want to become an intelligence officer, Canberra is the place to be. The first challenge is to attract talented people who—shock-horror—don’t want to live in Canberra.

ASD’s shrewdness is publicly demonstrated in its REDSPICE plan. It articulates growth through a distributed workforce model that does away with the established concentration of positions in Canberra, expanding ASD’s talent pool nationwide.

It also looks to hire based on qualities, values and diversity. ASD has elevated the importance it places on its workforce by making diversity and inclusion a capability, alongside tradecraft and technology.

This is a smart strategy. Research abounds about why diversity matters. Although the lack of publicly available data on diversity in Australia’s intelligence community is problematic, there’s no doubt that a diverse workforce creates competitive advantage.

ASIO has cottoned on to this, too. With over 90% of its staff supporting diversity and inclusion, the organisation has now established seven diversity networks and co-hosted the first Five Eyes LGBTQIA+ conference in 2023. These initiatives, together with a new five-year workforce plan, are important factors in the agency’s recent workforce revitalisation.

One of the challenges raised with me in feedback is that traditional government interview processes can obscure recognition of the right talent for intelligence jobs. The process can be so different to private-sector hiring practices that there are companies, blogs and online workbooks dedicated to helping candidates translate their experience into public-sector-speak.

A talented IT engineer or cyber analyst might not excel when faced with rigid public-sector checklists and formal government interview processes but might well thrive in a work environment that values, as ASD does, ingenuity to operate in the slim area between the difficult and the impossible.

But could the average candidate know, for example, what it means to maintain a contemporaneous understanding of the counter-intelligence threat? Or respond to criteria demanding knowledge of a team’s functions and responsibilities when those duties can’t be fully and publicly explained? This is what some intelligence job ads are asking for.

ASD is taking a different approach. There are 1,900 jobs available for analysts, technologists and enabling support staff, from graduates to experienced hires, outlined in REDSPICE. ASD’s ads on the APS Jobs website are detailed and clear about the roles, skills and attitude the directorate needs, wants and is hiring for.

Another criticism levelled at intelligence agencies is that the challenge of finding the right fit and evaluating private-sector experience might be compounded by recruiters and interviewers who lack experience outside the Australian public service. ASD has tackled insular thinking by embracing strategic partnerships focused on planning, recruitment and training.

By harnessing outside perspectives, ASD has introduced a different dimension to the workforce-management process. It has been hiring fresh talent from the private sector for several years and partnered with the private sector and academia to deliver REDSPICE. Mission-oriented agencies can benefit significantly from bridging the public–private divide in technology and innovation, so it makes sense to apply this approach to accelerate outcomes in workforce and enterprise management.

Compensation is also often pinpointed as a constraint to intelligence recruitment. It’s undoubtedly harder for government agencies to be fiscally nimble in pay rates compared to private companies, leading to a discrepancy between the salary offered and an individual’s market value.

The private sector offers the allure of higher salaries and performance bonuses, motivating a results-driven environment. ASIO is heading down this path, this year offering retention bonuses to staff.

But the public sector offers different yet equally valuable incentives. My government service has provided a sense of mission, stability and comprehensive benefits that the private sector has yet to match.

Through REDSPICE, which receives the largest budget ever allocated to an intelligence agency, ASD has been allowed to be more strategic in attracting and retaining top talent, leveraging both financial compensation and mission orientation.

The review needs to deal with the intelligence recruitment challenge. Redefining recruitment within intelligence agencies demands a departure from entrenched bureaucratic hurdles. If workforce numbers in annual reports are indicative success, ASD is getting it right, and ASIO has taken steps in the right direction.

ASD is a live case study on how to break free from outdated processes and rigid criteria and shift the focus of recruitment towards a candidate-centric approach prioritising qualities, potential and experience. All of this has been wrapped in the directorate’s strategic use of branding and values-based hiring to navigate the competitive workforce terrain. If ASD can buck the trend, other intelligence agencies can too.