Australian Public Service chief promises ‘unwavering focus on integrity and capability’ in Robodebt aftermath

By on 26/10/2023 | Updated on 14/11/2023
A screenshot pf Gordon de Brouwer giving his speech at the IPAA on 16 June
A screenshot of Gordon de Brouwer. Photo courtesy of the IPAA

The Australian Public Service (APS) has had a challenging year following a damning review into the government failings that led to the Robodebt scandal, head of the APS Dr Gordon de Brouwer has acknowledged in his annual report.

The Robodebt Royal Commission examined the use of an automated debt recovery system in government that burdened more than 400,000 people with inflated or non-existent debts.

Robodebt has been linked to mental health illnesses in vulnerable citizens, and Royal Commission report author Catherine Holmes called it “an extraordinary saga” that illustrated “a myriad of ways that things can go wrong through venality, incompetence and cowardice”.

In the Australian Public Service Commission’s (APSC) annual report published earlier this month, De Brouwer said the commission would play a significant role in strengthening public service integrity and work practices but that action would follow the release of the APS Integrity Taskforce report and government’s response to the Royal Commission recommendations.

The year had been challenging for the APSC and APS as a whole, he said. “We heard, with empathy, [those] affected by the Robodebt scheme through the royal commission hearings and the failures and mistakes of public servants, as well as instances of courage.”

He added: “My vision over the next five years will be to deliver a world-leading service, an APS that is a great place to work with rewarding careers for our people, and an unwavering focus on integrity and capability.”

Read more: Reckoning for Australian Public Service in wake of Robodebt report

What was Robodebt? Assessing the damage and looking ahead

A cross-departmental scheme designed to recover excess benefits payments, Robodebt was rolled out under the Liberal-National government led by ex-prime minister Tony Abbott in 2015, and ran for over four years. It contained an automated process known as ‘income averaging’, which assumed citizens’ earnings remained steady and calculated that people owed money to the government when they did not.

Speaking to Global Government Forum in the wake of the Royal Commission’s review, professor Paul Maginn, director of the University of Western Australia’s Public Policy Institute, said that the scheme demonstrated “the severity and complexity of problems within a particular area of the APS”. He added that the findings were especially controversial since welfare remained “a highly charged policy and political portfolio”.

The Royal Commission report attributed Robodebt’s failure in part to the political environment in which it was developed, specifically the pressure officials faced in both the Department of Human Services and Department of Social Service to hasten the debt recovery plan.

It highlighted the role Australia’s then minister for social services Scott Morrison had played in pushing public servants to “get on and deliver it”, and pointed to “repeated failures by members of the APS to discharge their professional obligations and to adhere to the values and standards that applied to their roles”.

The scheme has previously been subject to investigations by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, two Senate committee inquiries, and several legal challenges.

In the APSC’s annual report, De Brouwer said action had already been taken to strengthen integrity culture in the APS, and that there were “opportunities to expand” existing initiatives.

“One key area of focus for the APSC in the coming year is to play a stronger role in influencing and enforcing the APS values, APS employment principles and APS code of conduct,” the report stated.

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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